More and more companies are deciding they need a senior-level leader to rationalize all of the learning they provide to their employees. This belief has led to the rapid growth in chief learning officer positions in the United States and worldwide. But not all CLO positions are the same, nor do they share equal impact on their organizations. This article identifies some of the things top-notch CLOs should do, and some important things they need to think about.
Things to Think About
Before you accept a job as a chief learning officer (or some equivalent position), here are some things to consider:
- Is senior leadership of the hiring company truly serious about creating a learning organization? Or is this merely eyewash, a symbolic way to say to employees and the financial community that they’re serious about developing people, when really they’re not?
- Do the CEO and senior management recognize that in today’s ultra-competitive world, continuous learning may be the only sustainable competitive advantage?
- Will you report at a high enough level to be able to get things done?
- The top leader’s support is crucial. Will you have it, now and in the future?
You need to ask the level of your mandate as CLO. Are you to focus primarily on individual learning and growth, organizational learning and growth, specific learning topics or a total learning architecture? Will you be responsible for creating culture change? And what about communication: Will you be responsible for improving communication in the organization, both with employees and with external elements like customers, financial markets and communities?
Building a Learning Architecture
Once in the job, the best CLOs follow a simple (but not easy) approach to building a learning architecture. First, the needs assessment: What do the most important employees most need to learn, how, and in what time frame? Then, priorities: Who should get to learn first, and what will they learn? Of course, the all-important question: How much can the company afford? Then the constraints (and all organizations have them, some more than others): How much can the organization get done and how, given all the constraints within which learning must occur? And finally, execution: How will learning plans be executed? Who will do it? In what time frame? How will learning results be measured?
As you design your learning architecture, there are many options. The first decision is who should do the learning design: internal people, external people or both in concert.
If it’s internal:
- Who does the design? Are there internal professional learning designers? Does the CLO do it? Does the organization engage managers or executives to help? Can designs from other organizations be adapted?
- For what individuals or groups is learning designed? Who needs it most?
- What learning pedagogies will be employed? There are many to choose from: classroom instruction, case method teaching, other Socratic methods, simulations, experiential exercises, distance learning, e-learning, action learning, selective job mobility and others.
- How much can the company afford?
- Who will deliver the learning?
- How will learning results be measured?
If it’s external:
- How shall the CLO select the vendor to help with learning design?
- What pedagogies should be employed?
- Who guides and directs the vendor? Is the liaison between the company and the vendor?
- Again, the cost question: How much can the company afford?
- How should the CLO measure results of both the learning design and the learning itself?
- Who will give feedback to the vendor? How will it be given?
- The continuance decision: Who will decide whether to continue to employ the vendor as a learning designer?
Measuring a CLO’s Impact
In almost all organizations, whether for-profit or not, the driving force for learning is the desire to achieve better results—revenue, profit, market share, innovation, competitive advantage. So as chief learning officer, how can you know if your learning interventions are having the desired effect on organizational results? There are several criteria that provide valid measures of impact.
The primary criterion is behavior change. The only sure way to know the effect of learning is by noting and measuring the change in behavior evidenced by the learners. This change may be measured by the learners themselves, by their boss or other superiors, or by their peers and subordinates. One successful way to measure results is 360-degree feedback instruments. When used over time at appropriate intervals, 360-degree feedback can provide a valid measure of learners’ improvement. However it is measured, behavior change is the only sure measure that shows learning has had its desired effect.
This begs the question, though, of whether expectations for learning were properly set in the first place. Were the expectations realistic? Did they take into account the variation in different people’s ability to learn? Was the learning useful, or perhaps frivolous? As with all measures, it’s important to measure the right things, and the right things must be measured in valid ways.
Business results are also an important measure of the success of learning. Are you looking and asking for the right results—those that make the most difference to your business? Are the measures of those results the correct measures? Are you measuring properly? Maybe most importantly, what actions or improvements result from the measurement process? Measurement without corresponding remedial action has very little use.
The Ideal CLO
Before looking at how to measure the performance of an individual CLO, it’s useful to describe the characteristics of the ideal CLO. The best-qualified CLOs:
- Have a high basic intelligence, both IQ and EQ.
- Have a relevant educational background. They should have a graduate degree in a field related to organizational and individual learning. It might be in education or the social sciences, organizational behavior, organizational development or a related field. The emphasis should be on adult learning, as it is most relevant to the CLO’s role.
- Have at least several years of experience with hands-on adult learning.
- If in a business organization, have a commanding knowledge of business. It should have been acquired by formal education at the level of an MBA or higher, and seasoned by at least several years of business experience. The CLO should not only understand business generally, but also fully understand the specifics of the business of which they are the CLO.
- Know how to set up a learning architecture in their organization and have done so at least once before, perhaps under the tutelage of a more experienced CLO. Understand the nuances of organizational dynamics, which often account for the success or failure of learning interventions.
- Have strong interpersonal skills. Are able to build strong relationships and alliances. Are able to persuade, negotiate and bargain. All of these are often necessary for CLOs to accomplish their goals.
- Are dynamic and have high energy—they need it!
- Are able to integrate learning technology with understanding of learning needs.
- Are competent change agents.
- Are self-confident.
- Are good organization designers.
- Are able to interact as equal partners with senior management.
It’s also important that the CLO report at the top of the organization. This means the CEO or COO of the business, or the top HR officer in a large organization. The CLO needs this reporting level to have the clout necessary to give learning maximum impact. And, as we know, budget dollars for learning are (and always have been) vulnerable to cutting when the company’s economics turn down. The CLO needs the air cover a top executive can provide to protect and sustain learning processes that are in place or planned should business turn down.
The most effective CLOs maintain an active network of their peers in other organizations. This allows them to test their own ideas on other professionals committed to organizational learning, and to absorb new ideas from their peers who may be facing similar challenges in their organizations. They typically attend conferences regularly and belong to idea-sharing groups, such as the networks sponsored by Executive Development Associates.
Finally, the best CLOs act as transmitters of knowledge in their organizations. When they become aware of important information, they pass it along to members of the organization who need or can use it. This requires that they keep their antennae up constantly to know what is going on. The best CLOs know as much about what is happening in their company as the other best-informed members of the organization.
Measuring a CLO’s Performance
How should an individual CLO’s performance be measured? Two measures are probably the most meaningful: How much have organizational results improved, and how much positive behavior change can be seen in individual employees?
Organizational results are measured differently for different kinds of organizations. For profit-making companies, they might include gross revenue gains, increase in net income, market-share increases and increase in market capitalization. For nonprofit organizations, the measures will be different. They might include increase in number of constituents served, increase in impact on their constituencies, enhanced quality level of the products and services they provide or enhanced image and reputation, which allows the organization to execute its strategic goals more effectively. The degree to which the CLO has impacted these improvements in results is a solid measure of his or her performance.
Positive behavior change among organization members, while not easy to track numerically, can nevertheless be measured. Perhaps the best metrics are 360-degree feedback instruments. While each assessment applies to only one individual, the results can be anonymously aggregated to give an overall picture of behavior improvement in the whole organization. Surveys of employee attitudes can also be used to supply meaningful information about leaders’ behavior. Finally, individual assessments of specific individuals, conducted by competent professional assessors and coaches, can demonstrate whether the learning is having the desired effect.
Several other measures may be used to judge the effectiveness of a CLO. Consider the level of influence the CLO has on senior leadership of the organization. Is the CLO a respected and trusted advisor to senior leadership? Do senior leaders accept the CLO as a qualified coach to whom they are willing to listen, and do they often seek his or her counsel? Have the senior leaders, through the influence of the CLO, become continuous and habitual learners themselves? Does the CLO have influence and respect throughout the whole organization?
The best CLOs practice what they preach: They are avid learners themselves. They are constantly learning from any source they can make available to themselves. They are closely tuned to the pulse of their organization—both its financial and human aspects. They constantly monitor their relevant surrounding environment. They’re networked and connected with peers in other organizations so they always have access to the best and newest thinking. They are themselves prodigious idea generators.
This article has described what it’s like to be a CLO—what the best CLOs do, how they do it, what makes them so important to their organizations. Ten years ago, very few people had the necessary training and experience to be successful, fully capable CLOs. Today more people have that capability, thanks to realization of the importance of the role and a few good role models. These role models evolved the CLO position at companies like General Electric, Boeing, AlliedSignal, Hewlett-Packard and Colgate Palmolive. Today an increasing number of practitioners are getting the education and experience they need to become successful CLOs. This is good for our organizations and good for business.
A Final Caveat
“Chief learning officer” is more than a title—it truly is a professional way of life for its practitioners. People who are not willing to commit themselves fully to this professional pursuit should not presume to take on the role. Done poorly, the CLO’s work can be terribly damaging to an organization. Only with full capability and commitment can a CLO make the contribution for which the position has the potential.
Building on M.B.A. and doctoral degrees from the Harvard Business School, WarrenWilhelm has been chief learning officer for two large companies, Amoco Corp. and AlliedSignal Corp. He currently serves as president of Global Consulting Alliance, where he specializes in executive and leadership development. His latest book, “Learning Architectures: Building Organizational and Individual Learning,” was published in 2003.