Despite lip service to the contrary, only a handful of visionary CEOs think deeply about the strategic benefits of organizational learning strategies. As a result, essential learning activities rarely receive the attention and resources they need to succeed over the long haul. How can CLOs remedy this situation?
“The CLO must be ready to make the strongest possible business case for learning,” said Thomas Davenport, Ph.D., President’s Distinguished Professor in the Information Technology Management Division of Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. “Today all Clevel executives are expected to align their activities with the strategic business objectives of the enterprise. The CLO is no exception.”
Davenport, who is also director of research for Babson Executive Education (BEE), s four key responsibilities for the CLO. Think of them as steps on the ladder to a successful learning strategy. (See Figure 1.) “CLOs should target their efforts directly at the core processes and strategic business goals of the organizations they serve,” Davenport said. “Focus on providing learning activities that will help your organization get where it wants to go. Don’t try to be all things to all people.”
Figure 1: Steps to a Successful Learning Strategy
Level of Challenge
1. Developing a clear understanding of the organization’s strategic priorities and key processes.
Moderate. The CEO and CFO are usually the most reliable sources for insight and information about the company’s goals and capabilities.
2. Identifying specific audiences that need training and are ready to benefit from it.
Difficult. Most organizations are hierarchical, so it will be difficult to segment audiences by their genuine need and readiness to learn.
3. Explicitly identifying the skills and knowledge these audiences need to benefit from the training they receive.
Easy. Critical skills and essential capabilities will usually track closely with the organization’s stated business objectives.
4. Providing optimal, effective and appropriate methods for delivering training in a global enterprise environment.
Difficult. Everyone learns differently. There is no “onesizefitsall” approach to training, especially with a multicultural, multinational workforce in multiple locations.
First and foremost, Davenport explained, the CLO should be a good business person. “Understanding your organization’s business is absolutely critical,” he said. “Yesterday’s CLO was likely to be a lifelong learning professional. Tomorrow’s CLO is likely to be someone who thoroughly understands business strategy.”
Mark Milliron, Ph.D., a vice president at SAS, the world’s largest privately held software company, takes this advice a step further. At SAS, Milliron oversees the education practice, which includes the sales and marketing of software solutions aimed at the education market. Formerly the president and chief executive officer of the League for Innovation in the Community College, Milliron spent most of his career on the front lines of education. His experience gives him a unique perspective on the nittygritty truths of teaching, training and learning in the real world.
“I can tell you for certain that we’re experiencing a genuine confluence of learning activities in the corporate universe,” Milliron said. “Beyond internal staff and external customer learning, there’s a real push for learning about operations and customer relationships—a search for hindsight, insight and foresight in core, missioncritical activities. Learning in this context is really an extension of business intelligence efforts, and is increasingly becoming the coin of the realm.”
Learning has emerged as an irreplaceable component of leadership. Successful leaders base their decisions on relevant knowledge. Access to relevant, timely knowledge has become the supreme competitive advantage in today’s marketplace.
Successful CLOs understand the business value of knowledge. They strive to provide invaluable and strategic services to the knowledgedriven organizations they serve. They leverage new and existing resources to create 360degree learning experiences.
As the workplace evolves and the value of learning becomes more widely appreciated, the roles and responsibilities of the CLO will expand. “It won’t be enough for the CLO to provide training and education,” Milliron said. “The successful CLO will be a maestro of learning, a leader and an innovator across multiple divisions within an organization.”
Milliron’s team is also responsible for pursuing and developing partnerships with community colleges, university extension centers and MBA programs worldwide to ensure a steady stream of qualified applicants for the expanding SAS workforce. “It’s almost impossible for any educational institution to keep up with the pace of technological change these days. It’s also almost impossible for any corporation to keep up with the realtime learning and training needs of its customers,” Milliron said. “So we actively engage with colleges and universities to assist in the design of their curriculum and the delivery of their programs. We do everything we can to make sure the teachers and their students really understand what the business world expects.”
Like Davenport, Milliron sees the CLO’s mission as strategic in nature. “The modern CLO is a maestro of internal education, external training and operational insight initiatives. The CLO stimulates, inspires, and rewards learning. The CLO is the champion of learning,” he said.
It’s clear to most of us in the knowledge business that we’ve entered a new age of learning—perhaps a golden age, if we play our cards right. As Davenport suggested, one of our biggest challenges is linking learning with tangible business results. In other words, we must be ready to demonstrate the ROI of learning activities—not in fuzzy terms or catchphrases, but in the rigorous language of business. We must be ready to work closely with the learning institutions around us to make sure the courses they teach are relevant and uptotheminute.
Milliron offers this closing advice for CLOs: Assess the impact of your efforts with the same analytic tools and techniques used by your colleagues in finance, manufacturing, sales and distribution. Show your colleagues how learning strategies add value and drive business. Prove your worth to the organization with hard numbers. “At SAS, our internal learning leaders can show you that 44 percent of our sales force engaged in training in the past year,” Milliron said. “That group—fewer than half the sales force—accounted for 93 percent of our sales revenue. It’s a great example of the power of learning.”
Jeanette Slepian is president of BetterManagement, an online executive education resource for management insights. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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