In the world of enterprise learning, it’s the senior-level learning executives’ job to plan, create and deliver the right learning and development programs to the right people at the right time to help organizations meet business and performance demands. But while CLOs are busy making it happen for the employee populations of the world, who takes care of their learning and development needs?
“As a senior officer, CLO, CIO, UFO, any of the people who accept the responsibility of senior leadership positions have to be committed learners,” said Alexander Horniman, Killgallon Ohio Art Professor of Business Administration, Darden School, University of Virginia Senior Fellow. “I don’t think many of them are, but to give their titles and their roles credibility these days, the willingness and the ability to learn is essential.”
As a society, and as a community of business and learning professionals, Horniman said that we tend to be knowers. Knowing is highly valued and rewarded. Not knowing is punished, and knowing is different from learning. “Learning to me is doing differently with what we know. Learning is the constant acquisition of new categories, which enable us to frame reality in more complex ways. If the chief learning officer isn’t an example of learning by their own behavior, then it significantly minimizes their leadership impact on the organization. Senior people are models of something,” Horniman explained. “So if the learning officer is not a model of learning, it undermines the very nature of what the initiative is all about. The notion of learning, doing differently with what we know, acquiring more categories, expanding our views of the world from a variety of sources – in a sense, it’s the essence of personal growth and development, yet for many people that’s not what they’re about at all. Quite the contrary.”
“I think sometimes for a person in a leadership role, it’s very easy to feel that you have a corner on the knowledge, and because we are the person responsible for the delivery of the information, we forget that it’s really important to stay current, to be aware and examine ourselves,” said Diane Ravenscroft, CEO and owner of Workplace Mastery Inc. “It’s important for people to recognize that we don’t have a corner on all the knowledge, and we have to strive to stay current ourselves and build the time into our schedules to live out what we’re asking other people to do.”
Good CLOs model their behavior and their work on the same pillars of learning, but there are hindrances that stand in the way of acquiring new, varied and useful types of information. Time is a big one, or as Horniman said, how people frame time, as in, “I don’t have time to do that.”
“The second hindrance is the overwhelming amount of information (available), which if you’re not careful and selective, can absolutely inundate you,” Horniman added. “You can go online today and with almost any subject you can imagine and have more sites and references, you can hardly stand it. As a member of the academic world, thousands of volumes are published each year. To winnow those out to one, two, three or a dozen is very, very difficult.”
Ravenscroft said it also can be helpful to build a network of subject-matter experts to tap into, peers or colleagues who can assist the senior-level learning executive in determining what information will work or fit best into their organization’s culture. “You have to be wise and make really good choices, but build relationships through networks where you can say, ‘How did this go? Did this work for you? Is this something you recommend, and why?’ Be discerning as you build a network of experts that you can draw on because you cannot know everything about everything. You have to be humble about that and recognize that your lens is yours, and learn to ask. That’s challenging for people when they get higher and higher on the organizational ladder or they become leaders. We forget that we should be asking. Everybody comes to us and expects us to be the expert, yet there’s nothing that makes me flawed for saying, ‘Let me check that out.’ Or ‘I need to ask you what you think.'”
Being unafraid to ask questions plays into the knowing-versus-learning issue that Horniman said can inhibit personal growth and development for CLOs. “From the education-developmental perspective, knowing is more important than learning. Much of what we do from kindergarten through school through university through graduate school is to acquire knowledge, facts about. It’s almost a static acquisition of numbers and opinions and dates, etc. That’s not what learning is. Learning is about taking that very same data platform and translating it into a different set of actions,” Horniman explained. “The pre-dispositional set of most people is toward knowing, not learning. I think shifting gears, moving into a time-space place where exploring ideas, exploring different thought processes, first of all, it takes a lot of energy. Second of all, it’s not what people typically do. We talk on and on about the learning organization. The fact of the matter is, most organizations are knowing organizations and are frankly learning-disabled. It takes a lot of time and energy to constantly be challenging, to be introducing new assumptions and frameworks. It’s much easier to go with what we know how to do. That ease of falling into the habit of knowing versus learning is one of the challenges to the learning process. This whole learning process, which in today’s organizations is essential, it’s vital, it’s necessary, is unusual not usual.”
So, if knowing dominates everything we do, as Horniman said, and knowing is comfortable, it would seem to suggest that in order for senior-level learning executives to affect their own growth and development, there might be some discomfort involved. If not discomfort, there will certainly be some effort spent as CLOs make time to examine the wealth of information out there critically, pick and choose what works best to meet their organizations’ business and learning needs, plan to leverage internal resources, and consider the metrics and results that should follow as learning ideas and theories move from concept to reality.
“Based on your learning culture, don’t live out that training and learning as an add-on,” Ravenscroft said. “Really live out what you’re asking other people to do themselves. Learning is about growth, and in the same way that I’m asking my team to learn, I have to recognize that what I might have had them do six months ago, they may have already achieved. There’s this continuous improvement and constant tracking that needs to occur in myself and in others so that we recognize that growth is change, and we have to constantly look at what we’re doing in terms of content, and there would have to be an inherent admission that there is a need.”
To admit there is a need means admitting you don’t know something, which plays on the aforementioned discomfort angle, but Ravenscroft said there is power in such an admission. Admitting to not knowing something can actually enhance this concept of lifelong learning and essentially bring home to learning and development audiences of all kinds just how critical learning is to growth, performance and advancement.
“Lifelong learning doesn’t stop as you go up the hierarchy,” Ravenscroft said. “Certainly lifelong learning is a very profound idea, but there are presuppositions underneath those words. It requires an admission that this is an ongoing, continuous, enveloping experience that relates to the technical and non-technical, the interpersonal and the business, and there is so much information out there that we have to really pace our own learning. It can be the most exciting adventure to put ourselves on the path that we are inviting others to walk. If I put myself on the path with somebody, not only am I experiencing empathy, but I might understand a little bit more how challenging it is to create a learning organization because suddenly I’m in the van with everybody else. I’m not just driving. As I experience that, it becomes real and meaningful.”
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