This is a conversation you won’t hear anywhere else.
Technology is indisputably transforming learning. Artificial intelligence and powerful data and analytics tools are becoming more widespread. The scope of learning in the organization is growing, and sometimes shrinking, as a result. There’s a creeping sense of unease in the CLO role, with the future both uncertain and full of opportunity. It’s understandable if learning executives are feeling a little bit shaky.
Fortunately, Sarah Kimmel, vice president of research for Chief Learning Officer magazine, has some data to light the way. For the second year in a row, her research team conducted an in-depth survey and deep analysis of current and future learning executives to uncover the path forward.
In this conversation, Sarah unpacks the results to provide insights for the future of the CLO role. Along with podcast co-host Justin Lombardo, they put the findings into context for future practice. Key topics include what skills are rising and falling in importance, how CLO roles are structured and how learning and talent management fit together and whether or not CLOs are falling into an aspiration gap.
- CLO Role of the Future Executive Summary
- Video of Panel Discussion CLO Role of the Future at the Fall 2019 CLO Symposium
Podcast Producer: Jesse McQuarters.
Note: This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.
Mike Prokopeak: Welcome to the Chief Learning Officer Podcast, I’m Mike , editor in chief at Chief Learning Officer magazine. I’m joined by my cohost, Justin Lombardo. Welcome Justin.
Justin Lombardo: Hi Mike. How’re you?
Mike: I’m good.
Mike: We actually have a guest that I want to introduce, so let me welcome in Sarah Kimmel. Sarah is the vice president of research for Chief Learning Officer magazine. Welcome to the podcast, Sarah.
Sarah Kimmel: Thank you for having me, Mike.
Mike: It’s a genuine pleasure to have you here where we obviously work together every day but this is the first time that you’ve been on the podcast.
As I was just getting ready for this I was thinking about the Yogi Berra quote, which is, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” It’s sort of like we’re all in the game of making predictions but we’re mostly wrong. But the one thing that can maybe make us a little bit less wrong is data and insight and that’s what you’ve got.
Sarah: Data and more focused data and data year over year and data that starts to show trends. I think that it’s good to have some healthy skepticism about change, about the future and about thinking that you’re always right. It helps to get a little bit of information but it’s also good to take what you hear with a grain of salt.
Mike: I just wanted to point out when she said it helps to think that you’re not always right. She looked directly at Justin when she said that.
Justin: She did.
Mike: I just wanted that noted for our listeners.
Justin: I’m not drawing any conclusion from that unlike other snarky people at the table right now.
Mike: I’m just saying it was no accident. Sarah, you’re actually here to talk about a second year of research that you’ve been doing on the CLO and the role of the future. Tell us what this research is and why we should care.
Sarah: Right. This is the second year that we’ve reached out to people who are currently managing the learning function and, in addition, those who are aspiring to manage the learning function, to ask them how their role is changing, what the big challenges for them are, how they develop themselves, and what ways they feel that they need to continue to develop themselves. What are the new capabilities that they find that are emerging in their role?
We also wanted to answer some questions about whether or not they thought the role was under threat. Did they think it was going away? Did they think that the organizations were restructuring the learning function in such a way that would sort of push out the role of the CLO?
The good news there is that there’s room for optimism. They do not think that the role is going away and most of them think that the structure of the learning function will remain as it is or becomes slightly more concentrated, more centralized or some of them think it’s decentralizing a little bit.
Mike: Before we dive too deep into the details in the research and start to ask some questions about what we’re finding from that, I think it’s important to note that as far as I can see there has been no real research specifically about CLO roles and the future of them. Have you run across any other research like the stuff that you’ve been doing?
Sarah: No. In fact, it was that lack of research about the role that led us to do this for the first time last year. We had a lot of questions that, as editors of CLO, we get a lot of questions every single year from people. Like what is the actual title that people have in this role? How many of them have that title? There were questions that we just got year after year after year and we didn’t have the answer and nobody had the answer. And it occurred to us that if we didn’t have the answer there was no organization that ever would. And so we set about to put in place this ongoing annual study of the role of the CLO that we could update each year and learn continuously from CLOs about what’s going on with their role.
Mike: Yeah. Let’s talk first about technology because I think that’s the most stark thing that comes out of this research is the role of technology in the CLO’s job and just how much that they think that’s changing what they do and, perhaps, how unprepared they feel for that. Can you talk a little bit about the technology piece, what you’re seeing there?
Sarah: Absolutely. We asked CLOs in what ways their role was changing and the number one answer – 72% of them said that the new learning technologies, that the change in technologies for their role is the biggest way that their role is changing.
On top of that we also asked them whether or not they thought they would need to increase their technical competencies in the future and 92% of them said yes. 92% is fairly ubiquitous. You almost never get 92% of anybody to agree about anything. So 92% is … the holdovers may just be cranks.
Mike: Who are these other 8%? Honestly.
Sarah: Right. Who are these people who-
Justin: Soon retirees, maybe.
Sarah: Right. They’re like, “Not me, I’m going to retire.”
Justin: I’m out of this.
Mike: They are the new Luddites.
Sarah: Exactly. So we had found this last year was about 90% who said that they were going to have to increase their technical competencies but we didn’t know what technical competencies they would need to increase and that was a bit mysterious to us.
We had some clues from some open comments but this year we asked specifically about those technical competencies and what they really felt they needed to develop. There were sort of two answers. One answer was that they’re having trouble keeping up with emerging tech, virtual, AI. The things that are kind of out on the bleeding edge of technology. They don’t know how to apply it necessarily to learning. They don’t have a best practice or a plan for that and they feel a little overwhelmed by the task of trying to keep up with everything that’s emerging.
Related to that, they’re still struggling a little bit to keep up with social technologies related to learning, and some of them are also – about 40% or so – struggling to keep up with applying mobile technologies to learning. So there’s this emerging social mobile technologies problem where they just feel a little unready.
The other half of the technology deficit that they feel that they have is related to data analytics, integrating data across the enterprise in order to use it for learning. And they seem a bit unfamiliar with the technologies that might be connected to analytics software. They all feel like they need to do more of that. They think that their job is going to require them to have more analytics capability and they’re perhaps a little bit confused about whether or not that’s a skill issue or a technology issue.
Justin: I think that’s an interesting point and I know we don’t go down this path, but around several of the topics you just keyed in on including the analytics and the use of data as a way to drive business but also driving back to your first point about AI and really emerging technology that way. I would call that not just emerging, I’d call that cutting edge in terms of simpler affordability and utility, a day-to-day kind of thing.
I wonder if the answer to the questions that you asked and where the lack of comfort is for the CLO would be that much different than if we asked it of almost any other senior leader. Because here’s the rub, they need to know about it and what it brings to the table.
I’m wondering how much they really feel compelled to understand it in any depth and use it. You might ask a human resources VP or you might even ask a manufacturing VP and say, “Tell me about how much you understand about deep diving or meta data in the organization and how do you use it?” I’m really wondering, wouldn’t we get similar answers? Does that make any sense, Sarah?
Sarah: Right. Well, I mean, I wonder if at this point especially perhaps among an older contingent in the leadership population, if everything falls into this big technology bucket that’s just very, very mysterious. Something’s going on out there and we don’t know what it is but we sure would like to know how it impacts us. We sure would like to know what we should do about it. I think the struggle is that even for some of your younger leaders these questions are open. There are no answers.
Justin: My point is they’re open for the entire organization.
Justin: I think you could sit around the table and say, “How many of you really have a handle on these things?” I doubt across many functions you’d get an overwhelming raising of the hands.
Sarah: Right. I mean, I know that we posted a video interview of somebody talking about AI and how to use it. Suddenly overnight, it was within a couple of days, thousands of people had watched it. It’s clearly something that people are just a little bit confused by.
Mike: Well and that confusion and ignorance I think can also lead to, and I use ignorance in not the most negative sense, but ignorance in the just lack of knowledge.
Justin: Lack of knowledge, yeah.
Mike: I think that leads to a “shiny object syndrome” where people sort of pick on these sorts of things and they follow the trend or they’re sold something that they don’t necessarily understand, but it seems like magic. I think AI is that right now for people, artificial intelligence is that for people. It’s just seen as this sort of magic that’s going to make us all better.
Maybe I’ll start with you, Justin. As a chief learning officer, as somebody who is looking at emerging technologies, how do you make choices about what to invest in? Are there hallmarks of knowing, “OK, this is something that we should do,” or are there ways to figure out whether it’s something that you should do?
Justin: Yeah. I think some of that goes to, that’s a good question, Mike, and I think we all have to face it. Some of it has to go with understanding the context of your organization. If you’re an organization that are not early adapters, then you’re not going to go there.
Mike: You’re going against the grain of who you are as a company, yeah.
Justin: There’s no sense to do it, the institution, it won’t graft. It’s a skin graft or an organ transplant that’s not going to take so don’t fight that battle. There’s too many other things on the plate.
The other thing is I think where your learning function is itself and being realistic and honestly, and this is not a plug, but if you look at yourself against some of the criteria of the [Chief Learning Officer] Learning Elite and you come up not terribly high on a lot of the categories, which really are the fundamentals of a strong, solid learning function, then the need for you to go out there and say, “I now need learning bots floating around my organization,” is pretty silly to be very frank. So it’s contextual.
Then I think the final thing is you look at what’s going to really advance the work of the organization. You may have the most marvelous AI option in your head. You may have the most interesting notion of mobile learning. If that’s not appropriate for your workforce and they’re drowning in maintenance workers, for example, or people that are in production levels, in environments that are not clean, you’re not going to use it. So why drive yourself crazy about it?
So the use of technology, and this is something I think we forget, is always, always contextual. Now, it can be a game changer at times and can leapfrog you ahead and sometimes you have to do that but those are rare. If you look at it as a step-staged function of improvement, of making things better, then it’s always contextual. At least I think of it that way.
Mike: Yeah. It’s pretty clear from the data that emerging technology, as you started to unpack that findings around technology being one of the core things that’s driving the future of the CLO role, emerging technology being one of them, analytics, the ability to use technology and natural language processing to sift through and sort and analyze all sorts of structured and unstructured data, pretty powerful, data integration, how do you then take that and actually do something with it? That’s all pretty important too, but as you look ahead to technology based on these findings, Sarah, what are some of the questions that you now have that you want to answer?
Sarah: Justin and I have been having an offline conversation about whether or not this analytics question for them is really about skill and critical thinking around analytics, so I definitely would like to dig into that a little bit more. Is there critical thinking skills not transferring out of their current domain into the domain of metrics and ROI and so forth? Are they just not getting from the skills they already have and into the new context that’s more technology-focused? I would like to take a look at some of that and I think I’d like to dig in a little bit more to how some of the – I won’t call them emerging – but the more recently-emerged technologies and how did that go. One of the things that we saw is that about 40% of them still think that they need to learn a lot more about mobile. And so, you would think to yourself like, “Everybody’s got a phone, how long has everybody had a phone?”
Mike: Well, I mean, you were talking about mobile learning at Motorola in the late ’80s
Justin: We were, when we were using the bricks.
Justin: Even then.
Sarah: I remember when mobile was rolling out into learning. It was quite some time ago. Of course, as that rolled out in the kind of almost half hysterical way that these things do roll out, everyone was so amazingly excited and the projection was that everything was going to be mobile forever. Like, that was it. We’re all done. Get rid of the classroom. Let’s all do things on our phone and this is the end of history. That’s not how it happened. In fact, a couple of years later, everybody was like, “Well, why not? What happened? Why didn’t we do that?” It turned out that people had to think through, as you were saying, Justin, the context. Who has the phones? Who is this a good fit for?
I remember one organization, they finally figured out that the only people they really should roll it out to was their leadership who had no time, traveled everywhere, needed their learning to come in 10-minute increments while they were waiting in an airport somewhere and they could never get them into a classroom anyway. So mobile was perfect for them but it wasn’t great for everyone else at the organization and they couldn’t get any traction.
So part of this is figuring out what these new technologies [are], where do we apply them, where does it actually make sense for our organization to do this and where are we actually going to get an impact?
Justin: I mean, and I think those are great questions and what we need to dig into because we might be able to put people’s minds at rest a bit. I found interesting your demographics of where the CLOs have come from in the business.
Justin: We seem to have a little bit more of a shift back to, some of them are coming out of learning again, fewer out of the business, maybe quite so much. It seems a little bit of a pickup on the HR side if I read it correctly.
Sarah: The number who are CHROs, who are responsible for learning, actually went down this year.
Sarah: It decreased. It was 10% last year and it was 7% this year.
Justin: But the line of development, basically.
Sarah: Well, we ask people, “Which of these things are in your professional background?” Then we give them a big list.
Justin: That was it, yeah.
Sarah: The line business, often people will be, like in general management and the line business and maybe they took a turn in HR, learning or something like that. 45% of them have come out of a history of being in learning and development, 45%. You would think like CLOs, you might think that would be higher, but for the most part that is the number one answer, 45% have a background in … .
Justin: Which is, I think, very good.
Sarah: That is good.
Justin: And very positive.
Sarah: Otherwise, you have the reverse problem. Usually, it’s the learning people who have to learn about the business side but on the flip side of that is that if you have business people come into the role, they don’t understand the instructional design. And so, each side has to learn what they missed in their background.
What we found last year was that CLOs are an amazingly eclectic group of people. Eventually, I started describing them as scholars of organizational learning with MBAs. When you really come down to it, they’re an amazingly well-educated, very eclectic, very intellectually interested in the organization but with a business focus.
Justin: That drives back to the whole thing about the technology being the biggest need. The question I would posit to my peers would be is it that we need to learn more about it or we need to know enough to help us understand how it has to change our hiring model to staff our organization? Because I tell you, most CLOs, at least if they’re similar to me, and there are a few, at least I think-
Mike: There is no similar to you, Justin. You’re unique.
Justin: You’re just being very bad today, Michael. But we’re never going to become experts in metadata.
Mike: Nor should you. I mean-
Justin: That’s the point.
Justin: We’re not going to become experts in AI but we may need to have some of those on staff. So what we really need to become better at is understanding what technology expertise should we bring on board and change to our hiring model, because that’s going to impact us five and 10 years down the road.
Justin: That’s the criticality of really being a strategic business leader. It’s not, “Oh, this week I learned about artificial intelligence.” I don’t care. You’re not going to be here in three years. I want to know that you’re hiring the people that are going to get it 10 years from now when it is ubiquitous.
Mike: There was a pretty stark stat that I saw that came out of your research as well, Sarah, around the specialization of talent that’s needed in learning and development organizations and the lack of people able to fill it. I want to say it was in the high 80s.
Justin: That was scary.
Sarah: I think what you’re thinking of is, we ask them what challenges their organization-
Mike: … their organization faces, yes.
Sarah: Yeah. What is the challenge that their organization is facing that is related to learning and development. The number one challenge, and not just the number one, but like far and away, 20 percentage points higher than the next answer, is gaps in specialized skills. It’s a really tight labor market with a really low unemployment rate and technology skills are very hard to build. Hard to build, hard to hire and every organization seems to be suffering under this and looking everywhere. I just did some other research with Bellevue on leadership and we asked people whether or not they were interested in leaving their jobs and how willing were they to stay?
We found out that people are really sticky. Their attachment to their organization is really sticky. It’s horribly bad news for recruiters because people would prefer to stay where they are if they could get a little bit of a promotion or a little bit of pay raise or some development opportunities. Great news for organizations who want to keep people. Terrible news for recruiters or for the CLO who’s trying to hire an analytics professional or a technology person to help add some more functionality to their learning and development.
Justin: That drives to a point in terms of developing and getting the skills that I found. If you want to talk about a moment in this research where I felt the glass was half empty is, unless I misread it, the number of CLOs who they themselves have personal development plans I think was really, really low. Did I misread that?
Sarah: That’s as a formal personal development …
Justin: Yeah. No. I meant it as a formal.
Sarah: As a formal, yes.
Justin: Which is one of the things we’re always out there telling everybody else to do.
Justin: What was the actual number?
Sarah: But I think it was in the 30s.
Justin: I find that kind of scandalous to be very honest. Because, at the same time we’re saying, “We need to learn these things,” and, “How many of you have a formal plan to do it?” It’s only 30%. We can say, “Well, we know how to do this and we’ll continue learning.” No, you won’t. Because if you’re really a senior leader and you’re really busy and it’s not scheduled, it’s not going to happen. I don’t know how we go out there with a straight face and tell everybody else, “You need to have a development plan for yourself.” Because now I would want to go in and, if I was younger in this business, and I would go in and say, “Great, Sarah. You’re my VP, can I see yours? Because there may be things on it I would want to use?”
Mike: I think there is an aspiration gap in the CLO industry. There’s some data here, so maybe. Sarah, you can point us to some of that. Most CLOs want to stay in CLO jobs.
Sarah: Oh yeah.
Justin: Oh yeah.
Mike: I mean, they’re comfortable there. “We like it.” Their big aspiration is to be a thought leader CLO. So not just a CLO who actually has to do stuff but the CLO who actually has to go and talk to people about doing stuff. Yeah, it sounds like an awesome job.
Sarah: Is that the mountain top job?
Justin: It’s sort of like, I’m sitting there.
Sarah: What’s really funny is that seven years ago when I came into this role here for research for CLO, the prevailing wisdom was that CLOs wanted to be CHROs.
Mike: Yeah, 8%.
Mike: 8% is the data I saw in news.
Sarah: It’s really tiny. In fact, it’s actually really, really tiny. CLOs do not want to be CHROs. Some of them who are CHROs don’t want to be CHROs anymore. They only want to be learning people. When you ask them like, “OK, well, where are you going next? What role would you prefer to have next?” It’s “I want to remain a CLO.” That’s like 30-something percent right there, like 38%. Then after that it’s, “Oh, I’d really like to be a consultant,” which is a CLO for hire.
Mike: Basically, “I’m going to go back to my friends and sell them my services,” yeah.
Sarah: Exactly. Or, “I’d like to be a thought leader CLO,” which is perhaps the social media version …
Justin: Doing podcasts.
Sarah: Right, an influencer. Exactly.
Mike: Then this relates to your point, Justin. I think that we have an aspiration gap in CLOs and I think it’s a bad thing. Some of the CLOs who I have known, who have pushed thinking the most have been those who have seen it as a waypoint along the way towards something else. They’re ambitious. They’re really looking to push and they’re really looking to do something different. I think it’s a bad thing that perhaps that we’re a little bit too insular.
Justin: I resonate with “we have an aspirational gap,” a gap in aspiration but I’m wondering if the aspiration is really about how we push the boundaries of what we do as a learning organization. Because I’m going to go back to, again, one of the early pioneers, to Bill Wiggenhorn. Bill never wanted to be anything but heading the learning and development function. That was what he really had …
Mike: It’s his life’s work.
Justin: It was his life work. It was his passion to do that but he always had even within that, once we were recognized as the major corporate university and he had the title of senior vice president in the corporation and president of Motorola University, he still had goals out there to drive the expanse, the range, the contribution and the boundary of the learning organization much farther. That to some degree meant, “I’m going to grab this piece of the organization for mine and this piece of the organization for mine.”
I mean, I saw that in my own career. There were times when I got to a point of sort of saying, “OK, what else is out there because this is kind of running good.” Now, what else is out there that relates to this that together we can push the boundary on? And so you begin to look to sort of say, “Why doesn’t that come over here? Why don’t we do that? Why don’t we blow this up and do a larger context and frame?” I’m good with that kind of aspiration but, like you, I tend to agree. I’m not sure how much of that is going on anymore.
Sarah: I think I can speak to a little bit of that. One of the things that we asked CLOs is whether or not they are responsible for any other HR-related functions within the organization besides learning. It turned out that 29% of them only have responsibility for the learning and development function, which is quite small. What that means is that 71% of people who manage the learning function also have responsibility for another HR function, and the ones that they’re the most likely to have responsibility for are talent management and performance management, which makes complete sense.
Justin: What about broader kinds of things like employee communication or tuition reimbursement and those kinds of things?
Sarah: Well, about 21% of them have diversity and inclusion.
Justin: Which is great. That’s a good place.
Mike: That’s actually surprising to me. I think that’s grown. I know we don’t have many years of data on that, but …
Sarah: It was about that last year, 21 to 23%, and about 22% have recruiting and talent acquisition which also makes sense.
Justin: Isn’t that interesting?
Sarah: I’ve been having this ongoing think about whether or not learning is eating talent management or talent management is eating learning. As far as I’m concerned, it’s still an open question but I think that a lot of CLOs think of themselves as the strategic executive between the two and think that they should own “talent manager.”
Justin: Well, it makes some sort of sense. I liked the notion about the recruiting because, minimally, you have to be a huge influencer there. Because if you’re not bringing in the right people that match with the organization’s values and attributes that you want, you’re still stuck having to develop them to fit in and it’s a much harder function. I mean, we put a kind of sword in place on that one in a couple of organizations saying, “We don’t want to control it, but we certainly need to have a huge influence in what we’re bringing in the door.”
Sarah: It makes sense for these build-buy-borrow decisions to be made …
Sarah: … in a collective way. Are the people that you need to hire out there? If not, you’re going to have to build it or you’re going to have to borrow those people from somewhere else. But if there are skills that your organization needs, how are you going to get them? That entire process of making decisions about that should be integrated.
Justin: Well, and then, you should be the one asking the questions, “What’s more important that this …” The labor market, to your point, we’re in a really tight labor market. A great question that a CLO could push the boundary on, is in front of the other leaders, is to say, “If we have to make a choice, do you want the skill or do you want the cultural affinity and the values affinity?” We may sit there and say, “Well, that’s an easy question.” It’s not when you’re faced with, “You have to pick one or the other because the labor pool doesn’t have both.”
Sarah: When you’re faced with, “We can’t grow.”
Justin: We can’t grow. And that’s the discussion that I honestly believe should never be left solely to a CHRO. It needs to be part of the discussion with the person or the team that’s responsible for developing the people once they’re there and that’s always the learning people.
Mike: I’m going to sort of contradict myself from a little while ago in the sense that only 8% of CLOs wanting to be CHRO, I’ve said was an aspiration gap. It actually isn’t. I’ve interviewed a number of chief people officers or chief human resource officers after they have left CLO roles to go into those roles and they don’t like it. They’re dealing with compliance. They’re dealing with benefits. All the fun stuff is gone. All the strategy stuff is gone and it’s really just about some of the basics.
Justin: But that’s a lack of vision. I’m going to say this …
Mike: Lack of vision or lack of time?
Justin: Lack of vision may be too harsh but when we say, “Well, what else should we go for,” we tend to think of things that are naturally within the CHRO’s house. I would make a contention, why wouldn’t we say, if I’m going to expand what I’m doing, why wouldn’t I look at the quality function within my organization? Because we know that quality will pull the data together and say, “Here’s where we’ve got problems,” but they often are not nor should they be the people to describe the absolute solution, which almost always requires you to shift the skill-knowledge mix and the performance mix of the people around it. So wouldn’t you say, “Hey, I’m the person that’s got the logical … This is the piece you’ve given me, but let’s bring this on board”?
I would say, as we said, tuition reimbursement, the intellectual development of the organization. We leave that – or even conferences – we leave that to operations or HR. No, that’s naturally part of who we are. Employee communications. We learn as learning professionals that if you can’t communicate it clearly and specifically and motivate people with it, it’s not going to work. Isn’t there a natural affinity for us to grab then and say, “Hey, we can make an impact on employee communication?” So on that level I was resonating when you talked about an aspirations gap, maybe it’s just we sometimes think too narrowly about what areas we actually could grow. Sarah, does that make any sense at all?
Sarah: It does. I actually think that I have some good news there because I think that they are getting a clue about that kind of thing. 55% of them said that one of the things that they need to do to improve their performance in their role is to start wrapping their heads around organizational change and change management.
Sarah: 45% of them said that they’re trying to wrap their heads around culture, and it’s culture that I find really interesting because this is not the first time that we’ve seen learning being connected to organizational culture. It’s something we saw in the learning state of the industry survey this year as well.
I find it interesting. Here we are another super fuzzy thing: How do we impact culture and how does learning impact culture and how are those things connected to each other and what are the levers that you push and pull to get an impact there?
I think that they’re trying to wrap their heads around that and to figure out how they can make an impact on the organization. They’re looking at change management. They’re looking at culture and in some cases they’ve been tasked with it. Can you figure [it] out? We’ve talked to a lot of CLOs who are internal consultants for their organization. Perhaps that’s a natural role.
Justin: Well, and it’s not new. We may be experiencing a pendulum. But back in the day I believe at GE, I know at Motorola, I think even at Arthur Anderson, there was a strong sense that the learning and development function was also the keeper of the culture. The transmission of the culture of the organizations, which was an exciting part of who we were. Change agency.
At one point the chairman of Motorola described the learning function there, Motorola University, as the organization’s headlights which I thought was really kind of interesting. Because he said, “Their job is to make sure we’re seeing the core things we need to see and help us get there,” which is really the change function and that’s when the role really gets to be fun.
Mike: Yeah, and that closes that aspiration gap that we’ve been sort of dancing around too. When you think of it in those terms of, “OK, I’m going to be in charge of culture,” or, “Part of my job isn’t just to make sure that our employees have skills and putting together efficient programs that use our resources wisely.”
Yeah, of course. That’s table stakes for the CLO role. What you’re really trying to do is to create that culture of learning that continues to go beyond over and above what your employees are day-to-day required to do. It’s just they bring an engagement and a passion to it beyond just the learning and that is an aspirational role for a CLO.
Justin: Absolutely aspirational.
Mike: But I think the challenge is when you have the title of chief learning officer that connection’s a bit tenuous. And so, maybe that’s part of our job with the magazine in how we cover things and what the research is to start to make that connection a little bit more concrete and point to those stories of people that are doing that kind of work because I think there’s a real opportunity there.
Sarah: We saw last year and then we saw again this year there were some changes to the scope of the role. CLOs are serving more than just internal employees as learners. They also, almost half of them, serve some other constituent group for the organization. That could be clients. It could be their suppliers. It could be their customers. They’re not narrowly focused anymore just on, “We create this training, this classroom training for these employees to take.” That’s not where it is anymore. It’s a lot broader than that.
Justin: We saw that with some of the earlier CLOs that we interviewed, Mike, through the podcasts. To your point, Sarah, those that are coming in and saying, “Hey, I’ve got responsibility for the relationship between our organization, our institution and institutions of higher learning,” or, “I’ve got the responsibility for workforce development in the community in which we’re housed.” I mean, those are kind of exciting, broad-range constituency stakeholders to look at. We saw that with a couple of … a couple had actually really invented programs for that which was really pretty cool.
Mike: Well, we only have a few minutes left. I want to dive down personally to the people who are listening in, who are in CLO roles or aspirational to that role, to talk about some of the skills that they need to develop to be a chief learning officer. I think we can set aside technology, you need to develop your own technology savvy. Whether that means your own personal knowledge of technology or amongst your team that needs to be a key thing that you develop. Sarah, what are the other skills that CLOs need to develop in order to be successful in the future of the role?
Sarah: They say metrics, analytics, ROI, everything around that space. They also say business acumen and that’s mostly what they’re judged on now. When we asked them what metrics were used to judge their performance, business impact is number one and after that employee engagement.
Mike: Yeah, and learning efficiency was really low.
Sarah: Really low.
Mike: Which is encouraging. It’s like, yeah, it should be efficient but this shouldn’t be the primary focus of what you do.
Sarah: One of the other capabilities that’s quite high up on the list for them is influencing. And it’s the political part of the role. It’s, “How do I get everyone on board? How do I convince the organization?” Going back to where we started, how do I tell that narrative about what we need to do and how we should do it and why it’s important? I think that, what we found last year was that a lot of people get into the role and they’re kind of surprised by how hard they have to work to get the support that they need to develop employees in the way that the organization needs. For them it’s, they’re scholars of organizational learning. For them, it’s self evident, but …
Mike: “Why don’t you guys get it?”
Sarah: “Why don’t you guys get it?” Yeah.
Justin: Yeah, that’s the thing.
Sarah: Right. They’re almost a little offended and scandalized that they do have to do so much political peddling and influencing in order to get that done. It seems to come as a shock to them right off the bat. That is one of the things that they think that they need to improve.
Mike: Yeah and that storytelling piece of it. I know you have an opinion on this, Justin. I’ve heard you talk about the fact that it’s not just enough to tell your story as a learning leader about what you’re doing and how it contributes to the business. It’s not enough. You think it needs to be tied into something larger. Can you explain a little bit about that?
Justin: Yeah. As competitive as resource allocation is in most organizations now, and not just financial resources, but mind share of what the organization can do …
Mike: We can only do so much. Yeah.
Justin: We can only do so much. We can only think about so many things, so every time you’re out there the more you can make your story an exercise in a choral work of telling a story rather than you as the soloist telling the story, but that you’ve got maybe the HR leader or you’ve got external relations leader, the individual who’s responsible for corporate relations on your side or the manufacturing or the quality person and you talk together and show the interconnectivity of your stories and what happens if one of those pieces gets taken away. It’s a far more compelling story and rich story in terms of driving the business and also gets the other leaders around the room sort of saying, “Well, I guess they all do need each other.”
It’s a woven piece and if you’ve put that together well and rehearsed that you’re far more ahead than you coming in and saying, “I’ve got the greatest story to tell about how we can develop people.” Okay, but you’re sitting around with these other leaders. Wouldn’t it be great if the person that got up and told that story was the head of research and development for the organization? We’ve got this really cool idea and I’m working with Sarah and learning on this and this is what we want to talk to you about. I think it makes a huge difference. I always thought that that was the best way to go. If you can get somebody else to tell your story for you or help you shape it, you’re going to be far more successful.
Mike: Yeah, and that is the influencing piece of it. I think you get to a certain point in your career by telling your own story and illustrating the bottom-line results of what it is that you do. I’ve heard your fellow faculty member on the CLO Accelerator, Kevin Wilde, talk about that shift. That very specific shift that you have to make when you move into a CLO role from being that person who is directing things and really being the boss of these learning and development initiatives to being much more of the influencer whose job it is to find those seams that may be there between different functions and weave them together and really be there to share that story.
Justin: Yeah. I think one of the hallmarks, at least for me, it was I always would think, if I can’t get one or two other senior leaders to help tell this story then I’m failing. One of two things I’ve picked something that we don’t really need to do even though I think it is or I’m not out there with them enough influencing them and working with them as a true partner.
Mike: All right, Sarah, where can people learn more about the “CLO of the Future” research?
Sarah: Well, we’re going to be sending out the takeaway soon to everyone who participated in the study. We’ll also be publishing a paper on this sometime in the next couple of months. Anyone’s interested in that, they can reach out to me at email@example.com.
Mike: We’ll be sure to include that in the show notes so if you go through and look at that, you’ll be able to find Sarah’s contact information there as well. Sarah is actually going to be talking about this next week at our Chief Learning Officer Symposium. By the time this podcast comes out, that conversation will actually be over but we are recording that panel discussion that you’re going to be leading around the CLO of the future. You’re going to be moderating about three other CLOs to talk about these very issues.
Justin: Sarah did this last year at the CLO Symposium. The value – I would encourage anybody who’s not going to be at the symposium to listen to it because the richness of it was not just the data you presented, Sarah, but the way you presented it sparked conversations and questions from people that drove the boundaries of what we are talking about as a profession I think even further. We could tell that because nobody wanted to leave the room. It was time for cocktails and people were still having conversations about it. So it’s well worth a listen if you’re not coming to the event.
Mike: Yeah. Well, I’ll close it with another Yogi Berra-ism, the famous baseball manager for the New York Yankees, [who] vaguely said about the future: “The future just ain’t what it used to be.” And that’s I think what we’re seeing with a lot of this research is that this is an ever-evolving practice. And it’s really great to see, Sarah, the research that you’re doing that’s starting to point the way for a lot of folks who are trying to find their way here. So thank you for joining us today.
Sarah: You’re welcome. My pleasure.
Mike: And thank you, Justin, for being my co-host once again.
Justin: Glad to be here.
Mike: Alright, if you like what you heard today be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts and give us a rating and drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope you enjoyed it. We’ll see you next time and keep on learning.
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