It’s been almost a quarter century since the formalization of the position of chief learning officer: In 1994, Jack Welch made Steve Kerr the CLO of General Electric. Of course, senior managers, often within human resources, had been responsible for workplace training for decades prior to the creation of the CLO role. This was more of an emblematic recognition of the importance of learning within a successful business. A dedicated executive was necessary to make sure the organization could continue to find the best ways to develop employee knowledge and skills.
The world of workplace learning has experienced seismic change over the past 25-plus years. Technology has evolved. New principles have been introduced. Even the way people do their work has fundamentally changed.
But what has happened to the CLO during this period? Has the role kept pace with the evolving needs of the workplace? How have the skills required to be an effective CLO changed? And perhaps the most important question of all: Does a modern business even need a CLO to enable the future of work?
More Than a Title
Before exploring the evolution of the CLO role, it’s important to acknowledge that not every organization has a formal CLO. The majority of companies, from small and medium-sized businesses to global enterprises, employ a role that oversees a significant component, if not all, of the formalized workplace learning function. They may be part of the HR team or embedded within the operation. They may be referred to as training director, head of learning, vice president of learning, chief talent officer or a variety of other titles. Regardless, their focus is making sure people have the knowledge and skills needed to do their jobs effectively and contribute to the overall success of the organization.
Every organization is different. The strategies and tactics used to support workplace learning can vary considerably. Therefore, while they have the same role in concept, the day-to-day of every CLO will vary. So, rather than examine the details of the job to determine how it has changed over the years, it is simpler to look at how their function — the organization’s overall approach to learning — has evolved. And since 1994, there have been four distinct phases of workplace learning that have shaped the CLO role.
1. The Academic CLO
The original CLO played a role very similar to the dean of an academic institution. Workplace learning was extremely structured and relied almost exclusively on a combination of classroom and on-the-job training into the late 1990s. Learning and development included large teams of classroom facilitators and peer trainers along with instructional designers and project managers.
The corporate university was the center of the workplace learning strategy. Employees were commonly required to take time away from their day-to-day work to focus on planned skill and career development activities. Training delivery was very expensive, but this was how corporate education was always done. The CLO was measured primarily on volume of training delivery, availability of development offerings and responsiveness to business requests.
2. The Digital CLO
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the internet happened. L&D rapidly introduced digital training as a cost-effective and scalable alternative to the classroom. The corporate university shifted its focus to culture and leadership training but was no longer the center of the workplace learning system. The CLO adjusted their budget to reduce travel and logistics expenses and add essential learning technologies, including a learning management system and basic authoring tools. Trainer roles were reduced, and digital content developers were added. While the tactics shifted considerably, the measurement focus on utilization stayed the same.
3. The Ecosystemic CLO
The 2010s brought the realization that the CLO never actually owned workplace learning in the first place. This was made clear as other teams, including sales, marketing, communications and operations, began to rapidly adopt their own tools and strategies for employee enablement. Technology had triggered fundamental changes in employee workflows and expectations, so every team started looking for ways to address their growing skills gaps. They may not have referred to their tactics as “learning,” but it was all in service of the same goal: an informed, capable, productive employee.
To address the accelerating speed of business change along with the decentralized reality of employee enablement, the CLO began to recognize their organization’s learning culture as a multifaceted ecosystem. This represented a near 180-degree pivot from the centralized, university-driven approach. Now, the CLO looked for ways to work across functions to support L&D. They challenged their teams to find meaningful integrations and connect technology, data and content tools to provide a holistic employee experience. The historic focus on push training began to give way to more pull concepts, such as mobile, social and self-directed learning, to balance scale and personal needs.
The measurement story also started to change. The CLO was under increasing pressure to validate the impact their function was having (or not having) on business results, an expectation that had been experienced by their executive counterparts for years. This meant that utilization stats were no longer enough. So, the CLO turned to their data partner within their organization to help their team begin to improve their measurement capabilities and expand the scope of “learning data.”
Challenges in the New World of Work
There are still plenty of CLOs who lead L&D teams that leverage a centralized, academic model for training delivery. At the same time, many CLOs have made the clear transition to a holistic, ecosystemic approach so their teams can leverage a wider range of tools and tactics to enable employee performance. Every organization is unique. Supporting a medium-sized business with a core set of roles is very different than supporting a global enterprise with an extensive number of functions and job requirements. An effective CLO must adopt strategies that best fit the needs of their business. There is no such thing as a “best way” to foster knowledge and skill development that fits perfectly for everyone.
Regardless of their business size or industry, many CLOs are now facing the same fundamental challenge. According to PwC’s “Talent Trends 2019” report, “79 percent of CEOs worldwide are concerned that a lack of essential skills in their workforce is threatening the future growth of their organization.” This is up from 63 percent in 2014. At the same time, research shows that, due to the current state of the global economy, companies are starting to prefer reskilling over external recruitment as a primary means to address their talent gaps.
Automation is rapidly changing the roles people play in how work gets done. Ninety percent of organizations are already in the process of designing jobs, according to the “2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends” report. In a world of near constant business disruption, organizations must foster an unprecedented level of agility to remain competitive long-term. As things stand right now, more than half of all employees will require significant reskilling in the next three years. But it’s foolish to think reskilling is a short-term challenge. Rather, CLOs must reimagine their function in order to provide the continuous development and support employees need to keep pace with their ever-changing job expectations.
4. The Modern CLO
The CLO must again evolve to help employees thrive within the modern workplace. However, this phase should not be focused on specific tools or tactics. Rather, providing clear value through L&D in today’s workplace requires a continued shift in mindset. Organizations with mature learning cultures may already be moving down this path based on what they learned during previous phases. The modern CLO must influence the entire organization — executives, stakeholders, employees — to think differently about the role of L&D. They must help people adopt a modern learning mindset and transition completely away from the idea that workplace learning should look and feel anything like traditional schooling.
By definition, “modern” is a moving target. Similarly, the CLO must constantly reassess how they provide value within their organization. While tools and tactics will change, a modern learning mindset is guided by a set of foundational, evergreen principles.
Agility. Continuous learning is a requirement in the modern workplace. The CLO must foster organizational agility by shifting their team’s focus from programs and content to systems and channels. L&D will only be able to help people keep pace with the changing needs of the business by connecting them to knowledge and skill development rather than requiring that they always build and deliver it themselves.
Impact. Like any other business leader, the CLO must be able to determine whether their efforts are having the intended impact. They must challenge their team to improve their measurement practices and tap into related expertise within the organization. The modern CLO must be willing to acknowledge moments when their efforts do not yield the intended impact and proactively improve their strategies as a result.
Data. L&D cannot move forward unless it improves its data capabilities. Artificial intelligence, adaptive learning, augmented reality — many emerging L&D practices require quality data to implement. Therefore, the CLO must prioritize this effort and integrate learning data with the broader picture provided by business data. They must partner across the organization to leverage data practices and expertise. The modern CLO must ask questions and make decisions using data in addition to their past experience and outside input.
Ecosystem. The CLO must continue their shift toward a holistic approach to L&D. Rather than seeking centralized ownership of reskilling practices, the modern CLO leverages a wide array of tools, channels and tactics in partnership with internal and external experts to help employees balance the push and pull of continuous workplace learning.
Workflow. The corporate university is not dead, but it cannot be the centerpiece of a modern learning strategy. Rather, the modern CLO pushes their team to provide learning and support opportunities when and where an employee needs them. Complex skill development may have a structured, academic feel when needed, but a modern learning strategy begins with a focus on the true moments of need that can make a difference in people’s day-to-day execution.
Personal. The future of learning should not be based on a specific type of content or technology. Rather, as jobs become more complex and skill development needs become more nuanced, the future of workplace learning will become personal. The modern CLO must adopt tools and tactics that can balance the needs of individual employees with the scale of their organization. By adopting modern learning principles such as data, ecosystem and workflow, the CLO can reduce their team’s reliance on one-size-fits-none training and adopt new practices, such as AI-enabled personalization and coaching.
In today’s workplace, mindset trumps talent. After all, an effective CLO must leverage the talents within their team and across the organization to bring their vision to life. They don’t have to be an expert in topics such as data, AI and experience design. Rather, they must understand the potential for such concepts and influence the culture shift needed before they can be successfully implemented. After all, if people continue to think learning at work should look and feel like school, the CLO’s impact potential will be extremely limited.
Is the CLO Still Needed?
In his 2016 Forbes article, “A Message for the C-Suite About Chief Learning Officers,” Dan Pontefract suggested that the true function of the CLO is more about purpose than learning: “This newly redefined CLO will now hold the keys to a more engaged organization, one replete with an army of purpose mindset employees.”
While not every organization has a true CLO, maintaining a formal role that works across the organization to help people do their best work every day is essential in today’s business environment. In this way, span of influence is infinitely more important than title. After all, the CLO does not own workplace learning. But, by applying a modern mindset, they can show people that learning is perhaps the most important part of work.