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The Contemporary Chief Learning Officer – Marrying Innovation with Common Sense

Today and in the near future, there is no HR specialisation that we see evolving more rapidly than Learning. Most often a subset of the broader Talent/{nolink}Talent Management{/nolink} umbrella, the most progressive organisations are starting to see Learning as a stand-alone function, which requires deep subject matter expertise and specialist knowledge. Indeed, how we look at the definition of Learning itself is changing.

In this article we examine:

  • Key issues for Chief Learning Officers (CLOs) and Chief HR Officers (CHROs) to consider when looking broadly at the Learning function
  • What successful CLOs are focusing on today
  • Characteristics of a world class, contemporary CLO

Today’s Learning Function: Key Issues for CLOs and CHROs to Consider

Where Does Learning Sit?

As mentioned above, Learning has more traditionally sat under the Head of Talent or {nolink}Talent Management{/nolink}, depending on the terminology used by the organisation. Increasingly, however, we are seeing the Learning function become more of a standalone, with the function being viewed as holistically covering the area of ‘capability development’. One of our clients recently offered this perspective:

“{nolink}Talent Management{/nolink} processes are inward looking. What you do in {nolink}Talent Management{/nolink} tends to start and end with the organisation. Learning has much more of an external dimension. {nolink}Talent Management{/nolink} focuses on building leaders and looks inside the organisation to do this; whereas Learning requires more external, technical expertise. While there is a strong connection, I want to keep the two very separate, with individual expert managers for each.”

At ChapmanCG, we believe that Learning will ultimately break away from the broader Talent/{nolink}Talent Management{/nolink} umbrella for leading organisations. This is because Learning is already a highly specialised domain and it is becoming more so. Today, the depth and breadth of subject matter expertise required in Learning is just too overwhelming for non-specialist Talent leaders to keep abreast of in any meaningful way.

What about Leadership Development?

At the same time, Leadership Development specifically is caught ‘in between’ the Talent and Learning camps. Leadership Development is very often paired with the Learning function, and yet, Talent/{nolink}Talent Management{/nolink} leaders are often far more comfortable with Leadership Development. This is because Leadership Development is much more about matching specific skills and traits to the context at hand and building Leadership capability based on real work. It is also much easier to measure and monitor improvements over time in the workplace. Learning, on the other hand, is becoming a very different challenge, often due to the scale required to span a broad population; and the need to look externally to define a curriculum and the most effective means of delivery — an increasingly complex challenge given today’s highly fragmented vendor and product marketplace.

The Impact of Technology

Unlike other areas of the {nolink}Talent Management{/nolink} sphere, Learning requires scale and the ability to work top to bottom within a workforce, as well as the capability to finely segment and target individual pockets of an employee population. For each of these segments, it is necessary that the CLO understands the daily lives and tasks of the people within it; in order to customise the most appropriate Learning approach. To a certain extent, this has always been true for CLOs. However today, we have the capability to leverage technology and use data and analytics in a way that is much more powerful than ever before. In a world that is evolving rapidly at every turn, CLOs need to ensure employees quickly adapt to meet the needs of the organisation, and to do this they require not only traditional CLO skills but also a deep and very current command of the many new tools available.

For this reason, Learning is quickly becoming an area for tech-savvy specialists, requiring a very strong grasp of the latest eLearning applications and platforms, in addition to more traditional Learning methods. Learning programmes are becoming more sophisticated and as technology progresses, more about broad based organisational capability development. Due to advances in technology, most Learning applications are now real-time and are easy to use on a mobile phone. A very high degree of customisation is possible and employees can complete modules, receive feedback, and understand areas for further work or improvement immediately, without the guidance or intervention of a coach or trainer. While strong CLOs do not need to be highly technical, they must feel 100% comfortable with technology and data, due to the way content and feedback is increasingly gathered, digested and communicated.

The Growing Challenge of Vendor and Systems Management

Driven by technology, there has been an explosion in the tools that a contemporary CLO can use. These new tools have created a highly fragmented marketplace, due to the sheer number of vendors and systems for an organisation to choose from. Today’s Chief Learning Officer is faced with an increasingly large and complex set of vendor management and systems management demands, each of which requires time and focus. In fact one CHRO said to us recently: “Learning today is all about vendor management and systems management.” We believe that most CLOs would feel this is an oversimplification, but nonetheless this is a truth that many organisations are struggling to come to terms with; as they find themselves adding more manpower to navigate and handle new vendor and systems management issues they face on a daily basis.

The Importance of Linking Learning Vision with Business Goals

So we have an abundance of technology to work with; we have the desire to imprint a culture of Learning; and we have a broader vision of what we want to achieve. Now what? Senior business leaders often comment that there is a disconnect between what the business expects of the Learning function and what the Learning function believes it should be achieving. The business is highly reluctant to risk taking time away from revenue generating activities to attend training programmes, which may be highly conceptual but bear no direct, short to medium term impact on the bottom line. For this reason, it is critical that the CLO establishes a common purpose with the business and one which can be measured by a return on investment, be that financial or otherwise, through increased employee engagement, retention levels or time to action.

One particular strategy, which highlights the importance of delivering relevant skills to internal and external clients, is a programme developed by Accenture’s Chief Learning Officer, Rahul Varma, entitled ‘Accenture Connected Learning’: “The programme reaches more than 370,000 employees around the world and is a digitally based Learning environment offering a number of channels to connect learners directly to knowledge, as well as to experts they can learn from. The result is a multipronged tool that simultaneously helps employees reach individual professional development goals and drives overall business performance.” — Bravetta Hassell, Accenture Connects Learning to the Business, Chief Learning Officer Magazine, January 29, 2016.

This approach, we feel, emphasises the importance of understanding that different business lines require different avenues of knowledge; and that for a culture of Learning to properly develop and increase performance across an organisation a multidimensional strategy is needed. In the same article, Rahul Varma goes further: “With different career aspirations and work challenges, people require individualised approaches to learning. Different entry points ensure a company meets people where they are in their Learning journey, h
elping them define, pursue and accelerate it. For Learning organisations to be successful, one environment isn’t enough,”

Nothing highlights better the sheer complexity of the challenge CLOs of today face. Furthermore, with populations of some global organisations topping 350,000, anything less than full alignment with business goals can be very expensive — and at best a massive opportunity cost.

Millennials in the Workplace: New Challenges for the Chief Learning Officer

Companies are now grappling with having vast generational differences under the same roof, and the question of how to best integrate those employees together – while still keeping everyone engaged, challenged and learning. As millennials will account for almost half of the {nolink}U.S{/nolink}. workforce by 2020; and 75% of the global workforce by 2025, it’s crucial that Chief Learning Officers plan for the changes this will bring about in the workplace; and figure out how to create a Learning environment that can accommodate these generational differences.

There are a lot of myths and stereotypes out there about generational differences, and whilst stereotyping tends to pigeonhole people unnecessarily, generational differences do exist — in particular between the so-called Baby Boomers and Millennials, who sometimes struggle to understand each other’s work styles. For example, these generations have been brought up with very different beliefs on what work style methods produce the best results (long hours to prove work ethic vs. a more ‘results-only’ work environment). And the Millennial generation looks and absorbs data and uses technology very differently to its predecessor.

Strategies that some forward-thinking companies are adopting include creating mentorships through co-leadership — by pairing a Millennial with a senior executive, the younger colleague is empowered and feels valued, whilst also having the opportunity to learn from his or her mentor about the organisation/industry. On the other hand, the Millennial is able to bring rich experience with technology and social {nolink}media{/nolink}, and also contribute valuable input on how to communicate with the company’s younger (Millennial) customer base. Today’s CLO is having to think about how to translate these kinds of approaches into the design and development of exciting Learning curricula.

What Successful CLOs are Focusing On Today

We spoke with an array of Chief Learning Officers from different industry backgrounds, and identified some of the common themes that the most effective Learning leaders are currently focusing on:

  • Purpose — Getting purpose right is absolutely critical – from both business and Learning perspectives. Successful CLOs have a clear focus on goals. As confirmed by Laurence Smith, Managing Director HR, Group Head of Learning & Talent Development at DBS Bank, “I am more and more convinced that if you get purpose right first, it is the North Star, the true North to everything else – a centre of gravity that pulls people forward. When purpose is absolutely clear, decision making becomes clear.” Laurence also emphasised the power this can have when you go one step further and link the values of the organisation to the Learning strategy.
  • Experiential Learning — We have received feedback from Learning professionals at all levels that confirms the need to create deeply experiential opportunities to learn. It is imperative to ensure that the Learning experience is not an isolated event, taken out of the business context, but one which resonates on a day-to-day basis. This is most commonly used in order to help people accept change and welcome innovation in the workplace. A good example of this is getting people comfortable around some of the disruptive technology which we encounter every day.
  • Blended Learning Approaches — Laurence Smith sums this up nicely, “Learning needs to be micro, modular, on demand, in real time, broken down so it is useful, highly interactive, highly engaging, highly gamified.” Employees must have access to knowledge, be it in focused ‘time away from the business’ sessions or what is often referred to as ‘anytime, anywhere Learning’ — the ability for employees to access a database of knowledge served up by leaders in the organisation on mobile platforms. To meet this need DBS is using the mobile learning app ‘SmartUp’ with content from top entrepreneurs to teach innovation, entrepreneurship and ‘intrapreneurship’ within the Bank.
  • Training vs. Learning — Successful CLOs have identified that there is a difference between Training and Learning. They represent the past and future of how Learning has evolved. An interesting reference to this comes from Wipro Group’s Chief Learning Officer, Abhijit Bhaduri on a Podcast hosted by Jacob Morgan in the Future of Work Podcast series, “Training worked when the world was fairly slow to change. In a static world, training works perfectly because the past is a very good indicator of the future – you are future proofing yourself. But then there are disruptors [such as] technology and social shifts, and these actually change the way the future is going to look.” In this sense, training as a concept of one person dictating to an individual or a group what to learn will become redundant. He goes on to discuss how because of the internet and modern communications, knowledge is free and easily accessible, and will be increasingly driven by the individual. “It’s all curiosity, it’s all about exploration. There is an entire shift from obsessing with being eternally successful to being comfortable with failure. Training focuses on making you successful, Learning does not happen if you are not comfortable with failure.” In this sense CLOs are asking their employees to be more accountable for their Learning and are empowering them to think more about how they learn. A good analogy is Learning to ride a bike. No one tells us how, we learn by doing and failing and finally succeeding.
  • Employees Taking Control — If Learning is becoming more individually focused, how can employees decide what and how they want to learn? Highly innovative CLOs are utilising technology to empower employees to establish Learning networks, sometimes referred to as “social learning”. Through the use of the intranet or employee-based social platforms like Yammer, employees can share ideas and set up groups around subject matter they wish to learn more about. These groups can easily be facilitated by a business leader with subject matter expertise and monitored by a CLO. In the same article referenced above, Abhijit Bhaduri states that, “The future of Learning will be driven by peers and novices and experts,” accessible to all employees. The next generation of CLOs must therefore identify and open appropriate channels of communication which foster sharing, but also ensure a close watch on how sensitive company information is being used.

Characteristics of a World Class, Contemporary Chief Learning Officer

The impact of a successful CLO can leave an indelible mark on an organisation to such an extent that innovative Learning approaches, or a lack thereof, can have a significant impact on the attractiveness of an organisation to potential hires. We have seen above some of the important ingredients that CLOs need to incorporate into their Learning strategies. Let’s now look at some of the key characteristics that make a successful Chief Learning Officer:

  • Tech-Savvy — Communications between HR and Technology have become more strategic since HR gained a more prominent seat at the executive table. This communication increasingly centres around Learning technologies. CLOs need to be able to identify and assess the cost-effectiveness of an abundance of applications and e-programme
    s, and how these can benefit some or all parts of the organisation, as well as whether those applications are limited or scalable. He/she must also manage and derive full dollar value from these relationships.
  • Able to Identify Capability — The CLO must be able to perform a needs assessment of the organisation and its people. He/she must understand where capabilities exist and where they are missing in relation to key leadership roles. This means that there needs to be an intrinsic understanding of the workings the organisation, its business goals and what employees need to achieve in order to reach these goals. Once these are identified and targets are set for achievement, the CLO must be able to measure what achievement actually looks like, and then communicate this effectively in order to build a culture which values and rewards these behaviours.
  • Change Agent — Nothing drives innovation around Learning like change. Organisations are continually going through transformation. This could be changing the construct of business lines, introducing new products, or an HR shift from a decentralised approach to something approaching the 3 pillar Ulrich model. Successful organisations thrive on and welcome change. CLOs therefore have to drive and communicate change effectively. We have seen a noticeable shift in recent years from product to the customer, and the CLO must be able to identify what Learning opportunities are required to succeed in this new environment.
  • Business-focused — The successful CLO will be one who insists on frequent communication and calibration with the business around what it is they are trying to achieve, and more importantly how they are going to measure success against the bottom line. Having these discussions upfront ensures an actionable and accountable strategy, which can be tweaked and improved along the way. The most successful organisations embrace innovative Learning approaches and simultaneously ensure that there is no disconnect with the business.
  • Deep Blended Learning Experience — The CLO must possess excellent design and conceptual skills which allow them to straddle all methods of Learning, both traditional and cutting/bleeding edge; from top to bottom of the organisation, and across huge populations and multiple geographies.
  • Understands How Learning Intersects with all CoEs — Whilst we are seeing a carving out of the Learning function, there is unquestionably a crossover with {nolink}Talent Management{/nolink}
    in regard to Leadership Development, as any successful organisation needs to drive change from the top. Ensuring that comprehensive Learning programmes and behaviours are implemented at the leadership level, which in turn form a common culture, is central to the sphere of the CLO’s responsibilities. Furthermore, CLOs must work closely with their other CoE counterparts in{nolink}Talent Acquisition{/nolink}, {nolink}Compensation{/nolink} and Employee Engagement, in order to ensure that a holistic view of Learning is adopted, and that it impacts the full cycle of employment. It is important for the CLO to understand if these leaders are linking Learning strategies to, for example, onboarding processes and salary/bonus discussions; and if employee engagement surveys are highlighting gaps in capabilities, and therefore creating Learning opportunities.
  • A Global Thinker — Although based in Corporate Headquarters, the Chief Learning Officer must be aware of the different challenges faced in all geographies. It is already well understood that approaches to Learning must assimilate to regions and countries and be sensitive to cultural nuances if they are to be successful. The CLO must be able to effectively influence numerous business leaders and their own team members to deliver a consistent set of messages. This also makes hiring into the Learning function even more critical as responsibility to execute Learning strategies is increasingly imparted into regions.
  • Pragmatic – We are also seeing that a large dose of pragmatism is a key requirement of CLOs today. Given the scale and complexity of the top Learning roles, a conceptual and highly strategic mind is needed. However, at the end of the day, concepts must be operationalised and executed well in order to drive business results. Sometimes to achieve this, pragmatic decisions need to be made; and very few top Learning leaders have the necessary conceptual and design skills, coupled with an ability to drive business results through impeccable execution. As a search firm, we are always on the lookout for these rare individuals.


What is quite clear is that the role of the CLO is highly complex and requires a certain mind-set marrying innovation with common sense. There is the need to adapt to changing technology and social trends and identify how all elements could add value to an organisation; its business, vision and people. At the same time, with the increased demands on information and open lines of communication, the CLO needs to carefully monitor what is and is not acceptable, reliable and quite frankly legal use of information at employees’ fingertips. All of this needs to happen within the framework of budgetary considerations and shifting business models. An organisation’s ability to prioritise the development of its employee population will determine its ability to survive in an increasingly competitive war for talent. Utilising digital learning and social {nolink}media{/nolink} platforms to achieve this goal has become essential, and with that has driven the rise of the tech-savvy CLO.


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