CLOs: Agents Of Change

The chief learning officer role has only been around for a few decades, but in that time these leaders have gained visibility and responsibility for a growing number of key talent management issues. Their hard-fought rise in status is giving them more leadership authority, but it is also putting increased pressure on them to align talent development investments with broader strategic goals and to demonstrate a measurable business impact for their initiatives.

Rob Lauber, CLO at McDonald’s Corp., has held CLO roles in major global organizations for the past 15 years, and he’s experienced this transformation firsthand. “The role has shifted over the years, from leader of a portfolio of training elements to enabler of learning,” he said. “More than anything else, it’s a shift in mindset.”

He said today’s CLO has to give up control of the learning process, and focus more on creating opportunities for learners to get the information they need when they need it, even if that means shutting the door on classrooms. “It’s less about owning the learning process, and more about making things possible.”

Andre Martin, CLO at Nike Inc., agreed. “The time of L&D as a standalone function is well beyond us. The expectation of the CLO is becoming much more about being an integrator of strategy, talent and knowledge.”

To do that, today’s CLOs have to become organizational change agents, implementing new technologies, partnerships and business strategies to transform the way their organizations transfer knowledge and skills to employees, said Kevin Oakes, CEO of the Institute for Corporate Productivity, or i4cp.

That includes establishing strategic alignments with business leaders across the organization and delivering development opportunities via social, mobile and other platforms so that employees feel empowered to get the information and education they need, when they need it. “As the CLOs’ responsibilities expand, they are often working hand in glove with CEOs to create a learning culture in the organization,” Oakes said.

The Need for Speed
One of the key drivers of the CLO role change in recent years has been the need to deliver more training to more people in less time. Global companies today don’t have the luxury of sending employees to weeklong, off-site training courses. They need employees hired, onboarded and productive as quickly as possible. Further, when the business changes, the skills sets for their existing employees need to adapt in lockstep. This constant state of transformation is forcing CLOs to think more strategically about how, when and where training is delivered.

Building competence is high on the agenda of leadership team, said Bradley Samargya, CLO at Ericsson, a global communications and services company based in Stockholm, Sweden. He said there is a huge need to develop competent leaders and employees who can adapt to the pace of change in the rapidly mobile communications arena. In his company, business units are constantly rolling out new initiatives and products that require quick, easy access to learning so employees can keep up. “Developing competence in new and emerging mobile technology areas is key to Ericsson’s ability to maintain its competitive edge for our sale, services and product development teams.”

As the demand for learning sped up, so has his approach. Since coming to Ericsson, Samargya helped launch Ericsson Academy Virtual Campus, a virtual training portal where employees can take advantage of content on their own time, to answer questions and drive their own professional development. His team also has launched Ericsson Play, a series of corporate YouTube channels featuring more than 800 learning videos that can be accessed by any device so employees can learn on the go. All of this addresses the company’s strategic need to rapidly and efficiently build knowledge capacity for its 118,000 employees. “We have people in every corner of the globe in over 180 countries, and we need cost-effective ways to get them trained and back to work,” he said.

A big part of the success of these initiatives comes from Samargya’s willingness to partner with the ITdepartment so they can jointly develop social learning and collaboration platforms that support informal learning among peers. “Unlocking the ability of our employees to learn from each other is a key part of our learning strategy, and I consider it a key part of my mission as a CLO,” he said. “It is a way to buildcompetency without having to build formal training.” And that is at the heart of enabling employees to learn on the go.

So You Want to Be a CLO

The rising prominence of the chief learning officer position makes it an attractive goal for the next generation of learning leaders. But to get there, they need to do more than hone their learning credentials.

Current and future chief learning officers need strong business acumen, broad leadership experience and the ability to prove their efforts strategic value, said Bradley Samargya, CLO at Ericsson. “Having a business background as a CLO is invaluable. We need to be professional consultants, not order-takers.”

Midcareer professionals should look for opportunities to break out of the training department to spend time working in sales, finance, operations or IT. “The most successful learning professionals have domain expertise,” he said. If leaders can’t land one of those roles, they should take every opportunity to work with them to learn what they do and how training supports their needs, Samargya said.

Also, whenever there are change initiatives to be led, offer to take the lead, said Nike Inc.’s CLO Andre Martin. “You have to become an expert in culture change because whether or not this is your directive, it will be your job.”

Once in the role, leaders should position themselves as equal members of the C-suite by participating in all of the leadership conversations — not just those that pertain to learning, said McDonald’s Corp.’s CLO Rob Lauber. “Be a businessperson first and a domain expert second,” he said.

Finally, be honest about strengths and weaknesses, and do what is necessary developmentwise to fill the gaps — either through training, or by building a well balanced team, said EMC Corp.’s CLO Tom Clancy. “With today’s technology, almost anyone can build training. Figure out how you can do it better so they rely on you.”

Sarah Fister Gale

Technology Is Part of It All
Indeed, technology is at the heart of many of the strategic learning initiatives CLOs champion today. These tools aren’t just delivery vehicles, said Kimo Kippen, CLO of Hilton Worldwide, the global hotel chain. It’s about harnessing ideas to solve strategic challenges, and disrupting the way learning is made available.

For instance, Hilton’s new virtual platform connects and supports remote reservation and customer care professionals. The platform, which includes a library of virtual training and support tools, enables the company to solve a specific talent management problem — hiring and retaining its reservation and customer care workers. Previously, the company relied on call centers, which left local managers constantly recruiting and training new workers from a limited pool to accommodate the high turnover rates common in such positions.

With the new remote support platform, Hilton can hire local people, and give them access to a full library of virtual training content so they can be successful wherever they are located and whenever they are working. “It is an example of how we identified a business challenge, and developed a learning strategy to solve it,” Kippen said.

Such technology solutions enable CLOs to adapt the training culture to meet current economic, social and strategic challenges — but they also can present obstacles, said Tom Clancy, vice president of education services at EMC Corp., a data storage company. “It’s no longer enough to offer online learning, or blended solutions. It is time to accelerate change to complement the blended approach with newofferings.”

That means implementing workforce analytics, developing mobile training apps and creating social media platforms that allow far-flung employees to collaborate and solve problems — all of which wasn’t part of the job description five or 10 years ago.

To be successful in this environment, today’s CLOs need to become technology champions, backing projects to support user-generated content,community-basedlearning, mobile, advanced search tools,curation, video, learning record storage and more. “By 2016, most of these technologies need to be mainstreamed with the CLO business model,” Clancy said. To do that, they need to develop a technology roadmap that aligns with talent development goals, and start measuring the effect of these initiatives on strategic performance.

The Analytics Challenge
Clancy said the most successful CLOs going forward will use technology to not just meet current employees’ needs but to predict the next generation’s needs. “With the talent shortage continuing to increase and become more of a challenge, business unit leaders need to rely on CLOs to anticipate global talent requirements and proactively provide highly blended, scalable, global learning solutions to meet their needs,” he said. 

One of the most important pieces of this transition is delivering customer-impacting predictive analytics. Using analytics to demonstrate the effect of investments is a popular goal for leaders across all areas of the business, but it is especially imperative for learning leaders if they want to link their programs to current and future strategic outcomes. That’s a big change from the past, when CLOs were more reactive, delivering training business unit leaders asked for, rather than helping them plan for the future. “What got us here is not going to work in the next five years,” Clancy said.

Cushing Anderson, program director for learning services at market intelligence firm IDC, said the ability to measure the business impact of learning initiatives will enable leading CLOs to gain and maintain status as strategic business leaders. “CLOs have to be able to demonstrate that they can help business unit leaders meet their goals.”

Offering that proof of value will help change the way business unit leaders engage with CLOs and the learning department, looking to them as learning advisors rather than pre-built training providers. “It will allow us to start the conversation with ‘what’s your competency gap’ so we can find the right solution,” Ericsson’s Samargya said.

It won’t be an easy transition, but it’s an important step for CLOs as they position themselves as strategic business leaders who enable organizational change. “We are moving beyond commoditized learning curating knowledge that is unique to how a given company makes money and drives growth,” Nike’s Martin said. “As CEOs and executives become more acutely aware of the benefits of high engagement, world-class line management, the role of the CLO becomes much more coveted.”