The Cultural Revolution

There’s a movement afoot for CLOs to step away from tactics and focus on culture.

co_0916_culturerev_302For what seems like decades, learning leaders have been fixated on the tactical side of their profession.

Developing courses, implementing learning management delivery systems and running evaluations based on Don Kirkpatrick’s groundbreaking four levels of training occupies a large portion of their time. It is as though everyone in the learning profession has read the same book, avoiding the possibility of reading something new.

Far too many learning departments have become order takers. They wait on a leader to make a demand for learning, and they satisfy whatever has been requested. Questions are seldom asked. Worse, the interaction is one that has become reactive, not proactive. “L&D, rather than providing a better way is simply doing requested content development piecework and whining about it,” said Patti Shank, founder of Learning Peaks. “What a mess.”

The learning function is missing out on data that is staring them right in the face. When you review how training dollars get spent, according to an ATD research report, an alarmingly high percentage goes to management training and then to compliance requirements. As it turns out, the higher up the hierarchy one is, the more money that gets invested in their development. Is that fair? Is that practical? Is it even making a difference in the health, wellness and engagement levels of the organization?

Oxford Economics research suggests 50 percent of employees do not believe they have the skills today that they will need in three years’ time, and roughly 66 percent indicated their companies can’t or won’t provide them the training they need to be ready for tomorrow. Facing the possibility that 47 percent of all jobs have a high likelihood of being replaced by technology and automation in the next 20 years, no wonder people are worried about becoming obsolete. No wonder employee engagement remains anemically low.

Learning and development departments seem to think their customers are the top executives of the company. Instead of playing offense they play defense. Instead of crafting a future that ensures both the skills development for all of its employees and a healthier, more engaged organization itself, they satisfy those orders, issue reports on the attendance, and generally fail to demonstrate a more thoughtful level of long-term leadership.

The Drive-Thru

The mindset of L&D has become one in which senior leaders step up to the drive-thru menu, order their course and then expect it to be wrapped in a brown bag at the second window.

Sadly, the profession does not seem to realize they have a moral responsibility to all stakeholders in the organization to create a sustainable future. I believe the L&D function has a fiduciary obligation to the organization’s culture, its purpose and overarching future. The learning and development department ought to become the enabler of employee engagement and a purpose-driven ethos. The function can no longer remain a drive-thru window.

“The CLO and L&D function is still tactical in 75 percent of the companies I talk with,” said Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte. “Despite the C-level title, most CLOs are heads of training focused mostly on developing great training and content. There’s much more for this profession to do in the future. There’s a greater responsibility of leadership they can take.”

Jane Hart, founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, made eerily similar remarks. “CLOs and L&D departments in general still equate workplace learning with training. They remain focused on designing, delivering and — most of all — managing training and e-learning.” Hart insisted that learning leaders are possessed to track everything everyone learns at work. “They seem to find it very difficult — if not impossible — to support the real learning that takes place in the organization, learning that happens every day in their jobs, teams and social groups.”

Judging from global employee engagement surveys — where levels of internal employee engagement continue to remain woefully low — well over three-quarters of those employed on the planet do not find meaning in their work. According to Gallup, 52 percent of employees are actually checked out at work. Some of this blame falls squarely on the individual, for certain, but L&D can consider themselves culpable as well.

The future with respect to L&D is not about developing courses, learning management systems or evaluations. While these aspects can continue, more is needed from L&D.

The L&D profession has to become an instigator, a leader and a catalyst for culture change. It must help the organization become more practical, engaged, and possess and exhibit a collaborative operating system, espousing a higher purpose that aims to serve all stakeholders.

The learning profession needs to establish a new moonshot. It must lead the charge and change its decades-old DNA from being tactical (and defensive) course builders to becoming proactive, progressive and practical thought leaders. The organization is in need of a culture change leader. L&D is just the unit to deliver such leadership.

The Way Forward

According to George Stonehouse and Jonathan Pemberton of the University of Northumbria, organizational culture “consists of the values, attitudes and beliefs that steer the actions and behavior of the individuals making up the organization.” Robert A. Cooke, CEO and director of Human Synergistics International and associate professor emeritus of management at the University of Illinois, defines the culture of an organization as “the way employees behave at the workplace to ensure stable future and growth.”

As part of its mandate, L&D must take steps to redefine the organization’s values, attributes, behaviors and operating practices such that employees at all levels become more collaborative, connected and communicative. But this only comes to fruition if there is a mandate to change at the senior-most level in the organization itself. Thus, the L&D department needs to shift its mandate and the CLO role has to become more than a learning leader.

Karie Willyerd, former CLO of Sun Microsystems and now chief evangelist of SAP SuccessFactors, said, “Learning leaders need to step up and take responsibility for building the capabilities of the future.” Willyerd envisions an augmented role emerging for CLOs and this redefinition of the organization’s culture. “I think there needs to be some sort of chief talent success advocate and it needs to be split off from human resources. The role should be viewed as an equal report into the CEO.”

In Willyerd’s view, it will be enlightened CLO leaders and L&D employees who make such a vision of engagement, culture, purpose and being practical to materialize, “not the service-minded order takers in most CLO roles and L&D departments.” She feels so strongly about this new role and accountability for L&D, she “would advocate that it should also have responsibility to the board.”

The CLO title should change to chief culture officer, and the L&D department name should become People and Engagement — P&E for short.

“In many of my discussions with companies, I recommend that the CLO also own employee communications and employee engagement — because the skills are very similar,” Bersin said.

He believes enterprisewide programs and surrounding infrastructure around learning touches every employee in highly engaging ways. “Employee development, on-the-job support, and career mobility are among the biggest drivers of engagement — so it makes a lot of sense for the CLO to take on a more important scope.”

Hart suggested that for CLOs to become these new types of leaders, “They need to break out of the mold of running a traditional training department.” She said that there ought to be a new L&D mindset “but also a new organizational mindset so that L&D are not just seen as course order-takers, but their role is to support all the ways we learn and engage in our work.”

An open, transparent and engaging culture — one that is practical — is one that calls upon its leaders to demonstrate reciprocity alongside a clearly delineated strategy. The chief culture officer and their team ought to become the group that ensures all employees begin to act as a unified corporate organism, one working together to achieve its enterprisewide goals.

Change is hard. Most individuals, however, do not think solely about themselves, rather they act with the greater good of the organization itself and its people in mind. Employees want to “do good” and it ought to become the responsibility of the chief culture officer and team to make this happen.

Hitting business financial targets is important, but it only will happen if organizational culture is one that promotes the well-being of its people. This is where the chief culture officer and the new P&E team come into play. When an organization is united such that duplication is negated and a selfless amount of collaboration is the norm, a new culture is set in motion.

It is no longer a culture of “command and control,” but rather one of “engage and empower” combined with flawless execution. An organization that is practical, purposeful and engaged becomes the point at which there is an unobstructed flow of corporate commonality.

Albert Einstein once said, “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”

The CLO and the L&D function — now the chief culture officer amid the P&E team — also needs a new type of thinking if the organization is to survive and move toward a more sustainable future.

Dan Pontefact is author of “The Purpose Effect” and “Flat Army,” and is chief envisioner of Telus. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.