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CLO Q&A: Learning is a Technology Role

Technology is inextricably linked to the role of CLO in today's organizations, says Ashley Williams of McKinsey & Co.

Ashley Williams is deputy chief learning officer and chief operating officer, learning and development, for McKinsey & Co. where she’s worked in learning for the last 12 years. She sat down with Chief Learning Officer at the CLO Breakfast Club event in Atlanta in May and shared her perspective on the role of a learning executive, her career path and how learning and technology are increasingly intertwined.

Ashley Williams, Deputy CLO and COO, Learning and Development, McKinsey & Co.

In the excerpt below, Williams talks about McKinsey’s ongoing business transformation and what that means for the learning function. This transcript has been edited for space and clarity. For more on Williams’ talk along with highlights from the full event series, visit the CLO Breakfast Club library.

Chief Learning Officer: Let’s dig into the learning transformation process at McKinsey. What was the beginning point of that, why was this learning transformation seen as something that needed to be pursued and what does it look like?

Williams: I think we’ve been transforming since I started this job 12 years ago. I feel like I’m constant transformation. It’s exciting actually. But this most recent wave of the transformation is really driven by two realizations. One is the clients are asking for different things from consultants.

This isn’t just a McKinsey thing. This is a broader professional services trend. They’re asking for different things. They’re demanding different kinds of service models and topics. One is advanced analytics and digitization. That’s not something that existed really meaningfully 10 years ago.

So we realize at McKinsey, and frankly many other professional services [firms] realize, you can’t do that same type of work using the same type of people we’ve had for the last 100 years at McKinsey. There are a lot of different profiles which brings me to the second reason why this transformation is so important. We are exploding in the diversity profiles in our firm.

We bought, for example, Quantum Black which is an advanced analytics company. The folks at Quantum Black look nothing like the traditional MBA path that came in our door when I came in the door. A Quantum Black person looks completely different. We also bought a firm called Lunar which is a product development company. Those people look nothing like the traditional McKinsey consultant. Nor has their career path looked [like a traditional McKinsey path].

So you’ve got two things happening. You’ve got diversity profiles in the firm which is marvelous because it’s really incredible when you see it come together in the client space. But there are challenges with that that we have to work through. We have to build the capabilities of the organization to work differently, to work with different people [and] to work in different groups. Then, by the way, Quantum Black folks need a certain level of capability building around keeping top-notch advanced analytical professionals or data scientists that our generalized population of the past did not need.

When you put these two pretty powerful forces together I think everybody went, “Ding, oh goodness. We need to rethink how we’re doing this. We can’t continue to have one journey in the firm for one type of profile of folks. We have got to diversify and do a better job of understanding all the needs of profiles in the firm.” That was the big impetus.

Chief Learning Officer: It’s almost like McKinsey is a management consulting firm but it’s also a tech company in a way.

Williams: Yes, and if you ask almost any of our clients they’ll tell you the same thing. They’re all in some way becoming a tech company. What’s the digitization answer for them? So it’s really interesting that you say that because a couple years ago, we started a thing called Partner University. It’s a blended program for our partners at the firm. This year is the second iteration of this 9 – 12 month blended program. The entire focus is on digitization and advanced analytics.

Why? Because it’s not sufficient just for some portion [of our population.]. I mentioned Quantum Black but there’s many others in our firm that are doing advanced analytics. But at the same time it’s not sufficient for just that group to understand what digitization and advanced analytics mean. All of our partners need to understand what advanced analytics and digitization mean and how they can counsel their most senior C-suite clients around that.

We’re having to do a heavy capability building effort for our partners who for very good legitimate reasons have never done this type of work – don’t know what it really means – but they need to because their clients are saying the same things. Their clients are going, “Oh my gosh, all of my senior executives need to understand digitization. All of my senior executives need to understand the impact of advanced analytics. How are we going to do that?”

So, yes, McKinsey is becoming a digital company in some ways at least but so are all others.

Chief Learning Officer: It was interesting listening to some of the comments in the audience. It’s like learning and development organizations are becoming tech organizations, too. It’s just woven into everything we do now and it’s requiring stretches and capability building beyond what has been traditional.

Williams: Yes, on a personal level I used to say three years ago sort of proudly, “Well, I’m not the technology person so I can’t tell you about X or Y in the learning space” and play ignorant but I said, “You know what, I can’t do that anymore.” That’s not actually kosher anymore for me being in the role and all of us in senior learning roles. It’s not kosher for me to say I don’t really understand the technology or the effect the technology is having.

Chief Learning Officer: To say, “We have tech people who do that.”

Williams: Not sufficient anymore. Now, we still do have tech people who do that [who] are at a completely different level of depth than I am, of course. But it’s not acceptable anymore as a learning professional for anyone to be saying somebody else does that … because it’s just becoming so interwoven in what we do. Whether it’s mobile or any other thing, it’s just now a part of what we need to understand and build into our L&D strategies.

For more on Williams’ talk along with highlights from the full event series, visit the CLO Breakfast Club library.

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