What Is a Chief Learning Officer (CLO)?

A Chief Learning Officer’s main job is to grow an organization by developing a process of learning. This role continues to change, morph, and evolve as things change such as the overall econonmy, increase in globalization, and growth of technology. This evolution requires organizations to learn faster or face the reality of not being able to survive. Companies that implement ongoing learning objectives are able to reinvent themselves and adapt to change proactively, while stagnant organizations are often reactive in strategy and are unable to catch up or adjust to the changing environment. Learning needs to happen quickly, affordable, and clearly in order for a company to get a competitive advantage over others. Companies need to be able to learn from success and failures in order to manage change and turn these oppurtunities into improvement. Some common themes of learning companies include knowledge or data being continuously transferred, stored, and collected throughout the organization. Employees must also have access to the information and data that are important to the company’s success. A corporate climate exists that encourages, rewards, and accelerates individual and group learning. It expects and embraces change and uses adversity such as a downturn in the economy as an opportunity to learn from it and come out of the adversity stronger and smarter than its counterparts in business.

A Chief Learning Officer is a senior executive who has been appointed the task of directing and managing learning, performance improvement, career development, talent management and organizational knowledge functions at the highest level. They are in charge of moving their company into the future by constantly managing a changing environment, staying in tune with the latest technology, acquiring information through learning programs, as well as maintaining communication with other corporate leaders such as the Chief Executive Officer in order to remain an important part of the company’s success.

Companies have continued to experiment with new ways to improve the training and retention of their employees to stay competitive in a changing market. Over the past twenty years, organizational learning has become very important to companies in their effort to adapt to change and remain competitive. With the emergence of the “C-level” title for various leaders of organization functions, the Human Resource Development field has created a new title, Chief Learning Officer, or CLO.

Steve Kerr, CLO of Goldman Sachs and former CLO of General Electric, stated that when he joined Goldman Sachs, he had to spend his first few months on the job convincing division heads that he was not there to teach classes or implement typical training programs, rather he was there to talk about business challenges that faced managers so that he could better understand where learning was necessary. Communicating and speaking to managers and employees in their own easy to understand language is crucial in order to gain credibility. Kerr went on to say that CLOs cannot talk in terms of learning models and different academic theories because clients who are buying your product don’t talk that way. Instead it is best for CLOs to talk about business and relate the process of learning solutions to the way managers think out in the business world. Kerr uses a car manual metaphor when discussing how to learn to communicate with internal clients. The front of the manual usually discusses technical terminology such as drive trains, manifolds, ABS systems that many people do not understand. He goes on to state that what people do understand is the troubleshooting guide at the back of the manual that describes what might be wrong when the car won’t start. He says that CLOs are the troubleshooters of an organization. Like the auto manual, CLOs have to troubleshoot in terms that people understand.

Leadership is a paramount quality for any executive, but a CLO is hired to lead the organization down a new and rugged path of learning that includes changing technology, global workforces and lower budgets. One of a CLOs main responsibilities for the company is to show the way for the company’s learning strategy thereby improving the bottom line. The Chief Learning Officer is expected to make the right decisions when it comes to learning strategy and direction, as well as lead the company to reaching it’s overall goals by committing to a plan. Just as important as being a leader is the need for the CLO to develop other leaders within the organization. Passing leadership skills onto management through development programs is a way for an organization to become more efficient and aligned.

Bill Kline, CLO of Delta Air Lines says, “Number 1: If you want to be strategic, you know the details of your business”. Thinking globally across the enterprise is the responsibility of the CLO while thinking tactically is left to the other different business units. A CLO’s job can be difficult due to only have so much input into the overall performance of a company. For example, a CLO was hired by a retail giant and was asked to raise store sales from year to year as well increase staff retention. This particular CLO had influence over the organization and a seat at the board room table but was still let go due to the fact the economy had dropped and the product lines were not up to par. This is an example over a CLO only having influence over the inside of a company and cannot control what happens externally. CLOs can also prove their importance by focusing time on processes that will help the company meet quanitifiable objectives. A CLO could areas of focus on leadership development, for example, or a focus on multiple aspects of organizational learning such as human resource development and management themes such as training and development.

It is not only important to have a CLO who can have vision and develop strategic plans, it is also sometimes required that they are able to generate revenue for the company through learning initiatives. The ability to generate income or save the company money is one of the main ways a CLO can add value to an organization. An easy trap that a CLO should be aware of is buying into so called “flavor of the month” programs. Just because one program works for a certain company doesn’t mean it’s a fit for your company. Learning platforms need to be based on the needs of the company, the capabilities of the workforce, the available budget, the company strategy and focus on the area where the company can get the best return on their investment. Just having training programs won’t cut it in today’s business environment, companies are realizing the need to be a continuous learning company. This is why CLOs are becoming critical to the success of companies. There is no business wide norm as to who a CLO reports to. Instead it depends on the size of the company, the level at which senior executives place learning, and the CLO’s ability to relay the need to be involved in setting goals and objectives for the company. The CLO title does not automatically imply involvement in strategic decision-making; however, CLOs typically work with senior executives and in most cases have direct contact with the CEO. The contact may be a formal reporting relationship or else an informal communication based upon a particular learning initiative. The closer the alignment with the CEO, the more flexibility a CLO typically has with potential resources. If there is a perceived link between the CEO and the CLO, then the CLO has much more organizational freedom to experiment because the more visible the reporting relationship is with senior management, the more space and opportunity there is for the CLO to try new approaches and initiatives. Resources may be more easily secured and funding may not be a question as the request is being originated from the boardroom. However, not all CLOs are afforded the opportunity to report directly to the CEO. Chief Learning Officers may report to a human resources executive which may not necessarily limit their influence or capabilities, but it does place the CLO at least one rung down on the organization chart from other C-level roles. That one rung may mean that the CLO does not have direct access to information, goals and strategies regarding the organization. Resources may not be as readily available and the CLO may spend more time trying to acquire support for initiatives and learning objectives. The alignment of learning initiatives and corporate strategy may not be at the forefront of the company’s goals. Although the title of CLO implies strategic influence, it is not always the case.

The impact a Chief Learning Officer can have on an organization is tremendous; as long as they can overcome the many challenges CLOs face due to the fact they are a relatively new part of the executive management team. A successful CLO can link learning functions to the strategic objectives of the company, which in turn moves the company closer to achieving overall success in terms of profitability, growth, retention and adaptability. Financial success for shareholders, executives and employees is often the goal and mission of a company. However, the added value that a Chief Learning Officer can bring to a company includes improved employee satisfaction, commitment, knowledge, responsiveness, innovation and quality. By focusing on becoming a learning organization the company can often become more efficient regarding talent management and knowledge management via increased employee retention and recruiting. Experienced employees and talented new hires are better equipped to perform their jobs successfully because they have the opportunity to develop knowledge, skills and abilities through various programs and initiatives that a CLO may put into place. This results in a more efficient, streamlined, focused and driven organization that is better equipped to meet its current and future goals and is therefore more effective. Another way to show how a Chief Learning Officer creates increased organizational effectiveness is to look at the situation from another perspective.

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