The power and potential of a chief learning officer

KPMG’s CLO exemplifies role
By Ellen Gardner
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/06/2011

Whatever you choose to call them — chief learning officers (CLOs), chief talent officers (CTOs), directors or vice-presidents of learning — their task is easier said than done. They work to build a bridge between key business objectives and the new competencies needed to both meet those demands and support strong business performance.

David Connal, CLO at KPMG Canada in Toronto, has had considerable success in his career and his experiences illustrate the power and potential of a CLO. For one, Connal’s background gives him a unique perspective — he has an MBA and a bachelor of education.

“Having that dual lens is critical for developing learning opportunities that are compelling and, more importantly, are tied into business objectives,” he says.

Connal joined KPMG in May 2010, having developed learning programs in numerous organizational environments. But his new employer envisioned a more centralized model of learning with learning and development directly aligned to the business strategy.

“It looked like an exhilarating challenge,” he says.

Making changes to an institutional learning culture was not a new experience for Connal. As director of organizational development and training at Atomic Energy of Canada, he led a team that was moving towards a centralized learning model. And at Bell Canada, as director of organizational effectiveness and learning, Connal was positioned within a 3,500-employee business unit.

“My goal in all these jobs, and the goal of most CLOs, is to design and produce learning programs that lead to real business results,” he says.

One of Connal’s first hurdles in creating the KPMG Business School (referred to within the firm as KBS) was rebalancing the learning model to include a change management strategy.

“Like many companies, most of the learning accountability was sitting within the functions because the primary focus was creating strong technical practitioners,” he says.

Another key focus was challenging traditional learning assumptions. Formal classroom training is only one component of an effective learning strategy. Employee growth is now achieved through many different learning experiences — including informal networks, on-the-job assignments, e-learning, online communities of interest, coaching and mentoring.

Connal is keen to create a robust learning environment that incorporates all those elements.

“I’m very inspired by the self-directed learning culture that already exists here,” he says. “We just want to take it to the next level where we embed actual application projects and on-the-job experiences along with coaching and mentoring.”

Getting leadership on board

From the beginning, Connal knew the success of the school was contingent on the active and ongoing involvement of the firm’s leadership.

“The vision for KBS was a governance approach that engages key leaders as advisors in determining skill development priorities across the firm,” he says.

The vision and strategy for the school began with extensive leadership consultations, culminating in the creation of a governing council. With Connal as chair, the council has representation from all areas of the business, as well as individuals representing business acumen, industry knowledge and leadership. At a high level, the council is charged with aggregating all the needs of the business and recommending solutions that will close the gaps.

At a more fundamental level, the council is concentrating on finding ways to make sure the learning transfer takes place at KPMG.

“After a training experience, the learning must continue,” says Connal. “We need to equip performance managers with the skills to coach their employees, mentor them and give them assignments that build their skills.”

“Learning does not occur in a black box and is not a panacea to creating engaged and effective employees,” he says. “It requires a commitment from both employees and performance managers.”

A CLO must ensure there is a transfer of learning back to the job.

“Even the most innovative training program would be considered ineffective if employees fail to practise their improved skills in the field,” says Connal. “If we don’t create the opportunities for them to apply their learning, it will quickly fade, destroying any gains achieved through training.”

To that end, the training provided by KBS is accompanied by proactive followup support that reinforces key concepts and creates opportunities for employees to hone their newly acquired skills.

Connal and the governing council have embraced a performance-based model of learning, one they refer to as Learning Paths. It is a role-specific development planning tool that provides a behavioural description of the performance an employee should achieve, as well as the learning activities needed to develop required skills. The paths also highlight what constitutes best practices on the job.

“We went to the top people and asked, ‘What does good look like?’ and ‘What skills are needed to deliver the best performance result?’” says Connal. “Their answers helped us create role-based learning paths that we hope guide employees to professional success.”

It’s also hoped the school will help employees feel like they’re part of a team that’s fun to work with and produces results they are proud of.

“Our vision is for the school to be a unifying place, something that pulls us all together and makes staff feel connected to each other and to the firm,” he says.

That is why the evolution of the school is a multi-year challenge, says Connal.

“How do we encourage that connection? How do we generate engagement and make KBS a place where everyone can go to share and develop ideas? We’ve created a great framework but that’s just the beginning,” he says. “We’re growing something new and it’s very exciting.”

Ellen Gardner is in communication services at KPMG Canada in Toronto. She can be reached at For more information, visit

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