The new chief on the block

CLO should focus on business results, not just training
By Scott Williams
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/24/2007

A chief learning officer (CLO) worthy of the C-suite is more than a specialist in the realization of human potential and senior advocate of learning and skill development. A CLO must be about three things: Business results, performance accountability and organizational transformation.

Learning for the sake of learning may be a valued commodity, but that view belongs in academia. In the corporate world, learning isn’t an end in itself. Instead, learning and skill development are points of leverage on the way to achieving organizational objectives.

Learning outcomes must be tied to business results, so each learning initiative needs a bottom line — a desired behaviour, outcome or result. Bottom-line results are not necessarily financial, measured in terms of revenue or profit, but must be tied to business objectives. A non-financial objective in the private sector might be to reduce an organization’s environmental footprint or to increase an organization’s community involvement. Non-financial measures in the public sector might include hospital wait times, military effectiveness, environmental controls or public safety and security.

It’s important to note, however, that very often a non-financial measure actually has an underlying financial goal. A leadership initiative aimed at improving employee retention, for example, could really be aimed at increasing profitability by improving productivity.

The primary point of leverage for the CLO in achieving business results is the talent of the people in the organization. A clear purpose aligned with supporting processes and capable people who can adapt and perform across the whole organization are essential to an organization reaching the next level of performance.

The CLO is accountable for ensuring the organization has both the capability and capacity to achieve its objectives. That means working with line managers to understand the needs of the organization, and with talent management and HR professionals to align recruiting, onboarding and skill development initiatives to meet those needs.

The fact the position of CLO is an executive-level role is crucial. To be effective, the CLO will not simply provide input to executive-level decisions but be intimately involved in the decision-making process itself. The CLO is not responsible for creating or implementing processes, for example, but must work with those designing processes to ensure the organization is capable of supporting them — aligning process changes with the talent of the organization and creating skill development initiatives to fill performance gaps.

The CLO, therefore, must be keenly attuned to the needs of the organization and employees and facilitate the change and transformation deemed necessary by the organization.

A successful chief executive officer is one who believes in the talent of the organization, who believes employees are indeed the organization’s most important asset and who believes in the capability and capacity of the organization to facilitate change. Such a CEO will want learning and skill development represented on the executive team.

The CLO, in turn, will only gain traction at the executive level if she is able to command the respect of colleagues, becoming a value-added partner to them in achieving their own goals. That could mean partnering with an executive vice-president of sales to improve onboarding of new account reps to reduce their time-to-competency, or partnering with a chief financial officer to identify root causes of poor financial judgements made by divisional managers. A CLO not able to add value will be quickly sidelined.

The temptation for any organization is to find a learning specialist who has a passion for the business, but the CLO position demands a strong, well-rounded business person who has a passion for learning and development.

This candidate not only possesses strong business acumen and understanding, but also has the requisite skills and experience that encompass all major functions of the organization.

Organizations that are content with the status quo do not need a CLO. However, change is inevitable and stagnation is really only a proxy for decline.

Organizations that want to meet and overcome current and future challenges need an individual at the executive level accountable for preparing employees for that change — equipping employees to not only survive, but thrive.

Scott Williams is the chief learning officer of Nexient Learning Inc., a Sydney, N.S.-based corporate training and consulting company. For more information, visit www.nexientlearning.com.

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