Meet the New Chief Learning Officers; CLOs: What They Know, What They Do, How to Become One

By Bonner, Dede; Wagner, Stacey | T&D, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Meet the New Chief Learning Officers; CLOs: What They Know, What They Do, How to Become One


Bonner, Dede, Wagner, Stacey, T&D


The new learning leaders have arrived, and they will not be denied. They mean business because that's what it's all about--meeting business needs--and they will change the way you think about learning and performance. They're high octane and hard-charging, and they're moving into your neighborhood--now. Meet the first generation of chief learning officers.

CLO positions are predicted to grow in number and stature in the near future. A March 2000 report by the Conference Board found that although only 6 percent of the companies surveyed had integrated learning functions, 60 percent planned to extend those programs company-wide within five years. In a recent ASTD Learning Link online survey, 22 percent of respondents said their organization has someone who functions as the chief learning officer.

Six to seven years ago, only a handful of CLOs existed, says Gary Barton, founding partner of Barton Associates, an executive search firm in Houston. Now, finding a CLO is easier. Hundreds of people understand the CLO role and are qualified to fill it, estimates Barton. There's also greater demand for leaders who can provide a strategic vision for workforce development and execute it.

If content is king, intellectual capital is the emperor. Two research studies, one by ASTD in 2000, and another released in January 2002 by Watson Wyatt, demonstrate a correlation between the investments of companies in HR and training and their increased shareholder value. That's the knowledge economy talking, and business executives are listening.

In "Report on the American Workforce" (January 2001) * www.bls.gov/opub/rtaw/message.htm Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao says, "Ultimately, [business leaders] will make our training programs the venture capital for the 21st century workforce." She's saying that along with CEOs, CFOs, and COOs, chief learning officers will be among those people responsible for the development and deployment of their organizations' human capital and are already being recognized as corporate leaders for linking business needs to performance strategies, thus enhancing individual and organizational productivity.

Becoming a CLO

So, what is the job of a chief learning officer and how do executives become one?

In Action: Leading Knowledge Management and Learning, by Jack Phillips and Dede Bonner (ASTD Press, 2000), examines best-practice studies of the earliest CLOs. Those pioneer CLOs describe their work as

* aligning or integrating diverse groups or diverse functions

* developing a culture for organizational learning, continuous learning, or knowledge management

* identifying critical areas for improvement or conducting needs analyses

* contributing or managing the capture, share, and retention of knowledge-content activities

* leveraging corporate-wide learning or knowledge development and maintaining relationships with senior managers

* conducting strategic planning and implementation

* uncovering best practices and benchmarking

* being a visionary or champion for organizational learning and knowledge management.

That list provides an umbrella description of typical CLO responsibilities, but each of the 15 CLOs we interviewed for this article said that they didn't have a formal job description and that they either created the role themselves or their CLO jobs evolved over time to encompass expanding responsibilities. When asked to describe a typical work day, each CLO said there is no typical day and that's one of the things they love about their jobs. Whether they were recruited or found within their organizations, all of the CLOs we talked with agree that having diverse skills and a visionary perspective are musts.

The CLOs we interviewed have backgrounds in learning, training, education, human resources, business ownership, sales, and marketing. …

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