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Chief Learning Officers

October 31, 2002
Related Topics: Training Technology, Behavioral Training, Strategic Planning, Featured Article
Earlier this year, the medical device company Guidant Corporation decided topromote a longtime employee to the title of vice president, employeedevelopment, the equivalent of a chief learning officer, or CLO. TheIndianapolis company’s executive staff thought that the time was right tobetter organize training and developmental opportunities and match them moreclosely with the business goals of the organization, as well as offer employeesa map for reaching their own career aspirations.

    "We felt we could be better at telling employees, when they start here, howthey can grow and develop professionally," says Barbara Reindl, vice presidentof the St. Paul-based Cardiac Rhythm Management Group, Guidant’s largestdivision.

    "We get many employees who just got out of college and want to have an ideaof what kind of career they can have at Guidant," she says. "We want to beable to say, ‘This is the curriculum if you want to be a manager.’ We’dreally love to create a feeling among new hires that they’re joining alearning organization, but it’s not as well marketed here as it is at Motorolaand other learning organizations."

    Susan Norton, who became head of employee development in August, has beguntalking to divisional vice presidents about their training and development needsand how they should be strategically organized to meet business challenges.

    One of Norton’s discussions resulted in the creation of a three-dayworkshop where Guidant managers from around the world had an opportunity to hearsenior executives address leadership issues, network among themselves, and spendtheir evenings informally talking with other managers from all levels of thecompany. Guidant has held the workshops in Brussels, St. Paul, and California,and has received positive comments from managers about the program.

Building a learning environment
    The first goal of Norton and other CLOs is to encourage their employers toinvestigate what competencies will make them successful and then aligndevelopment programs with their strategic objectives. The next step is to createan environment in which that learning is readily available to employees and totry to determine what return on investment can be measured after learningoccurs.

    CLOs say that they identify needs through interviews with managers andexecutives, with the underlying premise that matching business objectives withdesired competencies among employees will lead to greater productivity. It’sless about having everyone take a PowerPoint class and more about leadingemployees to the right courseware or college course they can take locally oronline.

    Additionally, CLOs say they’re often assigned the task of remakingclassroom-oriented training departments--sometimes called "universities"--intoblended learning environments in which online courses take a front seat toclassroom instruction. Other objectives range from helping management withsuccession planning and team-building to creating opportunities for conferenceswhere internal business leaders can gain a deeper knowledge of what corporateheadquarters has in store for the company.

    Driving the CLO movement is one crucial business goal--saving money. At XeroxCorporation in Stamford, Connecticut, CLO Tim Conlon says that by simplycentralizing contracts with various educational vendors, especially in thee-learning market, he managed to save the company millions of dollars. Part ofthe company's goal was to move away from classroom teaching at its fabled XeroxUniversity and into an e-learning environment. The company saved money byreducing classroom instruction and cutting down the number of contracts it had,often with the same vendors.

    As the speed of business grows ever faster, keeping employees in the learningloop will keep Xerox competitive, Conlon says, an attitude largely shared byother CLOs. "Companies are realizing they’re having to do more with less,and the only way they’re going to do that is by restructuring or retraining,or both," says Tim Sosbe, editorial director of the just-launched ChiefLearning Officer magazine. "It’s all about education and workforcedevelopment."

Long-term thinking
    A learning environment helps with retention, especially among younger employees accustomed to a lifestyle in which creativity and learning are valued, two traits they would like to see valued by their employers, too. "Employers have begun looking at employees who could have a lifetime career with them and thinking, ‘How do we keep them performing and growing and developing as the years march on?’ " Sosbe says. "Companies are thinking more about having long-term employees because it’s expensive to hire and fire employees."

    Although the head of learning at most companies operates as a part of humanresources, the concept of making human capital a "c-level" (CEO, CFO, COO)position certainly has appeal, says Allison Rossett, professor of educationaltechnology at San Diego State University and an e-learning expert.

    Just as the importance of information technology led to the creation of chiefinformation officers, or CIOs, so too would the proponents of learning like "tobe at the strategic table," she says. CLOs still work within the HRdepartment, but giving it a special cachet elevates the title.

    Within the corporate structure, CLOs do not always get every piece of theeducational pie, says Conlon, who meets twice a year in a forum with othernationally regarded CLOs. Within Xerox, for example, he handles Web-basedlearning and executive development, but does not oversee the university.Individual departments have funds they can use to obtain specialized trainingoutside the company, if they so choose.

Turning novices into experts
    Most CLOs start their jobs with a large and challenging assignment before moving on to smaller tasks. When George Selix joined the real-estate franchiser Century 21 to serve as senior vice president and CLO more than two and a half years ago, he had the challenge of transforming the training operation by reducing costs and increasing per-agent commissions and retention. The retention part of it was a difficult roadblock to overcome in an industry where more than half of the first-year hires head for the exit after failing to earn much of a living.

    The first order of business was replacing an on-site lecture-based trainingprogram with a mix of live e-learning and classroom instruction, often receivedby agents through a conference feed transmitted on the Web. The training becamean intensive six-week course involving 120 hours of instruction, with 24 hoursin the live, online classroom, 40 hours of self-directed learning, and 50 hoursof income-producing homework. Students learn how to work with buyers andsellers, how to build client databases, which technologies work with differentclients, and what real estate knowledge they will need to work as agents.

    After a year under the new system of computer-based training and liveinstruction, attrition dropped to just 15 percent of new enrollees andcommissions closed by new agents jumped 16 percent. Selix continues to refinethe franchisee instructional program while also developing a competency-mappingprogram for Century 21 employees to determine and close enterprise-wideknowledge gaps. By 2004, he’d like to roll out a learning program directed atbuilding specific competencies throughout the supply chain, including consumers,who would have access to online material about the buying and selling process.

    "For a CLO, it all comes down to transferring knowledge and skills topeople who don’t have them," he says. "There are experts and novices, andyou have to transfer knowledge in such a way that the novices get the knowledgeand skills they need to perform like an expert."

Teaching business literacy
    Just a year before Selix joined Century 21, former General Electric executiveBill Kline became Delta’s CLO. Assigned to "develop a vision and strategyaround learning" for the company’s six distinct divisions--pilots,reservation representatives, flight attendants, and so forth--Kline first had tolearn about the training that already existed.

    First, he created a Global Learning Council, with representatives from eachdivision, and he asked those representatives to identify training needs. Usinginput from the council, he organized a training program for each division thatwould enhance employee performance. At the corporate level, he established a"learning services organization" to offer leadership development,succession planning, and talent-management programs.

    As part of Delta’s recovery efforts after 9/11, the Learning ServicesOrganization designed and developed a business literacy initiative. Kline thisyear unveiled the $2 million program, "Our Airline, Our Business," inwhich employees role-play and make decisions based on Delta’s financial data.It’s become a huge hit. Since May 1, 1,300 employees a week have gone throughthe program, which has trained more than 28,000 employees (as of October 27) inthe fundamentals of business literacy.

    Now Delta’s managers routinely share the company’s financial reports withemployees, ensuring that the knowledge gained will not go unused.

    Unlike some other CLOs, Kline is less concerned about career mapping, sincemost of the airline's hourly employees stay in the division they joinedinitially--flight attendants typically do not aspire to marketing positions, andmechanics generally don’t want an eventual career in HR. Rather, he’sensuring that the company has clear job descriptions and has spelled outtraining and development requirements for salaried and management positionsthrough competency models.

    Says Kline: "We’re developing a learning system where employees can learnand grow to continually improve individual, team, and operational-unitperformance and realize their career aspirations."

A company "willing to invest"
    Figuring out whether training really does pay off is a perpetual struggle forHR departments, even though executives are demanding it. Jim L’Allier, CLO forNETg, a provider of blended e-learning solutions, says it is "a duty of a CLOto establish high-level metrics to determine whether or not a knowledge gap isclosed" after putting employees through a training program. Looking at thecost of training and determining the results in monetary terms will helpcompanies see which educational efforts pay off.

    Not every CLO can describe precisely how each training effort paid off. Yet L’Allierhas examples of how NETg arrives at ROI through a rigorous formula. Recently, anairline wanted to downsize training for its already reduced informationtechnology workforce, but L’Allier convinced it that a better-trainedworkforce could increase productivity and reduce costs during a cash-crunchtime. He showed how the training on specific IT tools would save employeesseveral hours a week and therefore save the company money.

    The estimated $778,000 in savings against a cost of $321,000 for the trainingprogram revealed a 142 percent ROI that could be paid back in 2.6 months, says L’Allier."It allowed that department head to defend his budget and not cut trainingbecause of the loss of people," he says. "When you lose people, you need todo more with less. You need to invest more in training to make up for the lossof individuals you had to sever from the organization."

    Still, ROI is an ongoing process. When Xerox’s Conlon unveiled a Web-basedlearning system with more than 2,000 courses this year, he wanted to see atleast 35 to 40 percent of the company’s employees participate in a course. "That’sa terrible goal because it doesn’t really tell you anything," he concedes."But three years out, when I see that employees are getting to the tools, thenI can begin to put services in place where I can test if the quality of thecontent is good and if it is getting to the right people."

    Though some CLOs are being chosen now to navigate their companies through atime of cutbacks in employees and training, Guidant’s move comes at a time ofgreat growth for the company and for the medical technology industry, among thefew bright lights in the economy. As Norton pushes forward, the company'seducational programs build skills and assist employees and managers withunderstanding corporate goals. Two recent programs help employees learn moreabout Guidant’s complex products and teach managers the finer points ofleadership, communicating with groups, and performance management.

    They’re not about doing more with less. They’re about educating employeesto do their jobs better.

    "This is a company that I see is willing to invest in employees, personallyand professionally," Norton says. "The last thing you want to see in acompany is a status quo mode, where people aren’t developing. Those companieswon’t attract talent in the future."

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