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For Some Chief Learning Officers, One of the Goals is Job Insecurity

Some chief learning officers believe they're most successful when learning is so much a part of the organization that their role is no longer necessary.

October 3, 2003
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Career Development, Basic Skills Training, Employee Career Development

John Coné retired as Dell’s chief learning officer in August of 2001, but the company never replaced him. It wasn’t because the CLO position is a passing concept. It was because Coné believed that his work as the CLO was done.

    He’d been with Dell since 1995, and was given the official title of CLO in 1999, although he says that he really always worked in that capacity. His job was to define the policies and infrastructure that would make Dell a distributed learning organization where employees have access to training whenever and wherever they need it. Ultimately, that meant making learning such an inherent part of how they did their jobs that it became an unremarkable event in employees’ lives, he says.

    He achieved that goal in part by making training a necessary piece of every new-product release. "We wanted training to be a natural part of the development process," he says. Today, new products at Dell don’t move forward unless the necessary training for the product release is in place and deployed. Since Dell comes out with thousands of new products every year, training quickly became a constant in employees’ lives.

    During his six years at the company, Coné also oversaw the organization’s vast e-learning program. His team transformed more than 90 percent of the company’s learning content to technology-based formats, putting employees in control of their own learning, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "Learners must be in a position to make decisions about what they need to know based on job requirements, company expectations and skills assessments," he says. "When learning is technology-based, whenever employees are ready to learn, they have access to the content."

    Admittedly, Coné is not sure if he was successful in making learning a permanent part of the culture at Dell. The traditional measures for training success, including the number of hours people are in training, executive involvement and the percentage of payroll dedicated to learning, show that his efforts are still going strong, but it’s been only two years. "I don’t know if the ideas are deep enough in the fabric of the culture to survive long-term."

    Whether or not he was successful, however, he believes that the ultimate goal of all CLOs should be to put themselves out of a job. "When responsibility for learning is integrated across the organization, you don’t need a CLO," he says. "The job becomes redundant."

What happened to the CLO
    The idea that this is a temporary role could explain the difficulty of determining how many CLOs are out there. A January 2003 article inThe Wall Street Journal ("Learning Gurus Adapt to Escape Corporate Axes") stated that the number of CLOs in Fortune 500 companies had dropped by 20 percent since the mid-1990s, suggesting that the bad economy had caused some businesses to scrap the position. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that at many companies, the CLO position has only been established in the last three years, and that the number of CLOs in large companies actually is growing.

    Further undermining the accuracy of the data is the fact that many people who fill this role have different titles, says Steve Kerr, the CLO of Goldman Sachs since 2001. Kerr was dubbed "the first CLO" when he created the position at General Electric in 1994, but says he wasn’t the first person to fulfill the CLO duties. "There were others doing it before me, but we came up with the title," he says, noting that initially he suggested the title chief education officer, but Jack Welch, president and CEO of GE at the time, felt that "one CEO at the company is enough."

    In companies that don’t have CLOs, chief knowledge officers often have similar responsibilities—to break down knowledge-sharing barriers and create learning opportunities. CEOs, directors of learning and vice presidents of education also have been known to take on those duties. In other cases, heads of learning are named CLOs but not given the power and strategic responsibility that typically go with the role.

    Whatever the title, a true CLO is the person held accountable for how learning is developed and implemented throughout an organization, says Karl Wiig, a senior consultant at Cutter Consortium, an information technology consultancy in Boston. "The CLO looks at learning with a strategic perspective and creates knowledge-sharing opportunities so that everyone benefits from the best practices within the business." Not every company should have a CLO, he adds. Reactive companies that are focused on short-term gains such as meeting consistent quotas on established product lines but have no intention of changing the business don’t require someone in that position. However, proactive organizations that expect and plan for change, such as adding product lines, altering the sales cycle or expanding, need a CLO to make sure the workforce has the information and skills it needs to move forward. "In a proactive company it’s essential to constantly bring in new ideas and push people forward."

    Kerr concurs. "Every organization needs ideas from the outside," he says. Finding new concepts and sharing them with the workforce in ways that are relevant to their needs has always been one of his primary tasks, at both organizations. "The ideas have to be universally applicable or people will put up barriers," he says. CLOs have to break down those barriers so that people can see how new concepts can work for them.

"Part of my job is to make people independent of me through self-sustaining systems. In that sense, maybe my job is to build structures that will replace me, but since business is always evolving, so does my role and the systems I build."

    With that in mind, Kerr isn’t sure whether the CLO position should be temporary. "You can’t succeed without new ideas, so elements of the job will always be there." But, he admits, the role of the CLO may change. "Part of my job is to make people independent of me through self-sustaining systems. In that sense, maybe my job is to build structures that will replace me, but since business is always evolving, so does my role and the systems I build."

    He imagines that after he leaves, the role could be filled by a rotating series of retired professors who could offer objective perspectives on the business strategies of the organization. "There is value to having someone from the outside look at your methods, to tell you what’s worth bringing in and what’s worth phasing out," he says.

Some are here to stay
    Not all CLOs see themselves as temporary fixtures. Many believe that if organizations are going to continue to evolve, they will always need a champ-ion of learning to shepherd them through that process. T. J. Elliott, the CLO of ETS, an educational services company in Princeton, New Jersey, sees himself as a permanent part of the strategic hierarchy. "Organizations that pay attention to learning and knowledge sharing have the competitive advantage," he says. "That isn’t going to change."

    Since he took the job in 2002, Elliott’s foremost goal has been to push learning initiatives that have a measurable financial impact. He co-designed an action learning program that resulted in ETS’s directors launching more than 40 learning projects, including a sales program that targets teachers seeking certification, which has brought the company $2 million in revenue in 2003.

    At the same time he’s creating for-ums for project leaders to meet and collaborate on their efforts. "Some of these people had never met with each other before," he marvels. "Now they share their best-practice ideas, which benefits the whole business."

    Similarly, Pat Crull, the CLO of Toys "R" Us, thinks her position is solid. "As long as there are strong leaders who view learning as a critical function of the business, the CLO will be relevant." And while she agrees that a primary goal of any CLO is to make training an integral part of the culture, she doesn’t see it as a self-sustaining system. "It’s better to have a champion who can help training grow as the company grows," she says. "The goals of the CLO may change, but the role as a leader in the business will not."

The CLO expiration date
    Even if companies do see the role of CLO as temporary, it could be years before they determine that the position should be dumped, Coné admits. "It depends on the state of the organization. You need the infrastructure to support learning and policies that incorporate training into the business function." He estimates that there may be only dozens of companies that have the training content established and a strong enough belief in the need for learning to survive without a CLO, and thousands more that are nowhere near ready. "It could take some companies three years, and others 20."

    Wiig thinks CLOs will be history in 20 years. He compares the CLO transition to the Total Quality Management movement of the 1980s. Quality officers helped businesses see that excellence was everyone’s responsibility. The CLO is doing the same for learning, he says. "Eventually, learning will become a natural part of the job. When that happens, the CLO will be unnecessary."

Workforce Management, October 2003, pp. 79-81 -- Subscribe Now!

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