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What Is a Chief Learning Officer?

July 30, 2020 Leadership
By Dom Nicastro

Chief learning officers align learning strategy with business strategy, drive leadership development and corporate-wide change efforts and change the organizational learning and development (L&D) model. Or, at least that's the plan.

CLOs chose those top three desires when researchers at Chief Learning Officer magazine asked CLOs their aspirational career goals in 2018 (paywall). They call those ideas aspirational for a reason: It’s how CLOs want to carve their futures. But can they?

To better understand the mind of the CLO and how they arrived at those aspirations, we caught up with industry analysts to discuss the role: who they are, who they report to, their typical backgrounds and some other commonalities that shape them as L&D leaders in their organizations.

Defining the Chief Learning Officer Role

A chief learning officer is the C-suite executive with clear stewardship over maintaining a skilled and knowledgeable workforce, according to Dani Johnson, co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread Research.

CLOs operate in the senior-level domain and are responsible and accountable for driving the learning strategy of the organization, according to Con Sotidis, senior solutions consultant of Skillslive Learn and former learning and development executive with the Australian Taxation Office

“He or she needs to develop the learning vision,” Sotidis said. “He or she needs to articulate that vision, and he or she needs to ensure that vision continues to permeate throughout the organization. They define the right people around them, but they are the ones that are at the end accountable, and they live and die by how learning is perceived in the organization. They have a major role to play in the learning culture of the organization.”

Sotidis, based in Melbourne, Australia, noted that in his region, Asia-Pacific, organizations do not often use the term chief learning officer. Instead, you’ll find roles like:

  • Vice president of learning
  • Director of learning and development
  • Head of learning
  • Learning manager

The CLO title is more common outside APAC but it's nonetheless not unusual for the role to be called something else. In 2019, Chief Learning Officer researchers found a variety of titles:

  • Director, learning and development: 13.6%
  • Senior manager, learning and development: 9.7%
  • Director level (other): 8.4%
  • Chief learning officer: 7.8%
  • Head of learning and development: 7.5%

Titles with less than 5% of survey responses included chief human resources officer (CHRO), chief talent management officer, vice president (all other job titles) and learning architect. RedThread’s Johnson added she's seen director of learning and chief development officer. “This often depends on how important the organization has decided to make employee development,” Johnson said.

Related Article: Learning Experience Platforms Chart an Alternative Path to Skill Development

Who Does the CLO Generally Report to?

In most organizations, despite the title, CLOs report to CHROs who then generally report up through the CEO, according to Johnson. “In many cases,” she said, “this is done in order to ensure that people practices are aligned and that money associated with the people aspects of the business is consolidated.”

However, Johnson said her teams have seen interesting configurations where an organization’s business strategy factors into where a CLO reports. In some organizations, CLOs are not reporting through human resources, and instead report through different structures depending on how learning and employee development is seen in those particular organizations.

“So if digital transformation is really important to the organization,” Johnson said, “the CLO and learning structure reports up through tech in order to give it a jump start: priorities, necessary technologies, etc. become much easier with a tech lead vs. an HR lead.”

The same goes for strategy. If employee development is seen as a strategic imperative, a CLO reporting through strategy more closely aligns employee development activities with strategic moves (e.g., identifying and developing important future strategic skills).

“It doesn’t happen often,” Johnson noted. “Those two examples are rare in the world of employee development.”

Furthermore, she finds, some organizations pull learning and development out as its own organization and have it report directly to the CLO. “This seems to be happening slightly more often in recent years,” Johnson said.

A Direct Line to the CEO?

Sotidis said organizations rarely include a direct line between a CLO and a CEO, chairman, president or board director. Rather, there would be, he said, a layer between them, as Johnson also pointed out. However, Sotidis said, CLOs should have some direct alignment and visibility from a role like president or CEO.

“They usually belong to the people and culture branch,” Sotidis said. “They'll report to a head of people and culture, or head of human resources.”

Some CLOs do have visibility with the no. 1 executive in an organization, and then some. In fact, 25.8% of CLOs told Chief Learning Officer researchers they do report to the CEO. That was second behind reporting to the CHRO (27.8%). Another 6.9% report to the chief operating officer while 2.6% answer to the chief talent management officer.

Related Article: Establish KPIs for Your Learning Management System

Who Is on a CLO’s Team?

Learning and development teams are changing, according to Johnson. Traditionally, she said, they largely composed facilitators and instructional designers. According to Johnson, CLOs are commonly working with new roles and skills among employees such as data analyst, marketing communications manager, community manager, product manager, IT liaison and learning path creator.

CLOs are on the right track if they have direct alignment and support of business leaders across an organization, according to Sotidis. Although they may not directly be learning and development team members, Sotidis said working in partnership with business leaders is a primary function of a CLO.

“It’s a working partnership with business,” he said. “You cannot live alone. You cannot deliver learning as a director of learning or chief learning officer in a tiny little shell. You need to make sure the business is supporting you but also that you’re supporting the business needs.”

The CLO Career Path

A doctor’s path may be pretty typical: a lot of schooling, a lot of testing, a lot of competency certifications and years of learning under other doctors. What is the CLO’s path? Where do they come from and what's their educational background?

“Traditional CLOs have come up through the learning ranks, meaning that they usually have adult learning or HR backgrounds and educations,” Johnson said. “As the role continues to be more strategic, however, many organizations are looking at other backgrounds depending on their needs. We’ve seen CLOs with backgrounds and experience in marketing, technology, finance and operations.”

The “good ones,” Sotidis said, come with a great deal of business acumen. That, he said, supports a CLO and steers them into learning leadership roles. “Having said that,” he added, “it's quite common to have some qualifications to support you in understanding adult learning principles and how adults learn.”

Less than 20% of CLOs told Chief Learning Officer last year they felt certifications are relevant for their roles, with most (58.6%) saying they are relevant “to some extent.” Those certifications include:

  • SPHR (Senior Professional in Human Resources)
  • CPLP (Certified Professional in Learning and Performance)
  • PMP (Project Management Professional)
  • SHRM-SCP (SHRM-Senior Certified Professional)
  • PHR (Professional in Human Resources)
  • CID (Certified Instructional Designer)

Related Article: L&D Best Practices for Your Newly Remote Workforce

What Are a CLO’s Responsibilities?

CLO responsibilities vary widely by function but more often than not fall on a spectrum, according to Johnson. On the lower end, CLOs are responsible for ensuring employees complete compliance training and are able to perform certain job functions efficiently. On the higher end, those responsibilities expand to enabling the workforce to learn wherever and whenever.

“Organizations falling at the higher end often come to the realization that the learning function can’t possibly anticipate skills needed by the entire organization and instead, put systems and processes, technologies and access to content in place so that employees can learn as they need to,” she said.

CLOs must be good collaborators, have a strong sense of leadership, financial savvy, some level of familiarity with data analytics and a working knowledge of adult learning theory. Johnson does find the latter becoming less important. “More forward-thinking organizations,” she said, “are also adding skill requirements like complex problem-solving, strategic thinking, consulting, entrepreneurship, communications and marketing.”

CLOs and the Future: What's the Next Career Step?

As for the future, CLOs have their aspirations. They want to measure the impact of learning and continue to gain competency in learning strategies. They want to learn more about emerging learning technologies and become savvy in organizational development, change management and fostering organizational culture, according to Chief Learning Officer researchers.

Most (30.8%) see themselves staying in a CLO role, while some envision consulting (17.4%), thought leadership (15.8%) and landing in a CHRO role (7.7%).

“I’ve seen CLOs move into operational roles,” Sotidis said. “We don’t see them moving into CEO roles. But I've seen a lot move into that middle tier or the head of people and culture or the head of human resources.”


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