In 1989, GE CEO Jack Welch created the chief learning officer (CLO) role for Steve Kerr, then a consultant for the company. Since then, many organizations have promoted or hired professionals to lead learning and development for the company. In the last 29 years, though, the role has changed as business has changed – quickly and quite a lot.

Digital Transformation and the CLO

“The digital revolution,” says Dr. Sydney Savion, CLO of Air New Zealand, “has seen a demand for learning to operate in the flow of an employee’s daily work life, along with a need to truly empower employees to get skills on demand.” Because of these changes, the role of the CLO “has evolved from traditionally focusing on corporate training programs to becoming more of a strategic business partner to deliver measurable learning solutions that align to business goals.”

Similarly, says Pat Lynch, vice president of enablement excellence and innovation for MindTickle, “data analytics have now allowed the marketplace to start to hold CLOs accountable for an ROI.” Lynch likens this evolution to the changes in the role of the chief marketing officer, which changed with the rise of marketing automation software. When the success and business impact of marketing could be tracked with technology, the chief marketing officer’s impact on business could also be measured, and the role became a more strategic part of the C-suite. With better learning management technologies, the same is now true of the CLO. “We’re in a perfect position to cross that great divide from legacy management systems to digital transformation,” Lynch says, “where [CLOs] can actually start to look at an ROI based on outcomes.”

The CLO is now “more purpose-driven and woven into the fabric of business decisions,” says Savion, as organizations understand that having “a strong learning culture” can provide a huge competitive advantage. As a result, CLOs need to be able to lead learning like a business. To be a strategic business partner, Savion says they need three key skills: learning agility, emotional intelligence and cultural dexterity. They need to be able to “understand the connections and dependencies across all dimensions: technology, demographics, the contingent workforce, increasing global economy and the implications to the business.” They must be able to manage all of the C-suite’s constituencies – employees, customers and the business itself – and “continue to be a good steward of human capital.” In short, they need to be true leaders.

What’s Next?

As millennials become an increasing majority of the workforce and Generation Z enters in higher numbers, Lynch says the role of the CLO will change accordingly. These younger employees don’t respond to “old ways of learning.” Instead, they thrive on continuous, on-the-job learning “as the seller sells, or as the marketer markets, or as the product developer develops a product.” This, Lynch says, is “a completely radical paradigm shift” in how learning happens and, therefore, how it is managed. CLOs need to adjust accordingly, which means, Savion says, delivering “the capabilities and skills necessary when and where they are needed to adapt to the new realities of this digital era.”

“You can train an animal,” Lynch adds, “but you can enable a person.” He calls on CLOs to shift their thinking from simply transmitting skills to “enable and empower the person” to achieve the outcomes the business is looking for. In light of this shift, CLOs must have a vision in alignment with the CEO’s vision – which should be “a culture of ongoing learning and continuous process improvement.”

If an organization isn’t learning, it isn’t performing. It’s the CLO’s role to use the data and technology available today to make that happen.