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The Transforming Role of the Chief Learning Officer

By Wilhelm Crous

The dynamic and fast-changing environment impacting the world of work calls for new approaches from learning and development departments, and specifically the leaders of these departments.

In the latest issue of Harvard Business Review, Abbie Lundberg and George Westerman, discuss how L&D departments should transform in order to meet these changing organisational demands.

There no doubt, going forward, CLOs will need to play a more powerful role in reshaping capabilities and organisational culture. However, the authors’ research shows CLOs should drive three principal types of change in their organisations:

1. Transforming the organisation’s learning goals

Shift the focus from skills development to the development of mindsets and capabilities that will help workers perform better and adapt more smoothly in the future. Amongst others, it means reshaping leadership development. Standard Chartered’s global Head of Leadership Effectiveness and Organisation Development, Ewan Clark, suggests: “Articulate a hypothesis. Go out and experiment. And if it doesn’t work, then why not? What did you learn? Add to it. Capture your learning. Share it with other people.” It’s also important to concentrate more on capabilities and not only on competence. CLOs should focus less on teaching currently-needed skills and more on developing mindsets and behaviours that can enable employees to perform well in tasks that may not yet be defined. This shift may mean moving away from comprehensive skills inventories and competence maps (which can lead people to check boxes rather than build capabilities).

2. Transforming learning methods

More employees should be peer teachers, which would greatly expand the number of trainers and expert content developers within an organisation. This, in combination with digital instruction, would expand the reach of learning opportunities amongst employees.

CLOs should focus on the personalisation, digitisation and atomisation of learning. Attention should shift from specific courses to whole learning experiences. These learning experiences can take place wherever they happen to be, geographically, temporarily or intellectually.

There should also be a balance of face-to-face and digital learning. As engaging and effective as digital learning experiences can be, face-to-face learning is still important. “There is no substitute for getting people together in cohorts that are cross-cultural and cross-functional.” Accenture for example, has created more than 90 ‘connected classrooms’ around the world. Here people are still experiencing face-to-face learning thanks to video conferencing and other interactive technologies, no matter where they are in the world. Teams can now globally coach one another and solve problems together.

3. Transforming learning departments

CLOs are redesigning their departments to be smaller, nimbler, and more strategic. Instead of simply taking requests and providing training for specific skills, they’re teaming up with leaders of other business units to dramatically improve capabilities, performance, and even culture throughout the organisation. To support this new approach, CLOs are hiring learning strategists, experience designers, curators and software developers. They’re helping employees become to peer teachers, guides and coaches. And also they’re applying agile and lean start-up principles to better devise learning programmes.

In addition to the principles outlined above, it’s important to note it’s also important for Learning and Development departments to accurately measure the impact of their initiatives. The key to doing this is to use multiple means of measurement when analysing how learning contributes to the organisation’s overall strategy. (Dr Letitia van der Merwe will be hosting a one-day masterclass on how to design a digital learning strategy and digital learning measurement dashboard on 20 February 2020 in Johannesburg – you can learn more about this workshop here.)

As learning increasingly becomes a core part of the overall business strategy, it’s also vital to continuously upskill and even reskill Learning and Development practitioners. Getting ready for the digital age, becoming more evidence-based, collaborating more and learning from each other is all crucial in getting a handle on the demand for high-level skills in the country. This is one of the reasons why we developed the Learning and Development Community in 2018. This community gives L&D professionals the opportunity to tap into the experience of seasoned L&D professionals. It also helps them stay at the forefront of the latest learning trends, whilst unlocking REAL case studies and solutions to your greatest challenges at work. Organisations that have already joined this community include: Sun International, IBM, Cape Union Mart, Volkswagen, Absa, Sasol, Coca-Cola, Heineken, Tongaat-Hulett and more! If you’d like to also be part of this community in 2020 – you can join here.

This year, our focus at KR will also be on developing specialised workshops and programmes to help L&D practitioners to meet the changing needs of the new world of work. As a result, we’ll endeavour to bring international facilitators in to South Africa share their expertise. One of the first workshops we’re hosting in this regard is the Evidence-Informed Learning Design Workshop, which will take place on 1-2 April 2020 at the Ten Bompas Hotel in Rosebank. The workshop will be run by Mirjam Neelen, who currently leads the learning experience design process across Accenture’s various business entities globally. At this interactive workshop, she’ll show you how to improve your design approach (or help others to get better), design effective, efficient, and enjoyable learning experiences and use evidence-informed techniques, tools, and ingredients. You can learn more about this workshop – here.


Lundberg, A., & Westerman, G. (2020, January-February). The role of chief learning officer isn't just about training anymore. Harvard Business Review, pp. 85-93.

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