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Should you recruit a chief learning officer for your business?

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Many large companies have claimed that people are their greatest asset.

A new study by the University of St.Gallen shows that while senior managers rank executive learning and development (L&D) among the most critical success factors for long-term success, the vast majority of them consider executive L&D to be ineffective in their own firms. The most important reason is that the very top of organisations is insufficiently committed to driving executive L&D.

One manifestation of poor commitment is the lack of a dedicated, high-ranking learning steward in organisations. The St.Gallen Executive Education Report 2016 finds that only a small number of companies (17%) report having a chief learning officer (CLO). That holds for any designated position which combines comprehensive responsibilities and authorities regarding executive L&D questions, irrespective of whether or not the label ‘CLO’ is used.

Companies with CLOs are more innovative

The low CLO prevalence appears striking in light of the measurable impact a CLO generates. In fact, the St.Gallen report shows that the presence of a CLO – in combination with a committed top management team – is the single strongest predictor for executive L&D effectiveness, trumping any operational decision about for instance learning formats or instruments.

Firms with a CLO consider themselves more often an innovation front-runner in executive L&D, are more likely to unlock the full potential of their executive L&D and are better able to reach their primary business objectives.

What does a CLO actually do?

Employing a CLO is a crucial step in appreciating that executive L&D is a strategic challenge and that it has to be managed like one. In doing so, you are signalling the importance of L&D to your employees, across the organisation.

However, the report finds that the vast majority of CLOs perform operational tasks only. Three-quarters of CLOs primarily evaluate external providers of executive L&D or coordinate existing executive L&D initiatives. While an operational CLO is typically not a member of the top management team, such an officer may still have a direct reporting line to a top executive and thus influence executive L&D decision-making processes at the top level.

In the remaining firms, the CLO has more wide-ranging strategic or executive responsibilities, such as budget authority and/or the power to launch strategic L&D initiatives. Those executive CLOs are best equipped to effectively manage the ever more complex and demanding challenges around executive L&D. For example, respondents to the St.Gallen report particularly struggle with realising the promise of technology-based learning and increasing the marginal impact of L&D activities. 

Executive L&D must be prioritised

As a function, executive L&D receives growing importance in mastering these and other challenges, and the position of the CLO helps driving its specialisation and professionalisation. At the same time, merely appointing a CLO will obviously not do miracles.

CLOs are often found in companies where executive L&D has already received serious attention and where efforts have already been made in establishing an overarching learning architecture.

The St.Gallen Executive Education Report 2016 concludes that the most successful firms consider executive L&D as too important to delegate. Effective senior leader development requires top-level ownership and appointing a CLO will strengthen the genuine strategic focus on executive L&D.

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Winfried Ruigrok

By Winfried Ruigrok

Prof. Dr. Winfried Ruigrok is the dean of the Executive School of Management, Technology & Law at the University of St.Gallen.

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