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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Should your CEO be Chief Learning Officer … or should your CLO be the CEO?


I was intrigued by a short video discussion about reorganising work from Deloitte’s Center for the Edge entitled Chief Learning Officers will be the new leaders of organisations. 

In it Co-Chairmen of the Center, John Hagel and John Seely Brown, discuss how learning has become a leadership issue and the intriguing prospect of Chief Learning Officers taking – first of all – a seat on the board and, latterly becoming the CEO of major corporations.

There are two really interesting and refreshing features of this discussion. The first is that the Deloitte Center for the Edge – a team within global professional services firm Deloitte which undertakes research in order to help senior executives make sense of technological and societal shifts - is clearly of the opinion that learning and capability development really matters.  As John Seely Brown says in the video:  “How to accelerate learning becomes the dominant driver for success… in the hyper competitive world in which we are living.”

His colleague John Hagel agrees: “Scalable learning becomes the critical factor for success”.  Let’s not forget that Deloitte is primarily known as an accountancy business.  If the number crunchers are saying these things, this should be a day of celebration.  That a well-respected, research driven organisation should be underlining the importance of training and learning for future success can only be viewed by those of us in L&D as A Good Thing.

The second interesting and refreshing idea is that the business of learning should be high on the agenda of every senior leader.  As John Seely Brown puts it: “The board is there to manage risk.  Today’s risks come from the lack of accelerated learning more than anything else.”

I have long argued that learning, capability development and competence should be of crucial importance to every senior manager.  If the glossy annual report tells us that ‘People are our most important asset’ – and just about every annual report produced by every company everywhere includes some lip-service-paying comment of this type – then it is too important to be left to a middle manager in the HR team who spends his or her time justifying the meagre resources required to do the job. 

But Hagel and Seely Brown go further, suggesting that the CLO should be a board level Director and, eventually, the CEO.  I was first alerted to this video by a tweet from Nick Shackleton-Jones who is sceptical.  He points me to Harold Jarche’s blog – who is also sceptical about such things.  Where Jarche does agree is that learning is critical and is the job of the CEO.  But where Jarche diverges from the Deloitte researchers is in assuming that the CLO will lead the required change.  As Jarche comments: “I do not see business leadership coming from Organizational Development, Human Resources or Training & Development.”

Now Harold has form in denigrating the L&D profession. He is one of the leading collaborative and social learning advocates who believes that training and learning are pretty much unconnected.  He has little time for those of us who describe what we do as training.  But he does agree with Seely Brown and Hagel that the CEO should be in charge of learning and capability development.

Unusually I’m sitting on the fence a little here.  I agree that learning is a board issue and I believe that learning professionals should be on the board if not running companies.  I disagree with Jarche who thinks that it is ‘much easier, and more important, for business leaders to understand the significance of learning in the workplace’ and that ‘learning professionals are not core to the business’.  As he says, he spends his time ‘helping business understand workplace learning, not helping learning professionals understand business.’

This is, I fear, a false dichotomy.  The idea that learning professionals don’t understand business is – if not insulting – certainly not borne out by my experience.  I think first class learning professionals do understand the functions they serve and very many of them come from those departments in the first place. They often combine two specialisms – the functional specialism for production, sales, marketing or finance with the people specialism of how people learn and how learning happens.  If left to the convinced but amateur interventions of people who are business leaders first and – a long way second – interested in capability development, we arrive at a half-hearted and half-baked implementation of poorly understood learning concepts. 

Jarche’s final comment underlines my point: “Using the 70:20:10 framework as a guide, the new learning CEO will likely focus on the first 90% and leave the 10% formal training for the ex-CLO”.  I’ll ignore the dismissive ‘ex’ before CLO – I already know my place, thank you Harold – but I can’t ignore the wilful misrepresentation of the 70:20:10 model.  The idea that the 10% which represents formal training is last, least important and eminently dispensable is neither a true representation of the model nor one which works. 

People who understand 70:20:10 know that the numbers are just a convenient short-hand.  The true model requires initial work place experience – outside the comfort zone of the individual - coupled with a reflective process initiated by quality conversations with peers, mentors or coaches.  This is then followed by formal training, more conversations to plan activities and then stretching work place tasks to try out the theories for real and cement the learning.  The process is cyclical and could more accurately represented as 35:10:10:10:35. (I know – it’s not going to catch on any time soon, is it?)

In this more faithful representation of Eichinger and Lombardo’s model, the formal training element is the glue holding everything else together. It echoes the Kolb Learning Cycle which has informed high quality L&D since its creation in the 1970s. Without the formal element, the on-the-job elements and coaching conversations do not accelerate learning in the manner Seely Brown and Hagel describe. By characterising 70:20:10 as ‘90% of learning happens on the job’, Jarche is in danger of misleading people into thinking that L&D as we have come to know it is entirely redundant.

My fence sitting comes about because I don’t entirely agree that the CLO will become the CEO – neither, I think, do Seely Brown and Hagel.  I suspect this is an attention grabbing headline rather than a realistic belief.  After all, they come from an accountancy company. The Chartered Accountants aren’t going to give up control quite so easily and the Pension Fund managers and bankers wouldn’t be prepared to let them even if they wanted to. But I do think that L&D needs to be the responsibility of a wider team than simply the HR department.  

In my 2013 book Complete Training I advocate the creation of a board role called Performance Director – loosely based on the CEOs of sporting teams like the successful UK cycling team at the 2012 Olympics.  The Performance Director should be the head of the most important function in the organisation – whether that is sales, marketing, production, customer service or finance.  However, while this individual should be accountable for continuous capability development, they do not need to be responsible for the strategies and activities which enable it to happen.  That should still rely on learning professionals who will manage the working environment to optimise performance and learning – including implementing major initiatives and interventions where these are required.  Some of these may even involve training.  As Jarche’s colleague, Jay Cross (author of Informal Learning – Pfeiffer, 2006) said in 2012: “I want my doctors and pilots to have learned both formally and through experience.”  I think I want everyone to learn that way.

While I think that people development is too important to be left to L&D professionals alone, it is also too important to be left to amateurs – however well meaning or however far up the greasy pole they've been able to climb.

Robin Hoyle is a trainer, writer and senior consultant at Learnworks Ltd. He is the author of Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement published by Kogan Page.

One Response

  1. Invisible Italics

    It was brought to my attention that on some mobile devices the italics I had used for quotes meant that these quotes were invisible.  Rather than have big holes appear in the text, I've now changed the italics back to plain text.

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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