Why the chief learning officer is a CSO's new best friend

The title of chief learning officer, or CLO, is one that first showed up in the mid-1990s, then appeared to fade away. But now it appears to be coming back into vogue. The return of the CLO reflects the seismic shift in the way many corporations now approach their environmental futures.

Like the chief sustainability officer (CSO) position, the CLO is an untraditional member of the corporate suite. Usually a member of the HR department, the CLO develops training and education programs -- not just for new hires, but for all employees. The CLO’s goal is to create more skilled, engaged and satisfied workers.

Senge on Learning

Peter Senge, founder of the Society for Organizational Learning, addressed the sustainability-learning connection in an interview for CLO Media -- in which he emphasized the importance of understanding environmental issues for business leaders. Water, for example, is a threatened ecosystem with global impact affecting business and society, he said -- but most businesses are too focused on their internal model to address it as an issue.  Yet water affects all kinds of businesses, from manufacturing and procurement to banking, insurance and health care. The only way businesses can relate to environmental and social issues is by a forceful infusion of learning and innovation.  And that's where the CLO makes an impact.

Learning from Cross-Functional Information Flows

Where does sustainability fit in? Environmental activist Adam Werbach describes the connection well in an article he wrote for CLO Media. “One benefit of sustainability programs,” he said, “is that they create horizontal and vertical information flows, connecting employees across functions and building social relationships that allow new collaborations to occur.” With sustainability still in its infancy, learning becomes a key component of creating new approaches, staying up-to-date with market movements, and constantly innovating -- thanks to the CLO and his/her team.

Why Learning will Fuel the Future

Although the CLO position has existed since the mid-90s, the current concept of learning in the workplace reflects several trends. Today, most people entering the workforce have been in school anywhere from 13 to 20 years -- and will most certainly expect to continue learning in the workplace. Targeting this hunger for learning wins businesses their employees’ loyalty and commitment. Conversely, investing in employee education keeps them productive and purposeful. Employers who know the cost of recruitment and turnover value loyal, long-term employees.

Learning programs also create an adaptive atmosphere, which welcomes change and nourishes risk management. Such programs make employees aware that their current responsibilities will constantly evolve, and that they are expected to adapt and stretch accordingly.

 The ROI of Learning

According to a 2006 University of Pennsylvania study that focused on 92 CLOs, one of the greatest challenges that emerged was quantifying the value of learning at work.

Sound familiar? Those working in sustainability for the better half of the last decade remember this challenge well. And like sustainability, the return on investing in learning programs tends to be long-term.

Senge notes the average lifespan of a Fortune 500 company is about 30 years.  What is restricting big business from constantly thinking ahead and adapting to changing social and environmental dynamics? A lack of emphasis on future planning and learning programs that embody change, encourage forward thinking and reward evolution. Or, to put it a different way, innovation.

Corporate support for employee development is a powerful tool with long-term implications. If learning becomes an integrated part of today’s workplace, and senior executives recognize that a constantly learning workforce is also a more productive workforce, we may shift toward less education in schools and more in companies. This wouldn’t be a new development, either. Many professionals capably perform jobs unrelated to their educational degrees: learning by doing, with training support tailored to specific responsibilities, has long been a cheaper and better option for many unskilled workers.

While learning on the job can have negative effects, like creating a workforce with less diverse skills and experience in only one field, higher education is a huge expense that many cannot afford. If corporations shoulder more of the responsibility and cost of educating community members, in exchange for committed and capable employees, the process becomes a win-win for everyone.

Business longevity is defined by its ability to innovate and adapt. And learning in the workplace is part of an evolving and responsible business.

Photo of  computer keyboard with learn key by Tatiana Popova via Shutterstock