Would a CLO by any other name smell as sweet? A feature story in this month's issue reports that chief learning officers are split on whether the title gives them any special leverage that helps create training and performance initiatives to support key business goals. No matter where they stood on the issue, all of the CLOs we spoke with insisted that the overriding factor is not the title but the mindset that a top training manager brings to the role. If the point is to understand what really matters at any given time to the executives who run the organization and to align its learning systems with their priorities, no doubt there are "training directors" who do it as well as any CLO. And no doubt there are CLOs who oversee little red schoolhouses and are as oblivious to critical business concerns as any headed by a "manager of employee education" or the dean of a corporate university.
Behind the whole conversation about linking learning to business priorities lies a question our story does not address. It has multiple parts:
How did so many clueless corporate schoolhouses come to being in the first place? Doesn't it seem odd that a function intended to teach people to do their jobs could somehow lose touch with the point of those jobs and the goals they're supposed to serve?
Why have out-of-touch training operations persisted for so many years in the face of universal scorn from the profession that supplies their managers and staff? (Has anyone ever heard a training director defend the concept of a corporate education function with no link to the strategies or priorities of the people who run the business?)
If, as surveys always indicate, every training manager on earth is hell-bent on linking learning to critical business goals, why has it proven so difficult for so long to, a) find out what those goals are and, b) create training, learning or performance-support initiatives that persuasively address them?
In short, how can this be so tough a challenge that training executives who accomplish it are assumed to be the exception rather than the rule? We talk about the subject as if we were engineers dumbstruck by the idea of a bridge that an automobile actually could drive across.
The fact that a "C" title for training honchos has been coined is encouraging. A chief learning officer certainly sounds like a person entitled to invite a line manger to lunch and ask what's going on in production or sales or R&/D. But is the world really full of line managers who would laugh derisively at a mere training director who issued that lunch invitation?
One long-standing excuse for failure to link learning to real business priorities is that most executives don't understand or value the training function sufficiently to allow it to operate the way it should. But executives don't pull their understanding or their values out of thin air. They form opinions about what training does based on what they've seen it do. Or not do.
Much of the enthusiasm for the CLO title has to do with the notion that it "sends a message" that learning is an important organizational value with support from the executive suite. Which is swell. But if the training profession as a whole is still scratching its head in wonder at what a business goal might be, or how a person might discover such a thing without holding a C-level title, or how learning might advance a business goal even if a person could identify one, then top-management support for learning as a "value" is a little beside the point. Isn't it?
A question for training directors: Do you really covet the CLO title because you believe it would give you the clout to force line managers to send people to your programs regardless of their utility in moving the business forward?
While we're at it, here's one for top management: Does your training director find it difficult to make learning serve your desires because of the nature of your desires? If your idea of training that serves a critical need is a program that persuades employees to work more enthusiastically, for less money and fewer benefits, right up to the moment when you figure out how to eliminate their jobs altogether, maybe the problem isn't your training director. Maybe what you really need is dumber employees.
Jack Gordon is editor-at-large of Training. firstname.lastname@example.org