Learning’s Value In The Era Of Disruption

A study shows global business executives (CXOs) are more positive than chief learning officers (CLOs) about the value of learning and the extent to which there is a learning culture in their organizations.


With the proliferation of disruptive forces in the world, organizations are constantly re-evaluating their strategies to maintain a competitive edge. These disruptive forces require organizations to change rapidly—and they need their people to be agile and adaptable to that change. Globalization, demographic shifts, technology, regulation, and geopolitical changes all are driving organizational transformations—with talent and learning at the epicenter of growth.

In a world where cafes can double as offices, bots are potentially coworkers, and new skills are needed urgently across the workforce, organizations are under pressure to rethink and revamp their training strategies. But how exactly are they doing that? Is the perception of learning’s value and impact increasing? What changes are happening and planned? Are business and Learning leaders in sync? The EY organization conducted a global study, “Learning’s Value in the Era of Disruption,” to answer these questions.

We surveyed more than 400 global business executives (CXOs) and chief learning officers (CLOs) representing different geographies and industries. Both groups answered the same questions about strategic priorities, investment, measurement, and learning culture. CLOs answered additional questions about the operations of their Learning functions.

While many of the findings support the conclusions of previous studies and industry analysis, our results provide new insights and opportunities. For example, upskilling is confirmed as the top priority for learning investment over the next three years. What may be surprising is that leadership skills are considered more important than technical skills. It also may come as a surprise that CXOs are more positive than CLOs about the value of learning and the extent to which there is a learning culture in their organizations.


We asked respondents to rate learning’s effectiveness in enabling four types of strategic objectives:

  • Customer centricity
  • Product and service innovation
  • Operational excellence
  • Industry and market disruption

CXOs see learning as more effective in enabling all strategic objectives than do CLOs. Both groups see learning as most effective in supporting customer centricity and least effective in supporting industry and market disruption. CXOs are significantly more confident than CLOs that the Learning function will be able to support industry and market disruption in the future. (See Learning's Effectiveness Chart 1.)


More than 60 percent of CXOs and CLOs anticipate major transformation of their workforce in response to technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). Findings reveal that 30 percent of CXOs and 42 percent of CLOs see advanced technologies having an impact on their workforce within the next 12 months. The top-ranked solutions are hiring people with new skills profiles and retraining the existing workforce. The skill deficiency identified as the biggest barrier to achieving strategic business goals is leadership. CLOs see leadership skills as more of a barrier than CXOs (60 percent of CLOs vs. 50 percent of CXOs). (See Skills Deficiency Chart 2.)

CXOs are more optimistic than CLOs on the status of identifying and filling skill gaps. While 60 percent of CXOs believe their organization has identified critical roles for growth, only 40 percent of CLOs believe those roles have been identified.


Some 70 percent of CLOs feel learning is not adequately funded today, compared with 37 percent of CXOs. However, 58 percent of CXOs, compared with 42 percent of CLOs, anticipate increasing investment in learning over the next three years.

If budgets were doubled, CLOs and CXOs agree on what they would invest in first: new skills development. However, CXOs also would prioritize measurement second, whereas CLOs would prioritize infrastructure.


CLOs see business impact as the most important measure to demonstrate learning’s value, whereas CXOs see evidence of learning itself (knowledge and skill growth) as the most important measure. Some 89 percent of CLOs believe business impact should be measured in the future, compared with 53 percent of CXOs. A previous study on the strategic value of learning also found business leaders were more concerned with qualitative alignment to business strategy than quantitative measurement of impact (Brenda Sugrue, Tony O’Driscoll, Mary Kay Vona, “C-level perceptions of the strategic value of learning”: research report, American Society for Training and Development, 2006). While CLOs would like to measure business impact, only 34 percent of them report they are doing so now. (See Impact and Importance Chart 3.)


We asked CXOs and CLOs to rate their organizations on seven characteristics that the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) has found to distinguish companies with a strong learning culture (“Building a culture of learning: the foundation of a successful organization,” Association for Talent Development Research, i4cp, 2016):

  1. Learning drives brand.
  2. Learning is promoted as an organizational value.
  3. There is active knowledge sharing.
  4. Talent development is rewarded.
  5. Leaders are teachers.
  6. Accountability is shared.
  7. Learning effectiveness is measured.

Across the board, CXOs feel their organizations exhibit these characteristics more than CLOs feel they do. The characteristics reported by both groups as most prevalent are that learning is promoted as an organizational value and learning drives brand. The indicator of a strong learning culture that was least prevalent is that learning’s effectiveness is measured. (See Statement Chart 4.)


We asked CLOs about the current state of their content, delivery, infrastructure, and Learning team capability, and what they will focus on over the next three years. In the current state, 47 percent of learning is delivered in classrooms, 42 percent online, and 11 percent on mobile devices. Content is developed internally 63 percent of the time, with 26 percent coming from external sources and 11 percent employee generated. Fewer than 50 percent of CLOs say their learning infrastructure is effectively integrated with other talent systems. More than 60 percent of CLOs have moderate to high capability gaps on their Learning teams.

The main changes CLOs will be making to their learning operations in the next three years are increasing virtual classrooms, self-service learning, and microlearning. They also plan to integrate technology and add more learning specialists to their teams. (See Content and Capability Chart 5.)


In this age of disruption, learning has an even more critical role to play in supporting business strategy and transformation. Developing new skills is the top priority across the workforce. The challenge is correctly identifying those skills generically and in the context of each business.

Operationally, how those skills develop will not change radically from how skills currently develop. The shift to online, external, and modular content will continue. More classroom delivery will be virtual. There will be more technology integration within learning and between learning and talent management systems.

In terms of strategy and learning culture, this study found a large discrepancy between CXOs’ and CLOs’ perceptions of the value of learning and the extent to which there is a learning culture in their organizations. CXOs are more positive than CLOs. CXOs also are significantly more confident than CLOs that the Learning function will be able to support industry and market disruption in the future.

While CXOs’ positivity may come from being more removed from the challenges and complexities of running a Learning function, CXOs’ confidence is good news for CLOs. CLOs may be more realistic than CXOs, but they should take more credit for their own and their teams’ accomplishments.

Differences between CXO and CLO responses in this study present opportunities for CLOs. In particular, CLOs should be engaging even more closely with the business to identify critical roles for upskilling, agree on metrics and investment, and build a learning culture into the DNA of the organization. The integration of learning and talent strategy and systems also should be a priority for discussion and alignment.

We can take advantage of the increasing value business leaders place on learning to drive growth and do what has always been best practice in learning—anticipating skill needs and providing opportunities for people to develop those skills as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Dr. Mary Kay Vona is principal, People Advisory Services, at Ernst & Young LLP. Mary Woolf, MBA, is senior manager, People Advisory Services, at Ernst & Young LLP. Dr. Brenda Sugrue is global chief learning officer at Ernst & Young LLP.


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