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The Evolving Role of the CLO/CTDO


Wed Jan 14 2015

The Evolving Role of the CLO/CTDO

The origin of the chief learning officer (CLO) position has been attributed to Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, who named Steve Kerr his CLO in the 1990s. However, the concept has been around much longer. Having a senior leader focused on learning and talent development dates back as far as business and education have been in existence.  

Solomon, King of Israel who reigned in the 9th century B.C., promoted learning and the acquisition of wisdom throughout his kingdom by disseminating a collection of proverbs. Ashurbanipal, King of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the 6th century B.C., built the first known library in the world. (I wonder if his top executive in charge of the library was titled CLO—chief library officer?) 


Likewise, the world’s first-known university built in the 7th century B.C. in India undoubtedly had a head learning official. Perhaps he had department chairs that included CLOs—chief language officer and chief literature officer? 

Regardless of titles, past or present, leaders responsible for learning have been and will continue to be of critical importance. Learning and development are the methods by which skills, knowledge, and attitudes are honed—and they are at the root of all achievements. 

Business and Information Evolves 

I have worked as a leader for one of the world’s largest companies and for one of the world’s fastest growing companies. For the last 10 years, I have worked as an executive coach, trainer, and management consultant to some of the world’s most successful leaders. I know from hands-on engagement with numerous organizations that what worked for many leaders in the last decade isn’t working anymore. The change occurring in this decade is making the previous three pale in comparison. 

As an example, experts who track the world’s body of knowledge claim that it took from 0 A.D. to 1500 A.D. for the world’s prior knowledge to double. Now, with advances in technology and the proliferation of content on the Internet, they claim the world’s knowledge is doubling every year. 

Some forecast that by 2020, the world’s knowledge will double between every 10 hours to 10 weeks, depending on which forecast you read. This has a significant impact on how organizations stay informed on their competitors, customers, suppliers, and employees. It changes how, when, and where every employee takes in information, develops their knowledge, and puts it into practice. 


Learning and Development Evolves

Many organizations have elevated the position of human capital “development” to the same level as human capital “management.”  With the plethora of other responsibilities in human resource departments, including recruiting, hiring, onboarding, performance management, promotions, compensation, benefits, and compliance, there would otherwise be little attention left for HR to give ongoing employee development. 

The CLO role, however, is not a stagnant one—particularly now. Never before in the history of mankind has technology, society, and the nature of business changed so rapidly. Organizational learning must now embrace globalization, changing social behaviors, and advancements in technology as much as advancements in learning. 

Indeed, learning no longer stands alone, but rather enables business change as much as it enables human development. Top-performing CLOs are now expected to deliver operational and strategic value across the entire organization—from the C-suite to the mail room. They are expected to enable innovation, efficiency, collaboration, and bottom-line results. Learning is no longer an end goal of CLOs, it is a means to higher level business goals.    

Leaders responsible for learning can no longer just focus on educational curriculums, training programs, and learning management systems. They now have a broader role: 

  • They keep up with, enable, and drive change.

  • They ensure employees adapt to meet the evolving needs of the organization.

  • They shape employee skills, as well as their organization’s culture.  

  • They continually hone competency models, update skills assessments, and craft development plans.

  • They create internal and external learning experiences that build the capabilities their organizations need to be successful. 

In essence, learning leaders must ensure that every business need is supported with the required developmental resources. 


Each of the emerging areas learning executives need to focus on will be a focus in a series of posts this year on ATD’s Senior Leaders & Executives Community of Practice blog. Topics include:

  • aligning talent development with the business strategy to enable specific business results

  • aligning talent development with compensation, performance management, and recruiting

  • motivating employees to build learning mindsets that are eager to keep up with the pace of change

  • fostering a culture of innovation and individual creativity that succeeds within organizational structure

  • using data to add science and objectivity to the historically subjective nature of talent development

  • customizing learning to the individual while using common resources and maintaining consistency

  • providing learning in real time and in smaller portions to accommodate people’s decreased availability for formal learning

  • leveraging collaborative partnerships to increase learning quality and efficiency

  • extending organizational learning to include community interests and social responsibilities

  • maintaining accountability throughout the talent development process.

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