Winter 2021
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CTDO Magazine

Modernize Learning for Tomorrow's Workforce

Friday, January 15, 2021

In changing times, the CTDO’s role must likewise evolve, expand, and grow.

Change and disruption are happening, and businesses and workers are trying to figure out how to stay ahead of the curve. Although there are many layers to a proactive business strategy, one key piece of the equation focuses on supporting employees—attracting and retaining talent as well as providing individuals with opportunities to develop in varied and, oftentimes, unpredictable ways.


As such, the chief talent development officer’s role has evolved. With all of those changes, what can CTDOs do? And where should they and their organizations invest time, energy, and financial resources to help employees learn and develop?

Modernization of learning and technology

The pace of digital modernization is moving at an unprecedented rate, and that rate is increasing daily. The implications of that progression are staggering.

For businesses, modernization can be overwhelming because it means that what worked yesterday or even today may not work tomorrow. It means that every element of the business structure, practices, and employee engagement will be constantly evolving.

It also means there is a significant amount of noise that can challenge, distract, and negatively affect companies that, in spite of good intentions, invest in the next great technology only to discover that it failed to produce the expected outcomes.

Meanwhile, learning is no longer a finite formal activity that focuses on acquiring knowledge in clearly defined areas of focus that end after college. Instead, it is a lifelong endeavor that is happening for every person all the time, regardless of location or experience. And it involves personal experiences, interests, personality, and traits.

Prepare for the future

Given the changes in technology and learning, employees are now empowered to change and develop their careers—even into careers that don’t exist today. And while numerous learning personalization tools exist—from artificial intelligence (AI) to augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)—and data is being heralded as a boon for learning, organizations are struggling to discern which tools and data are valuable and which are distractions? When and how should CTDOs and companies invest in technologies to help develop employees?

Build for today with tomorrow’s blueprints. It is wise to think ahead and plan for the future. What is different now is that the future is no longer defined by decades or even separated by years.

The future is tomorrow, and it means planning, strategizing, and architecting resilient and flexible human systems that will separate the businesses that maneuver lightly through transitions and those that fight to maintain a status quo. Ultimately, the latter will lose the fight and do so at a high resource cost.

Operate with the mindset of constant employment changes and rotations. Change will be the constant now, and that is not a trivial matter.

The human mind and body resist change naturally because change affects homeostasis. Work systems are no different. There is a reason, biologically, why individuals generally avoid change unless absolutely required to accept it.

Constant change means that, metaphorically, the ground will always feel unsteady. Companies will see the toll on the mind, body, and spirit in reductions in productivity.

By anticipating those emotional hindrances, CTDOs can recognize the signs in employees and be prepared to turn that negative energy into a new path that is welcoming and exciting. Encouraging workers to consider what they would like to do next puts them into a mindset of positive change and excitement, elevates arousal levels, and increases the likelihood of successful transition.

Architect an individualized talent development strategy. Combining the first two recommendations, a full-scale human learning architecture is required that can imagine and facilitate individualized movement, growth, learning, lifestyles, needs, goals, and team organization and reorganization.

Designing and constructing those complex ecosystems of learning, growth, and development will not be simple or straightforward. Rather, they will require CTDOs to have a set of meta-skills that cross business, learning science, psychology, cognitive science, engineering, and technology.

It is critical that talent development executives and organizations evolve their thinking. They need to support—in both words and actions—individual, team, and company-wide growth as well as provide the technology and data structures needed to optimize that growth. They can do that by investing, preparing, and implementing.

Invest: Build a learning ecosystem

Companies often use learning management systems—stand-alone, closed systems that are generally proprietary and therefore cannot easily access data across outside systems, cannot accommodate outside apps, and require constant updates and manual additions. But LMSs are becoming outdated in both capability and sustainability.

Specifically, they collect data only about what individuals learn within the company and during single learning instances. That limits the systems’ usefulness to produce data that can help CTDOs define growth pathways and solutions to support improved performance. Rather, the systems end up simply checking a box to show that an employee completed a course.

Instead, transitioning from an LMS to a learning ecosystem enables CTDOs and companies to use a learning record store, which enables employees to learn both within and outside the organization and record their data and learning experiences in an external store that they personally manage.

Because a learning ecosystem uses an open architecture, data can flow across multiple systems, courses, or employers. Every time a person takes a course, learns a new skill, or develops in a job, they can store the data in their learning record store.

By changing the fundamental structure of how learning data is stored, employees and employers benefit from better security and control, have access to a wider breadth of data about employees, and reduce expenses because employees can gain credentials and learning from any source.

As these learning ecosystems become the norm, CTDOs’ role will necessarily evolve to manage the enterprise in a manner differently than they have to date. For one, CTDOs will no longer control or oversee development of all learning opportunities.

Rather, employees will control their experiences. the talent development function will facilitate those experiences and opportunities and support access to courses outside the company.

Further, CTDOs’ understanding of learning engineering is important. The complexity and possibilities that learning technology can provide will require that talent development executives understand the intricacies of these systems, their components, and how they work together.

Without that technical knowledge, CTDOs will be hindered in knowing what to purchase, how to use it, and how to optimize the flow of data to drive employees’ personal growth trajectories. 

Prepare: Data analysis and recommendations

CTDOs’ primary job is to manage, inspire, and empower employees’ growth to optimize their job performance. In the past, that has meant talent development executives observe and assess employees to determine what they think may help each person or team thrive.

More recently, data in the form of questionnaires, standardized observation forms, and course testing have added objective and trackable information about each employee. That data increases the talent development function’s accuracy of understanding employees and what they need to optimally perform their job.

Now, more and more data is accessible in a variety of forms and from multiple sources. As learning ecosystems become more common, CTDOs and organizations will have more data than they can reasonably analyze on their own. That is where AI becomes useful.


It has garnered a lot of attention as the next best thing, but the truth is that not every entity needs AI yet for two reasons: access to data and solution development.

It is certainly the case that the human mind cannot discern patterns at the pace or depth that AI can allow, but at the same time, without sufficient access to data, companies can’t determine patterns beyond what they can already observe.

Without solutions that companies can employ based on additional insights, it doesn’t matter what patterns AI may discover if companies cannot act upon them. Their findings, then, are not particularly useful.

That said, the need for more sophisticated patterning to drive personal growth and individual performance and to optimize a learning ecosystem within the commercial sector is coming. The best action plan is for CTDOs and companies to prepare for it by establishing a system that collects quality data that is then tagged using standardized application programming interfaces.

They likewise should design solution pathways that they can employ when ready. CTDOs should design with these possibilities in mind and engineer technology solutions that will prepare for their use.

Implement: Technology for the future

Much like AI, there was a day when AR and VR were going to be the wave of the future. But cost and the unclear recommendations for how and when to use them hindered widespread use.

Now costs are reducing, and learning science has started to provide clear guidelines for when and how to use those technologies to aid in learning, decision-making practice, and product display. CTDOs must evolve to be the resident experts at understanding when and how to use those technologies wisely.

When used correctly, the advantages of both for learning and marketing can be pronounced, but they are not needed for every type of information. As a general rule, when complexity is high or the product or concept is difficult to visualize, AR and VR can be useful.

The intricacies, however, are much more nuanced and will require CTDOs to know more than organizational or general learning goals. They will require a deep understanding of the interplay between technology capabilities and how the brain functions.

A more sophisticated understanding of both will enable talent development executives to create holistic growth opportunities that promote optimal brain functioning and therefore optimal decision making, cognitive agility, and focus. Taken together, CTDOs will become the Olympic coach of cognition, and enhanced employee engagement and performance will be the goals.

Thus, apparatuses such as the electroencephalogram, which creates the ability to read in real time the cognitive activity that is happening during work, may prove highly valuable for the future. They may enable employees and employers to determine best work productivity times, locations, and capabilities.

They may also enable cognitive optimization and acceleration by providing insights into individual strengths and weaknesses as well as recommendations for how to stack experiences and opportunities with objective feedback to drive decisions.

Finally, modeling and simulation are some of the most underutilized capabilities available in the market. Those processes and technologies can make tangible what others cannot imagine and allow for direct benefits for many processes from strategic and long-term planning to enhanced analytics for decision making.

The interplay of technology and learning has boundless opportunities for the future and, as a result, the CTDO’s role must constantly evolve from focusing on talent management and organizational science to include a deep working understanding of learning engineering, cognitive science, and developmental coaching.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Dr. J.J. Walcutt is a scientist, innovator, and learning engineer that specializes in talent development and strategic reform across education, military, and government. She served in the U.S. government as the director of innovation at the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative under the Office of the Secretary of Defense and as a Human Innovation Fellow under the Office of Personnel Management. During her tenure in the government, she helped define the interoperable digital backbone required for training, education, and talent development across the military, intelligence, and greater security sector. She also designed an open innovation model for re-imagining the executive branch to promote talent development and retention. In her role at the Pentagon, Walcutt focused on promoting the science of learning through her service as a U.S. Delegate to NATO, Partnership for Peace, and as a national and international keynote speaker. In her role as a human innovation fellow, she used the science of human centered design to recommend improved governmental communication structures with the American people to promote innovative problem solving. In this role, she provided keynote speeches nationally regarding innovation across, and transformation of, the federal government. Walcutt has over 20 years of experience in research and development for training and education with specific interests in improving educational systems to promote talent development, knowledge management, and decision making under stress.

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