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February 2013
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TD Magazine

Long View: John Coné

LV
Principal
The Eleventh Hour Group

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John Coné consults and writes on issues of organizational learning, with emphasis on strategy and the role of the chief learning officer in building and managing highly effective learning groups. He chairs a panel that provides advice on learning to the U.S. government, and partners with the Institute for Corporate Productivity to work with chief learning officers and chief talent management officers to identify new areas for actionable research.

Coné was a founder of Motorola University and spent six years as creator and vice president of Dell Learning, focusing on using technology to put the learner in charge. He has been featured in Fast Company, T+D, HR, and Selling Power, and was named by Training magazine as a visionary in organizational learning. He served as interim president and CEO of ASTD and chairman of ASTD's Board of Directors. He provides an ASTD membership scholarship to students and received ASTD's Gordon M. Bliss Memorial Award for contributions to the workplace learning profession.

What was your first job and what lesson did you take away from it?

At age 13 I was a helper on a trash truck. This was long before recycling, so people would dump cans, bottles, and other junk in 50-gallon drums in their backyards. My boss drove the truck, and my job was to bring the full drums to the truck. After my first two weeks on the job, struggling with these heavy barrels, my boss asked if I wanted to learn an easier method. He showed me how to tilt and spin the drums so that they rolled on their edges, and then nudge them along with a few carefully placed taps. He called this barrel knocking.

The lesson he taught me was that often we try to force things to move in a certain direction by attempting to carry the whole load, when instead a better way may be to slightly change our orientation and use a few carefully placed nudges along the way. I later realized that he had deliberately waited for about two weeks to tell me about barrel knocking until I had reached a certain level of frustration—so he also taught me the concept of a teachable moment.

When did you initially become interested in the field of organizational learning?

I was running a multimedia center at a community college in Illinois. Summers were slow, so on the side I produced videotapes for companies in the area. One summer I received a call from Motorola. They had an employee participation program called PMP—Participative Management Program—which included eligibility for a quarterly bonus for every employee in the company. This program had gone over really well, as you might imagine.

The COO had determined that the program was not being implemented properly, and so he declared that no further bonuses would be paid until people were properly trained. The company needed to train more than 100,000 people in multiple countries and locations within three months (before the next bonus was due to be paid), and I took a consulting gig as a member of the team designated to develop that training.

We got the job done. It seemed to work very well. But I realized afterward that I couldn't explain why it worked. I had no idea exactly what we had done. My fascination with organizational learning—trying to understand just how learning happens—started there.

What is the role of the 2013 chief learning officer in building and managing highly effective learning groups?

I define the future-looking role of the chief learning officer as "the player-coach of a virtual team that is in constant flux." First, a player-coach: It's still true that you can't manage from the sidelines of a business. You have to be a business person, and you have to be in the game.

A virtual team: You do not directly manage the majority of people with whom you interact. And in learning—I think more than anywhere else—there is constant change in terms of your clients, customers, end users, and subject matter experts, as well as what teams you're putting together and what outside resources are available.

With everything in constant flux, the CLO has to treat learning as an experiment. That doesn't mean that having a strategy isn't critical, but the CLO has to be quick to recognize and leverage what's working and discard what isn't.

The CLO in 2013 and going forward is most of all a guide—a tracker in territory that is always new. She has to synthesize vast amounts of data and discern patterns—patterns of what people need to know, opportunities for learning, and how people are learning in the organization.

The job is not one of curating learning (that's a popular phrase right now). I think it is about seeing the organizing principles and ideas that naturally exist in the organization and are driving or can drive learning, and then doing the things that make learning inevitable.

What challenges and opportunities does the learning function in the public sector face today?

I don't think that the challenges and opportunities in the public sector are any different in nature from those in the private sector, but I think very often they are much more extreme versions. For example, everybody has pressure to do more with less, but public sector budgets have shrunk dramatically compared to the private sector. Also, within the last year the United States has added millions of private sector jobs, but the public sector continues to lose hundreds of thousands of jobs a month. And government contracting regulations make outsourcing more difficult, so while there's the same pressure on the value proposition in the public sector as in the private sector, it's much more intense.

Another example: When we implement learning initiatives in the private sector to drive significant change, especially in some system, process, or bureaucracy, we might co-opt with the CEO or executive team to earn their support. But in the public sector, the same kinds of changes could require an act of Congress. So again, although it's the same issue (moving change through an organization), it's more extreme in the public sector.

What are some of the emerging topics you are uncovering in your research of industry leaders?

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People who are chief talent management officers or chief learning officers in large organizations have an interesting requirement placed on them: Many of their concerns are very near to the horizon, but they also are trying to think about what's out of sight.

A lot of these leaders have been concerned about some near-term matters: They're trying to figure out what is it that frontline managers expect with this notion of talent management, and how they want it to work. They're attempting to discover best practices in social learning and mobile learning, and if there is a clear business advantage to emphasizing such strategies. They're worrying about how to leverage simulation and gaming, and they're thinking about what distinguishes a great global leader.

There are more subtle concerns beyond the horizon, a lot of which have to do with the implications of collaboratively created knowledge. For example, when sources of information are immediate and nearly infinite, what is the CLO's responsibility to manage misinformation? Years ago when an employee worked on the production line and he wanted to know how to do something, he could turn to the person to his left, the person to his right, or the shift supervisor. He had access to three primary sources of information, and the odds were good that one of the three would have the right answer.

Today there are billions of places to turn to immediately for information. How much of that information is right, how much of it is wrong, and what do CLOs do about it? There is a shift toward collective credibility—the wisdom of the crowds. We are looking less at sources of authority and more to crowd-based answers. How do we help people to make sound judgments about the services they are choosing for learning?

Another topic area I'm investigating is the role of the learning function as a mobilizing network in which the CLO's job is primarily about encouraging people to learn, helping them to connect to the right kinds of networks, and helping them to make good judgments about those networks and the information they're receiving. Is learning going to become more personalized? And, if so, does the CLO's role become that of helper?

Another trend I'm examining is the idea of an optimal learning network. Everybody now has his own learning network. I'm interested in finding out if and how we can know what characteristics are best for such networks—for example, how big is too big, how small is too small, and how diverse should it be? Are there certain critical elements of a learning network? And in an organization, what components are ideal for all of the people in the organization to have in common?

Finally, I think that lifelong learning, for most of my career, could have been defined as the most desirable approach to professional life. Now I think it is truly and totally a requirement. When such learning has gone from "great to have" to "must have," what are our obligations as CLOs to enable it?

What do you like to do for relaxation or fun?

My favorite way to have fun and relax has always been running. I ran every day for more than 33 years. Last year I had to stop because I had a medical procedure and was told not to exercise for four days. On the fifth day I started running again, so I'm about 17 months into my new streak, and it's obviously going to take me a while to beat the old one.

I also started painting again. I'm not terribly good at it, but I painted decades ago. It always helped me to relax, and now I'm really enjoying it.

About the Author

Community of Practice Manager, ATD  Ann Parker is senior manager of the Human Capital Community of Practice and the Senior Leaders & Executives Community of Practice at ATD. Prior to this position, she worked at ATD for five years in an editorial capacity, primarily for TD magazine, and most recently as a senior writer and editor. In this role, Ann had the privilege to talk to many training and development practitioners, hear from a variety of prominent industry thought leaders, and develop a rich understanding of the profession's content.

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