The Transformer CLO

From the January–February 2020 Issue


January–February 2020 Issue

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In today’s dynamic business environment, workplace learning has become a key lever for success. And with that shift, the traditional role of the chief learning officer is changing. No longer are CLOs responsible just for training—making skills-based and compliance-oriented courses available to employees and perhaps running leadership-development programs. Instead, they’re embracing a more powerful role in which they reshape capabilities and organizational culture. We call this new type of leader the transformer CLO.

Transformer CLOs are strong senior managers whose mission is to help their companies and their employees thrive, even as technologies, business practices, and whole industries undergo rapid change. The transformer CLO role is not reserved for the lucky few whose CEOs see learning and development as essential; any CLO can take steps to fundamentally change the nature of learning in an organization.

We recently conducted extensive interviews with 21 senior learning officers at 19 large companies to find out how they conceive of their roles and organizations. This research, which builds on our prior work on digital leadership and culture, revealed that transformer CLOs are driving three principal types of change in their enterprises. They’re transforming their organizations’ learning goals, shifting the focus from the development of skills to the development of mindsets and capabilities that will help workers perform well now and adapt smoothly in the future. They’re transforming their organizations’ learning methods, making them more experiential and immediate, and atomizing content for delivery when and where it’s needed. And they’re transforming their organizations’ learning departments, making them leaner, more agile, and more strategic.

Transforming Learning Goals

The need for organizations to become more adaptable means changing the goals of corporate learning. Instead of narrowly focusing on job- or compliance-related training for all but their high-potential leaders, organizations should cultivate every employee’s ability to explore, learn, and grow. The objective is not only to train people but also to position the company for success. To achieve this, CLOs should strive to do the following:

Reshape leadership development.

Creating a true learning organization starts at the top, with preparing executives to lead in new ways. One company that has done this well recently is Standard Chartered, a multinational financial-services company. Three years ago, under a new CEO, Standard Chartered launched a strategy that fundamentally changed the way it does business—and required its leaders to build new strengths. “We’d been doing executive development for years,” said Ewan Clark, the company’s global head of leadership effectiveness and organizational development. “But a lot of it had been about either pure self-actualization or aspects of coaching. This time we’ve put the organizational agenda right in the center of executive development, and we’ve said that leadership is about developing the skills, capabilities, and value behaviors to lead this agenda.”

As part of that effort, the company began teaching leaders to augment their experience and intuition with investigation, experimentation, and data-driven analysis when making decisions about their parts of the organization. Their instructions, according to Clark, were straightforward: “Articulate a hypothesis. Go out and experiment. And if it doesn’t work, then why not? What did you learn? Add to it. Capture your learning. Share it with other people.” This new approach required changes in the leaders’ mindsets, not just their skills and procedures.

Organizations should cultivate every employee’s ability to learn and grow.

It’s not enough, though, to improve leadership capabilities at the very top of the organization. To effect widespread change, organizations need strong leadership to cascade down. Cargill, a privately held food and agriculture business, achieved this by democratizing learning. As Julie Dervin, the company’s global head of corporate learning and development, told us, “We really only had the capacity to reach about 10% to 15% of the total relevant population in a given year when delivering a particular learning program. Unintentionally, we were creating a learning culture where only a select few got access to high-quality training.” Dervin and her team resolved to fix that problem. “We’ve been fundamentally changing how we design, deliver, and shape those learning experiences to be able to reach exponentially more learners with high-impact learning,” she said.

Concentrate on capabilities, not competence.

In their change programs, transformer CLOs focus less on teaching currently needed skills and more on developing mindsets and behaviors that can enable employees to perform well in tasks that may not yet be defined. This shift may also mean moving away from comprehensive skills inventories and competency maps, which can lead people to check boxes rather than build capabilities. “We don’t really know enough about what the world will look like in the next couple of years to be able to predict exactly what skills we will need,” said Amelie Villeneuve, the head of the corporate university at UBS, the multinational financial-services firm. “If you focus on building individual microskills, you may be missing the bigger picture.”

Emphasize digital thinking.

The transformer CLOs we interviewed have sought to develop digital awareness and aptitude in their employees. Singapore-based DBS Bank, for example, created a learning curriculum that aims to build seven priority skills for digital-business success. “While not everyone needs to be an expert at each of these,” said David Gledhill, who served as the company’s chief information officer until August 2019, “we want them to know enough so that they understand the transformation we’re driving and contribute great ideas.”

Vital Skills for a Digital World

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One priority, for instance, is to get people more comfortable using data in decision-making. Data-driven thinking is key for almost everyone in an organization, but in different ways. Frontline sales and service reps need to be aware of information about customer preferences and behaviors. Executives must learn to trust and value data even when it contradicts their past experiences and gut feelings.

Leaders often don’t know what to do with all the data that digital innovations are making available to them, said Nancy Robert, who, as the executive vice president of the American Nurses Association, led the design and delivery of training for millions of the organization’s members. As Robert put it, nurses don’t necessarily have the “digital-data competency” to answer the questions that confront them. “How am I going to interpret that data and integrate it into the rest of the care?” she said. “That takes a very different cognitive skill.”

Cultivate curiosity and a growth mindset.

CLOs can amplify their teams’ energies and capabilities by fostering a “pull” model of learning, in which employees set their own agendas for gaining knowledge and skills. Doing that, however, requires an environment that sparks employees’ curiosity and ignites in them the desire to learn and grow. Villeneuve has worked on this at UBS and previously at Google, where, she said, she learned how it is possible to “accelerate wisdom more effectively by providing a series of contexts where people can play and learn at the same time.”

Leaders at DBS Bank launched a number of programs to find out what would inspire curiosity among their employees. One notable success is GANDALF Scholars, in which employees can apply to receive grants of $1,000 toward training on any work-related topic, as long as they agree to teach what they learn to at least 10 other people.

When you engage employees in teaching, as DBS is doing, you expand and deepen learning. Rahul Varma, the senior managing director for talent at Accenture, calls this a “leaders teaching leaders” philosophy. “You learn the most,” he said, “when you actually have to teach somebody what you learn.” This approach turns the natural curiosity and energy of any single employee into learning opportunities for many others. It certainly seems to be working at DBS: As of early 2019, 120 grant recipients had gone on to train more than 13,500 people—4,000 in person and the rest through digital channels. According to Gledhill, many GANDALF Scholars report that the teaching component of the program is their favorite part. “What they enjoyed most,” he said, “was the empowerment.”

Transformer CLOs are personalizing, digitizing, and atomizing learning.

UBS, DBS, Accenture, and other companies that have embraced a growth mindset subscribe to two beliefs: that everyone’s abilities can and must be developed if the organization is to thrive in a fast-moving environment, and that innate talent is just the starting point. But for a growth mindset to become part of the company’s culture, all employees must internalize those beliefs. That won’t happen unless learning is pervasive, available to everybody who might benefit from it. And that requires rethinking the way learning is delivered.

Transforming Learning Methods

Until recently, providing learning to all employees was too expensive, and there weren’t enough trainers. Employees almost always had to be physically present at training sessions, which often meant traveling and missing time at work. That naturally limited the number of participants, making learning an exclusive rather than a democratic opportunity.

Now things have changed. Peer teaching greatly expands the number of trainers and expert content developers. And digital instruction expands the reach of learning opportunities to more employees without the company’s having to worry about enrollment numbers, scheduling conflicts, or travel costs. Employees can access learning when and where they need it, often from colleagues who live the topic every day.

Transformer CLOs are taking advantage of all these developments. Perhaps most visibly, they are moving away from traditional classroom training in which people are exposed to the same content for the same amount of time regardless of their particular needs and levels of understanding. Instead, these CLOs are personalizing, digitizing, and atomizing learning. They are shifting their attention from specific courses to the whole learning experience.

To accommodate the different preferences employees have for how they consume and absorb information, a growing number of companies now make training available through a variety of media—text, audio, video, and more. Transformer CLOs go even further. They’re introducing innovations such as programs that set aside learning time on people’s calendars, and mobile apps that pose leadership questions to managers during their day. They’re offering games and simulations and encouraging the company’s own subject-matter experts to produce YouTube-type instructional videos. They’re even exploring the use of artificial intelligence to develop recommendation engines that, guided by individual and peer behavior, will suggest tailored learning activities to employees. In short, transformer CLOs do everything possible to create engaging and effective experiences that meet employees wherever they happen to be, geographically, temporally, or intellectually.

Optimize the inventory of learning resources.

CLOs need to be selective about what learning materials to stock and how to supply them. At GE Digital, Heather Whiteman, the company’s former head of learning, used analytics with her team to study hundreds of courses taken by thousands of employees—and then systematically rooted out those found lacking, not just in terms of usage and ratings but in their effects on employee growth. “If a course didn’t move the dial for capabilities that lead to performance,” she told us, “we would drop it in favor of one that did.”

Similarly, Villeneuve and her team at UBS used analytics to optimize the learning inventory. The bank had a wealth of training materials online, but analysis showed that many employees who searched for those materials gave up before finding what they needed. Armed with that knowledge, Villeneuve and her team focused on developing a core of fewer but better resources. Then, applying principles of behavioral science, they designed a user interface that put no more than six items on a page, with no more than three clicks needed to get to any item. The results have been remarkable: Ten times more employees now engage with the materials on the company’s core learning shelf.

Balance face-to-face and digital learning.

CLOs should experiment to get the right mix of face-to-face and digital learning. Cargill, which until recently allocated 80% of its budget to in-person training and only 20% to digital training, is in the process of flipping that ratio around. Dervin and her team have redesigned the company’s leadership-development programs to put some of the coursework online. Senior leaders initially had reservations about the effectiveness of digital instruction and worried about losing opportunities to network and build relationships. But those misgivings were short-lived. The first three cohorts who tried the online learning ended up enjoying the experience so much that they engaged in more training than was required. “What we’re seeing,” Dervin said, “is that this goes hand in glove with the pace and the rhythms of their day-to-day, and they’re loving the flexibility it provides.”

Deutsche Telekom, for its part, has developed a matrix to help determine whether a given offering might be better handled with face-to-face instruction, a purely digital approach, or a blend of the two. The matrix helps leaders weigh multiple factors: the type of content, the target audience, and development and delivery considerations.

Digital or Face-to-Face Training?

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Rethink face-to-face learning.

As engaging and effective as digital learning experiences can be, face-to-face learning is still important—although it may take new forms. Accenture employs some very sophisticated digital learning platforms and tools and has a vast library of online content, but Varma’s experience is that digital learning goes only so far. “What we’ve found,” he said, “is that there is no substitute for getting people together in cohorts that are cross-cultural and cross-functional.” To achieve that without requiring employees to be in the same physical space, Accenture has created more than 90 “connected classrooms” around the world. These enable the company to offer all employees some types of training—classes in design thinking, for example—that are taught by in-house experts in several different locations. “One facilitator could be in Bangalore, another could be in Manila, and another in Dalian, China,” Varma told us. People are still learning from people, but thanks to videoconferencing and other interactive technologies, along with more-collaborative approaches to learning, traditional geographic constraints no longer apply. Teams all over the world now coach one another and solve problems together. “That is how we do learning, every single day,” Varma said.

Some companies have pursued another approach for their face-to-face learning: They’ve created hands-on simulations in which participants must solve real-life problems. At UBS, employees take part in “three-dimensional case studies” in order to develop key capabilities, such as the ability to influence stakeholders or rethink a company product. The interactive case studies test not only their knowledge and intellectual skills but also how they engage with others and react as the situation unfolds. As Villeneuve told us, “They have to do it all together, and they get feedback on everything at the same time.”

Face-to-face learning is still important—although it may take new forms.

Similarly, operational professionals at DBS spend three days in a simulation exercise that involves transforming a hypothetical old-school bank into a full-fledged digital bank. They work with trainers and colleagues from other parts of the business to tackle staffing and resourcing issues and handle crisis situations unique to the digital world. An element of competition heightens the intensity and engagement.

Go beyond instruction.

Transformer CLOs believe that instruction alone is not sufficient for meaningful learning. Accenture’s Varma anchors his approach in what he calls the three I’s: instruction, introspection, and immersion.

Instruction comes first, of course. But then trainees need to engage in reflection—the introspection part of Varma’s three I’s. This might involve giving employees time to privately mull over what they’ve learned, having them talk it over with a fellow trainee on a walk, or providing a formal opportunity during class to discuss it with a whole cohort.

After introspection comes immersion, or putting what’s been learned into practice. The sooner and the more often that learning gets applied in real-life situations, the more likely it is to stick. After a time, individuals can return for more instruction.

Fidelity Investments includes all three elements of this model in a single learning experience for some of its customer-facing associates, according to Wendi Kennedy, the head of learning in the company’s Personal Investing division. Trainees spend a few hours exploring digital content and experiential assignments on their own, discuss what they’ve learned with their colleagues, and then apply the learning in actual customer interactions while the instructors can watch and help them adjust their actions. Gone are the days, Kennedy told us, when trainees spent eight straight hours in the classroom.

Cargill gets at the three I’s in a slightly different order, moving from instruction to immersion to introspection, in what it calls its application challenge. In this model, employees are taught a concept or small lesson, which they apply immediately. They then fill out a field report describing how things went, what they learned, and what questions they have, or they present a sample work product, such as a new type of data model they learned to build, and solicit feedback from their cohort. The idea, Dervin told us, is to “design an experience and integrate it tightly with the work so it’s relevant, using bite-sized content so that it’s just what they need when they need it.” Such “microlearning” is an increasingly important tool in today’s learning arsenal.

Transforming Learning Departments

To make the trainer-to-transformer vision a reality, CLOs are redesigning their departments to be smaller, nimbler, and more strategic. Instead of simply taking requests and providing training for specific skills, they are teaming up with the leaders of other business units to dramatically improve capabilities, performance, and even culture throughout the organization.

To support this new approach, CLOs are hiring learning strategists, experience designers, curators, and software developers. They’re helping employees become peer teachers, guides, and coaches. And they’re applying agile and lean start-up principles to their efforts to devise learning programs. At Fidelity, for example, Kennedy and her team take a minimum-viable-product approach that mirrors the method fast-moving companies use to create new products. They work with stakeholders to determine what learning is needed, come up with a basic learning module to address a particular need, get it out fast, gather feedback, and then repeat the process until the trainees who work with the material give it a sufficiently high Net Promoter Score (NPS).

As chief learning officers rethink how their departments operate, they should keep these recommendations in mind:

Act as curators and cocreators.

Increasingly, transformer CLOs are identifying useful external content—everything from university courses to blog posts to YouTube videos—and combining it with internal content developed in consultation with the company’s subject-matter experts. At Accenture, this approach allows the company to constantly provide its employees with the most current insights on emerging technologies, which they can then share with clients. As Varma told us, “We need to be able to train a group of people very quickly to understand what a technology is, how it will impact their specific industry, and how they will deliver innovation to their clients.”

To provide high-quality, relevant learning at scale, Varma and his team created a framework and tools to help in-house subject-matter experts develop their own learning boards (think Pinterest boards for different topics in the business). These then become easily accessible, on-demand learning modules. It’s been a remarkably successful approach. As of early 2019, employees throughout the company had created more than 2,500 learning boards. They have become so popular, Varma said, that they’re now “embedded in the fabric of how people learn.”

Foster learning from peers.

Accenture’s learning boards show the appeal and usefulness of learning from colleagues as well as professional instructors. It’s a practice that DBS Bank has adopted, too, going beyond its GANDALF Scholars program to launch Back to School, a series of employee-led training sessions. In multiple classrooms around the world, 45-minute sessions take place throughout the day for as long as a week. Classes cover technical subjects (such as DevOps and machine learning), business topics (for example, how the credit-card industry makes money), and “softer” subjects (such as personal branding and business storytelling). These courses are taught not by formal instructors but by internal subject-matter experts—managing directors, middle managers, and even new associates—whose range in seniority helps promote a culture in which expertise is valued over rank. The program is hugely popular: For a recent session on consumer banking, in which experts from the business side taught classes to employees from the technology side, and vice versa, all 1,700 seats were snapped up in just three hours.

Peer learning can arise anywhere in an organization, of course, not just within the formal learning department. Transformer CLOs pay attention to this. When new learning activities spring up, they investigate what’s happening and why. If the new effort has merit, they figure out how to support and amplify it. That’s what happened at Deutsche Telekom after an employee in one part of the business made use of the company intranet to start a forum called From Experts, For Experts. According to Stephan Kasulke, the company’s CLO, the program went viral: Not long after its launch, more than 1,000 people were participating. “It was a totally bottom-up, self-developed thing,” Kasulke said. Recognizing the program’s value, he and his team got involved. “We took some key people who had organized it and said, ‘OK, what can we do to help you become even bigger and more effective?’ They came up with some technical things for sharing, and we are now supporting the program.”

Measure impact.

Determining the impact of training can be difficult. The key is to consider multiple measures of how learning contributes to the organization’s overall strategy.

Telstra, the Australian telecom giant, adopted this approach for assessing its most strategically important technical and leadership programs. To judge how well it was training a large group of engineers who worked in software-defined networking, the company had both the engineers and their leaders assess their abilities. The learning department added that data to an analysis of the engineers’ various certifications and accreditations and then worked with an external vendor to develop an 80-question test targeting relevant areas of technical expertise. All that information was then folded together to arrive at a durable and meaningful measurement of proficiency.

Accenture’s learning boards show the appeal and usefulness of peer teaching.

In some cases, measuring the business outcomes that result from training is also possible—and important. The type of measurement will depend on a person’s job function or role. For example, companies can look at sales results and end-customer NPS for employees who own client accounts; cycle time and defect rates for operations staff; and productivity and customer satisfaction for software developers. For roles where output is tougher to measure, most CLOs rely on subjective assessments from the individuals and their managers—often some type of 360-degree evaluation.

Although companies have only recently begun to tie learning experiences to employee performance in most occupations, transformer CLOs are making this an important element of their strategy. That’s what Fidelity is doing by making same-day determinations about whether workers who go through training do a better job of handling customer calls afterward, and it’s what GE Digital is doing by tracking which courses are associated with capability improvements in salaried staff from year to year.

Companies are also starting to build tools that tailor learning plans to individuals. While some firms address employees’ learning needs as part of the annual review process, others are trying to give workers advice whenever they want it. GE Digital, for example, offers a tool to help employees understand what potential next jobs might fit their backgrounds and what additional capabilities they would need in order to qualify. Boeing is developing an artificial-intelligence engine to customize instruction for individuals in real time. According to Mark Cousino, the company’s director of learning strategy, design, and technology, the tool will assess a person’s cognitive load during training and fine-tune the experience to optimize it for that individual.


The fast-changing nature of business today requires organizations in every industry to constantly enhance their capabilities. This presents an opportunity for CLOs to take on a more proactive and strategic role than ever before—to be transformers, not just trainers. Transformer CLOs are positioning employees to succeed in their current jobs and adapt to future changes. They’re making learning and development an integral part of their companies’ strategic agendas. It’s a profound and important shift. “Learning is no longer just an HR function,” said Standard Chartered’s Clark. “It’s a core part of your business.”A version of this article appeared in the January–February 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review.