What is a chief learning officer?

Pamela S. Hogle
Smiling woman with short hair, wearing glasses.
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An effective, mature training strategy requires long-term planning, deep analysis of the company’s needs, and broad knowledge of its workforce and their job roles. That’s the job of a chief learning officer, or CLO.

A CLO leads the team that plans, designs, and develops employee development initiatives, including training, continuous learning, professional certifications and development courses, and more. In this age of data-driven decision making, the CLO needs proficiency with data, as well as access to robust data about the company’s training programs — as well as about company performance indicators and business indicators. A mature training approach correlates the training strategy with the business goals, so the CLO must have the knowledge and skills to accomplish this.

The CLO role is evolving

As mature organizations realize that employee development entails far more than offering a few online training courses each year, the role of the CLO is evolving. CLOs play a significant role in planning advancement paths within the organization and in identifying and nurturing potential leaders.

They also play a bigger-picture role, anticipating and identifying skills that will be needed and proactively creating employee upskilling programs to meet those anticipated needs, thus avoiding — or preemptively filling — skills gaps.

The typical CLO has more than a decade of experience in management, adult learning, information management, and use of technology to further information and learning goals. They’re tuned into future trends and avidly learn about adult learning, technology, and the intersection of the two. They are also passionate about cross-departmental collaboration and learning.

Key elements of the CLO role

The CLO will:

  • Assess the current training program and current employees, identifying existing skillsets and skills gaps.
  • Examine the existing training and determine what is working, what is not, and what is needed.
  • Formulate a short- and long-term plan for addressing skills gaps; obtaining, whether by creating or purchasing, needed training, job aids, and performance support resources.
  • Develop and continuously evolve a strategic employee development plan.
  • Track that plan’s progress and measure its success.

Why your organization needs a chief learning officer

Icons against a blue-checkered background. The icons show representations of data (charts, graphs); an arrow in a target; a strategic plan.

While every organization has a unique mix of performance goals, training challenges, and resources with which to address both of these, most organizations face similar big-picture questions and issues. A CLO performs a strategic function that helps the entire organization address some of these.

Make a great first impression

Welcoming new employees is your chance to wow them with your organization’s culture and development opportunities. A strategic CLO will build a robust onboarding program that includes elements common to all new hires, opportunities for new employees to get to know one another as well as the existing team, and training and skills development opportunities specific to each job role.

Employee turnover

Employees who do not believe that they have a development path look elsewhere for new opportunities. But employees whose companies invest in them overwhelmingly stay. A CLO can help your organization reduce costly turnover and build deep institutional knowledge.

Leadership development 

A growing company needs to nurture a “back bench” of leaders. The CLO is strategically positioned to identify emerging needs and gaps. They are also able to identify likely talent among your more junior employees and create the programs — training, mentoring and coaching programs, and deeper learning, such as sending rising stars to degree and certificate programs — that will prepare your top employees to take on future leadership roles.

There’s only one problem

Most companies are too small to have a CLO. Larger companies do: Nearly every Fortune 50 company does, though some use other job titles; the role might also be called training director, head of L&D, or chief education officer.

Smaller companies may not have anyone in this role. Or, they have a head of the L&D team, but that person does not “have a seat at the executive table,” in the vernacular — the L&D head is not powerful enough within the organization to create and implement a strategic, organization-wide plan.

Or the head of L&D is simply over-extended and would like to launch a strategic training initiative … but lacks the time and resources to do so effectively.

Meet the Fractional CLO

A fractional CLO is a person who can serve as an organization’s CLO … part-time. This person may perform some of the same functions that a learning consultant would perform, but over the longer term. Rather than coming on board for a specific project or purpose, to advise, deliver a report, and move on, the fractional CLO would have a long-term, deeply entrenched role in the organization.   

Your fractional CLO will conduct a training audit and develop, in partnership with your L&D team, a long-term strategic plan for employee development. The fractional CLO will then roll up their sleeves and dig in, guiding or managing:

  • Development of training budgets
  • Selection of vendors of online training platforms and content
  • Hiring and upskilling employees for in-house training management and content development
  • Tracking and measurement of training, as well as correlation of training with key business and performance indicators (KPIs)
  • Research and suggest information technology for training, collaboration, and remote team building
  • Other strategic and management tasks as needed

Benefits of a fractional CLO

Smaller organizations don’t have the resources to hire a full-time, high-powered CLO. Yet they still need someone in the driver’s seat. Strategic training planning and employee development — critical for the company’s growth and success — are too often neglected at small organizations with over-extended L&D teams. Choosing the fractional CLO route solves these problems. Your small- to mid-sized organization benefits from the broad experience and deep knowledge of a seasoned executive, without the hefty investment that hiring one demands.

Searching for a fractional CLO solution or provider?

Our team has the deep knowledge and experience you seek in a fractional CLO. We’re agile enough to meet the needs of organizations ranging from small start-ups to growing market leaders. And we are flexible enough to tailor your fractional CLO package to your unique needs.

A CLO is the missing piece that can fuel your organization’s growth and success. Contact us today and get started building your future.

Smiling woman with short hair, wearing glasses.
Pamela S. Hogle

An experienced writer, editor, tech writer, and blogger, Pam helps you make sense of learning science and eLearning technology. She provides information you can use to drive improvements in your training effectiveness and ROI.

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