Getting the CLO Foot in the Door

Sometimes we have to back up in order to move forward, or acknowledge that the future may be in the past. The recent straddling of the classroom and e-learning by Bob Mosher was a wise case in point (Chief Learning Officer, “Selling Up, Selling Down,” Jan

Chief Learning Officer, “Selling Up, Selling Down,” January 2003). The same process perhaps needs to be applied to an idea whose time has come—CLO-ism—but not all may see the revelation. Bridging and blending may be needed.

A good place to start is to question why any savvy, cutting-edge, forward-looking organization would hesitate moving in the direction or appointing a CLO in the first place? Alas, the answers may be unsettling and discomfiting, especially to the converted.

A number of responses quickly surface. First, it is expensive. Making it a chief position immediately puts it in the top salary bracket. Then, too, there may be the not-so-hidden expenses of an accompanying staff of pricey specialists. Second, it may create internal inequities and insecurities. Will strategic planning and R&D take umbrage, become uneasy, and appear threatened, even paranoiac? Will they rush to read the new CLO’s resume to see if in any way he may be in their court? Will they perceive the appointment as an implied criticism of their performance or learning outlook (which it well might be)? In short, how many chains will be jerked? Third, where does the CLO fit in the organizational chart and chain of command? Does she have a direct line to the CEO, bypassing the COO and the CFO? That may be enlightened but threatening. Fourth, what is the CLO’s job or task? What are his marching orders? Does he have an agenda, given or invented? Is he given free rein to roam without limits or constraints? Fifth and finally, what other organizations are going down this chancy road? Are they in our industry? Why did they do it, and with what success? Given such concerns, it is not surprising that the prospect of a CLO may strike terror in the hearts of senior staff and lead to the following qualified recommendation (or is it kiss of death?): “Let’s work toward it.”

Given such misgivings, what options are available to move and advance the cause? Are there any examples or models that would be helpful in overcoming such formidable obstacles and skepticism and bringing about, if not complete implementation initially, at least a transitional arrangement? After all, half a loaf is better than none.

There are, but they minimally may require at least three conditional and operative factors to succeed:

  1. Age. The initial transitional appointment must not threaten senior-level appointments with job displacement on the one hand, but must be their equal in years and experience to offer wise counsel on the other hand. For example, Jack Welch recently came out of retirement to accept an appointment to head up the highly visible and controversial Leadership Academy of the NYC School System. Although some would quarrel whether he is a CLO, what is certain is that he will introduce and impose the GE brand of Six Sigma as the main learning/planning salvation. (If younger aspirants are put off by this senior citizen recommendation, they need to recall that this is a transition strategy designed to open the door and prepare the way for their later application.)
  2. Temporary. The appointment is to be further perceived as an experimental and rotational arrangement funded for three years. Such reassurance includes undertaking an evaluation by the middle of the third year to determine whether the arrangement should be formalized and continued and, if so, made permanent. The model followed would be that of the visiting professor long established for many years at universities. Some corporations have used a variation of that model to appoint a resident futurist (Ian Wilson at GE) or organizational gadfly (Charles Handy at BP).
  3. Selection. A committee should not choose the first appointment for the first year. It should be exclusively selected and funded by the CEO. Ideally, it should set the standards and establish the criteria for subsequent visiting or resident CLOs. Those standards should be thoroughly explained by the CEO and obviously exemplified by her choice. Later on, a process of selection can be put in place and negotiation accommodated. The subsequent opportunity to put in the hands of managers and leaders the nomination of outstanding learning officers, aside from calming fears, would clearly serve the CLO profession well. It would raise to a high level of consciousness, discussion and debate the immense value of focusing on both professional and corporate learning, and how they can be converged.

Of course, this may seem like a less-than-ideal and overly elaborate and cautious way to gain acceptance. The devoted may argue that it dilutes the dedicated effort to achieve visibility for CLOs. Then, too, nominations may be so glamorous and varied so as to be inimical, and the choices so exalted that they may be not just hard but impossible acts to follow. Imagine Peter Senge being named to GM or Steve Pinker from MIT to Paradigm Learning or Pearson Electronics or a Nobel Prize chemist being invited to Merck.

But the arguments advanced here are more than pragmatic. They also acknowledge profound change. New, different and deviant learning dislocates. Add un-learning and that ups the ante. But in order to establish a beachhead and threshold for the dissemination of such mind-altering and organization-changing learning, we need above all to be reassuring and to blend past and future. We must exhibit the kind of patience, ingenuity and savvy associated with the tool kit of CLOs. In short, initially, during and subsequently, we have to practice what we profess.

Irving H. Buchen received his Ph.D. in communications from Johns Hopkins and has taught at Cal State, University of Wisconsin and Penn State. He currently teaches communications at Florida Gulf Coast University and is a member of the business online doctoral faculty at Capella University. He also serves as management and human resources consultant at COMWELL, HR Partners and his own company Optimum Performance Systems. He can be reached at

May 2003 Table of Contents