In an increasingly global, interconnected corporate milieu, the role of the chief learning officer is becoming more complex. The challenges that CLOs face, and the need to meet these challenges through evidence-based means, require both a mindset and a capacity for rigorous research.
The mindset necessitates that CLOs develop the awareness, knowledge base, skills and methodological savvy to encourage a more informed, evidence-based professional practice.
Otherwise known as an “inquiry stance” — a term coined by Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle in their journal article “Relationships of Knowledge and Practice: Teacher Learning in Communities” — this mindset can help recast companies as learning organizations that value qualitative research for its ability to provide textured data about people’s perspectives, experiences, decisions, roles and needs, as well as quantitative metrics to measure performance toward strategic objectives. Adopting an inquiry stance requires that CLOs:
1. Expand their own and others’ skill sets so that decisions are grounded in evidence about effective approaches and best practices.
2. Deepen their knowledge base about the backgrounds, perspectives and needs of their various constituencies within and outside of their companies.
3. Cultivate strategies to engage themselves and their counterparts in active and meaningful professional development regarding evidence generation, data analysis and data-based execution.
4. Deepen and broaden their own understanding of what research entails so they can offer a broad palette of approaches and options well-tailored to the company’s information needs.
5. Learn how to develop research agendas and customized research plans, as well as how to facilitate research teams.
Practitioner Research Defined and Carried Out
Practitioner research is the name given to a systematic discovery process that emerges from assessing problems or concerns within a work setting. The goals of practitioner research are the understanding and improvement of practice, as well as the initiation of an informed change process.
Practitioner research has the potential to generate genuine and sustained improvements in organizational settings. It provides new opportunities for stakeholders to reflect on and assess their work; to explore and test new ideas, methods and materials; to assess the effectiveness of new approaches; to share feedback with colleagues; and to make decisions about strategies for professional development, assessment plans, service delivery models and policy changes.
Example One: Culture Clashes Explicated
Imagine that a U.S.-based corporation, the giant in its industry, acquires another large national company. As the acquisition proceeds, pushback from the acquired company impedes the integration process, especially confounding knowledge transfer and communication pathways.
The CLO decides to intervene in what was becoming a costly and increasingly hostile chasm between companies. He designs a qualitative research investigation of the companies’ respective cultures and succeeds in positioning the research project’s findings to leverage a revised change management plan. Through an intensive six-week study, a carefully selected representative sample of executives, middle management and front-line employees is interviewed in one-on-one and focus group formats. The interviews are intended to elicit perspectives, concerns and needs with respect to the short- and long-term future of the newly merged business. Let’s say that an observational component, consisting of walk-throughs focused on corporate culture, was conducted as well.
Now imagine that one discovery that emerged from this process was that promises were made early on from the top of the house that were not kept across sectors. This failure, combined with multiple moves that were experienced as hostile by employees at the acquired firm, created considerable mistrust and resistance. However, the interviews and focus groups provided insightful data about employees’ concerns and clear recommendations for improvement.
While third parties were hired to conduct the interviews and focus groups — for their impartial perspective, as well as their perceived neutrality — selected executives and high-level management were involved in a collaborative data analysis stage. Results were shared with all employees as a way to open dialogue and demonstrate the company’s renewed commitment to transparency and trustworthy communication.
Example Two: The Problem Is Inside
Let’s say another large U.S.-based company was adapting to the new reality of it being one of many players in an industry undergoing contraction and consolidation. The company was at a loss for how to respond. Now imagine the CLO suggests that the company engage in a needs-assessment process, utilizing both quantitative and qualitative data; prior company research had been entirely quantitative, collected by surveys.
A needs-assessment design was carefully created to examine, among other issues, how major business drivers and industry trends affected employees, from the top to the middle of the house. The study combined qualitative data gleaned from observation, interviews and focus groups with quantitative data from surveys. From the results of this inquiry process, the company discovered that its biggest issues were less external — the bad economy, macro trends — than internal. There was eye-opening consensus that major barriers to success stemmed from the company’s business model and its culture.
Major weaknesses — including siloed organizational functioning, competitiveness undermining collaboration and punitive sanctions rewarding isolation — were identified, and a strategic plan was developed. The study’s qualitative insights enabled the company to get beyond decontextualized survey data and re-energized its efforts to adapt.
The Evidence-Based CLO
These two fictional examples demonstrate how a data-based understanding of corporate culture, structure and functioning can lead to improved organizational focus. The need for companies to view themselves as learning organizations — and to understand how this stance on knowledge can foster growth and development — is the raison d’tre of the CLO role.
In a recent special issue on “Managing in the New World,” Harvard Business Review offered numerous insights into the value of workplace research and the role of the CLO. In an article titled “Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis,” authors Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky said that new models and modes of leadership are a necessary response to new accountability demands. To be successful, leaders must “foster adaptation, helping people develop the ‘next practices’ that will enable the organization to thrive in a new world, even as they continue with the best practices necessary for current success,” they wrote.
To develop these next practices, companies must adopt a more receptive sensibility, grounded in enhanced understanding of the perspectives and experiences at all levels of their settings. Learning leaders must infuse insights from workplace research to help their institutions restructure and re-energize.
Hitting the reset button requires a practical understanding of how new business models will be experienced, taking into account the perspectives of an array of stakeholders within the contexts in which these perspectives are shaped.
“The issues themselves are more than disembodied facts and analysis,” wrote Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky. “People’s competencies, loyalties, and direct stakes lie behind them. In a period of turmoil, you must look beyond the merits of an issue to understand the interests, fears, aspirations, and loyalties of the factions that have formed around it. [This] requires that you create a culture of courageous conversations. Executives need to listen to unfamiliar voices and set the tone for candor and risk taking.”
But how does the company accomplish this? How does the CLO engender and actively support a culture of courageous conversations? How does the CLO focus these conversations so they are generative?
Overcoming Barriers to Workplace Research
CLOs often wish to develop stronger evidence to guide their decision making, but they don’t know where to begin. Or it seems too complicated, expensive or time-intensive.
Overcoming these common barriers to more evidence-based decision making is key to making workplace research a mindset rather than a series of isolated projects. One helpful strategy is to re-establish the central role of the company’s basic and applied research. Further, the CLO should have data to support the value of workplace research in his or her specific industry. These data, taken from actual case studies and existing studies, help make a strong argument for research-based initiatives.
A CLO also must understand how concerns in the workplace can be developed into researchable questions answered through workplace studies. Familiarity with cutting-edge workplace research designs and methodological skills, understanding of time and resource constraints, and knowledge of how and when others’ involvement can be achieved can help position workplace research as a strong ROI step. The most crucial consideration, however, is being able to align methods with the study questions.
Consider the following example. Andrew is a CLO for a youth marketing company. Over time, he has grown increasingly concerned about a mismatch between the cultural backgrounds of the company’s leaders and their clients. He feels the lack of understanding of youth culture might impact the company’s ability to provide services that are resonant and, therefore, profitable. Andrew designs a study to examine client backgrounds and expectations of marketing services. What follows are the steps he would take to engage in this kind of work-based research.
- Identify and refine research questions. Andrew would develop research questions about his company’s client base and the relationship between the clients’ cultures and the cultures of his company’s personnel. Possible questions include: How does culture influence youths’ perspectives on services and products? What are the multiple cultures of youth, and how can the company better understand and relate to them? Andrew would vet these questions by a selected task force in the company, seeking representation from various functions and levels. Their input helps develop more complex questions and facilitate buy-in and engagement.
- Review existing knowledge. Andrew would read about youth culture broadly as well as subcultures specifically. If possible, he also would read anything written about the many diverse cultures of his company’s employees. A review of literature is often the first step in the development of a research design. Engagement with the literature ideally happens before, during and after data are collected.
- Develop a research design. Andrew and his colleagues would decide on the population for the study. This is called participant selection. He would choose a representative group of young people and employees to study over a selected period of time. This would give him a range of perspectives and a deeper level of insight into these individuals’ experiences in relation to the products and services of his company. Then, as suggested by Joseph A. Maxwell in Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach, Andrew would choose methods for data collection, aiming for “triangulation” with multiple, intersecting sources to enhance validity. He would also map out a timeline for the study.
- Collect data. Data collection methods would likely include survey data from a broad base of youth and employees; interviews or focus groups — ideally, recorded and transcribed — with a subset sample of youth and employees, which Andrew would need to explain are voluntary and non-evaluative; and the ongoing writing of reflective notes that relate to the guiding research questions.
- Analyze data. Once data collection is complete, Andrew and his colleagues would analyze the data, looking for themes that emerge within and across the various data sources. The team would engage in structured readings of the themes to develop inductive categories of analysis that help uncover new knowledge and understanding. Ideally, some of this data analysis would happen in an initial stage of the analytic process, resulting in formative data analysis, which can influence subsequent data collection instruments in ways that can enhance the data set.
- Report findings. Andrew and his team would write up findings in the form of a research report, examining and organizing what has been learned about the driving issue in light of the data. The report would include a specific section on the implications for the company’s strategic plan and day-to-day functioning. Ideally, members of the team would be involved in an inquiry group with other colleagues for additional interpretations and to generate new professional development opportunities.
To increase companies’ flow of information and foment the collaborative development of solutions — effectively pushing innovation from the inside by engaging employees in the structured pursuit of increased understanding — CLOs must understand the value and possibilities for workplace research. They must be intentional and strategic proponents of this kind of research. And they must be able to invite people into a process of discovery that has the potential to reinvigorate the workplace and transform both individual and group functioning.