Traditional CLOs are up against a serious challenge right now, according to Dave Koll, enterprise learning leader for CGB Enterprises Inc., a grain and transportation company headquartered outside of New Orleans. It’s not enough to have a learning management system and a portfolio of content. “If they aren’t solving clearly defined business problems, they aren’t adding value,” he said.
To do that, learning leaders need to get much closer to talent leaders to help identify those business problems and figure out how learning can help solve them. In fact, CLOs have to think of themselves as talent leaders — not keepers of the learning function — and broaden their value proposition by partnering with their peers in talent management.
This not only puts pressure on learning leaders to demonstrate value in different and potentially unfamiliar ways but also gives them an opportunity to address critical business needs, said David Jackson, partner in Mercer’s Talent, Leadership and Organizational Performance unit in Baltimore. For instance, by working with recruiters and hiring managers, they can help bolster the value of an organization’s brand to attract new recruits. Or this partnership will help engage high performers through career development programs and ensure they stick around to become the next generation of leaders.
“Millennial recruits really want to believe they will be a valuable part of the team and will have a chance to grow in the organization,” Jackson said. “A strong learning program is an important part of that story.”
Having a great learning program as part of the broader talent management process also may determine whether a company can recruit and keep its high-performing millennial employees. According to Deloitte’s Millennial Survey 2016, this generation is alarmingly disloyal. Almost half (44 percent) of millennials plan to look for new jobs in the next two years, and of this group, 71 percent say they are unhappy with how their skills are being developed. Conversely, employees who are most loyal to their employers say there is a lot of development available for those who want to take on leadership roles. These numbers underscore the need for learning leaders to create engaging talent development programs that align with the needs of both employees and the business.
Lean In to Learning
Fortunately, CLOs today have more tools, technology, data and metrics to identify these needs and deliver results through a variety of platforms and formats. Most human resources and learning management system vendors offer learning tools and content to tie in with their customers’ recruiting, workforce planning, and knowledge management systems so that they can create a more seamless onboarding and talent management experience.
“We’ve always talked about training being integrated into performance management, but now that trend is really gaining traction,” said Mike Gaines, director of strategic alliances for Halogen, in Ottawa, Ontario. Halogen customers are pushing for more agile and seamless connections between learning and performance from the cloud-based software company.
“It’s no longer about performance reviews and periodic feedback,” Gaines said. “The trend now is to give employees control over their career development.” That means creating an on-demand learning environment where employees have access to content in real time via any device, rather than being told to go to a course or conference.
Technology is enabling this transition, but rolling out e-learning programs or providing access to content via mobile devices isn’t going to solve every business challenge, said Matt MacInnis, CEO of Inkling, a learning content platform company based in San Francisco. His company works mostly with CLOs and chief human resource officers looking for ways to deliver content more seamlessly to employees, but it’s the reason behind the technology that makes all the difference. About half of Inkling’s clients have a clear understanding of the business needs they want to meet, and the metrics they will use to measure them, he said. “The other 50 percent think mobile will help them, but they don’t know how.”
This is where some CLOs fall short. If they don’t partner with HR and business unit leaders to tie specific problems to learning technology, then they aren’t able make the value connection. “Learning needs context,” MacInnis said. “Tying it to a business-focused result provides that context.”
This collaborative approach to learning is forcing CLOs to serve two distinct roles: a business partner to executives and managers who can understand their challenges and help them see how and when learning can help overcome them; and a guide for employees to navigate the diverse content offerings available to improve their performance, said Sameer Patel, senior vice president and general manager, collaboration and communities at SAP. “The business drivers come from the top or the organization, but they are implemented and achieved through the employees.”
For example, Patel said he worked with a client that operates a chain of arts and crafts stores where executives noticed a pattern of inconsistent upselling from store to store. Working with local managers, learning leaders analyzed selling habits in various stores and found that seasoned staff were more likely to shelve related products in proximity to each other, which drove up sales.
In response, the company created short videos about shelfing strategies for new managers, and created online forums where managers from across the chain could ask each other questions and share best practices. “That’s not something you can put in a learning management system,” Patel said. “The solution was about connecting up-and-comers with seasoned experts to achieve a business goal.”
The Value of Virtual Mentors
This demand for on-the-spot learning also has driven internal social media use to make learning and mentoring a more seamless part of the employee experience. “There has been a flood of social collaboration technology in the learning space over the past four years,” Patel said.
These platforms and the informal learning and mentoring they enable make it necessary for learning leaders to work more closely with employees and business units to build content and create a culture where people turn to each other for help and knowledge-sharing instead of the learning department. In these environments, learning leaders become coaches and communicators, urging employees to share their best practices in conversations and through videos and shared documents hosted on these platforms.
These kinds of learning moments have real business impact because they are integrated into fast-paced day-to-day performance needs, Patel said. Whether it’s giving salespeople access to new product information as soon as it is available, or creating mentoring moments that more naturally transfer knowledge from one generation to the next, learning transpires in a fast-paced, agile work environment. “These tools turn end users into mentors. They are the charter of what learning can be.”
This is especially useful in fast growth companies with far-flung staff, said Marc Farrugia, vice president of human resources for Sun Communities, a real estate investment trust and manufactured housing property manager. When Sun Communities was smaller, training was mostly conducted live in a classroom or on a job site. But the Michigan-based company has nearly doubled in size in the last year through acquisitions and now has more than 1,200 employees at 253 sites across the country.
“Our primary struggle now is how dispersed we are,” Farrugia said. In many cases, there are only three or four staffers at each site, making on-site training impractical. But new employees, especially those at newly acquired sites, still need training and support to learn the Sun Communities culture, business and way of operating.
To accommodate rapid growth, Farrugia worked with the information technology team and business unit leaders to develop a knowledge and training portal on SAP Jam, SAP’s social collaboration platform. It took 18 months to build a portfolio of content that includes onboarding courses, job aids, workplace templates, PowerPoint presentations, best practice documents and access to internal experts.
Now, instead of completing formal training, employees can search the database to answer questions and find the tools they need to solve problems they have in the moment. “It’s like Google on speed,” he said. “It makes our people much more self-sufficient.”
The message is clear: To be successful in today’s fast-paced business environment, learning leaders need to work directly with management, executives and employees to identify business needs and solve them in real time with learning opportunities that have measurable business impact.
“CLOs need to rethink what learning is and how to make it impactful,” Jackson said. While there will always be a place for formal training, they have to be more proactive and adapt their content to learners real time needs.”