Marc My Words: 6 Challenges Facing CLOs & Senior Training Directors

Written By

Marc Rosenberg

February 12, 2018

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
—Chinese proverb

Attention training directors, CLOs (chief learning officers), and others who run learning and development functions—and you executives who appointed them—this is for you. Whether due to budget challenges, evolving attitudes, fluctuating business needs, or marketplace changes, the ground around you is shifting yet again. New thinking now is critical, not only for the effectiveness of your function but for your own survival as well. Among the current challenges facing CLOs, here are six areas that need your immediate and focused attention.

1. Move past the CLO/CU legacy

Let’s be honest: Too many chief learning officers are really glorified training directors. They might have a neat title, higher rank, sit at “the table,” and talk the “strategy talk,” but their job responsibilities and mission haven’t changed much. The corporate university (CU) hasn’t fared much better. Most CU infrastructure—buildings, technology, and large staffs—fosters an insatiable appetite for dollars as it expands. Maintaining high enrollments and filling the seats can, and often does, become the driver of much decision-making. As many CU facilities get repurposed, or are abandoned or sold off, do we see this handwriting on the wall?

If you feel like you’re drifting in this direction, focus on three things: First, define a narrow strategic mission that reflects the highest priorities of your business. Stop offering programs that sound good or generate more butts in seats (including virtual butts) but do little to solve recognized business problems. Second, abandon your historical “training is all” culture. Not everything is solvable by training. The workforce needs new solutions, available at the moment of need, that help them get their jobs done effectively and efficiently. And third, get your metrics act together. Let your client determine what success is, and then do everything you can to meet those goals. Performance—verified and certified—is what matters. Learning is just an enabler.

2. Do a better job of recruiting training talent

If you look closely at your training and development (T&D) staff, you will surely find people who excel at teaching or instructional design, and who enjoy working with learners. But, unfortunately, not everyone is so prepared or enthused. What should you do?

It begins with a more rigorous set of criteria for both your training team and for quality teaching. Just because someone can “do it” on the job doesn’t mean they can teach someone else, let alone design an effective course. Subject matter expert (SME) capabilities are important, but being an SME is no guarantee of being a great trainer or developer, so a formal preparatory and evaluation plan is key. An occasional “weekend wonder” workshop is likely not sufficient. Also important is a constant supply of fresh teaching and design talent from the field. A strong trainer rotational program will help keep your organization on top of what’s going on in the business and assure that your learners are getting information from those who have “been there, done that” recently. Why is this so important? Think about it this way: T&D professionals touch hundreds if not thousands of employees during their tenure. When they go back to the field after a successful training assignment, those interactions help them become stronger in their own careers, including future leadership positions.

But perhaps the most exciting transformation that you can support is the idea that everyone is both a teacher and a learner. It doesn’t matter whether the learning is going on in the training center or on the front line; the idea that everyone has a teaching (including coaching and mentoring) responsibility—to their peers, their staff, and even their superiors—is a powerful tool for positive culture change.

3. Focus on standards, metrics, certification, and results

Live by the end-of-course multiple-choice test, die by the end-of-course multiple-choice test. If you don’t have a sound process for showing evidence of real performance results, you run the risk of false certification—sending people out into the field thinking they are prepared when, in fact, they may be far from it. And for those of you who are comfortable with “course attendance as compliance,” you may be in for a rude awakening. Showing up, even taking a short test at the end of a course, is not evidence of capability, and you are putting your organization’s reputation in jeopardy.

As noted in number 1, above, let your client drive the effectiveness discussion. Help your client understand what’s possible, and then work together to achieve it. Work toward certifying performance rather than certifying completion. Beginning with the end in mind—asking what your client’s end game is—may seem counterintuitive, especially if you see your role as pumping out courses; but in the end, it may be essential for your value proposition, and maybe your survival.

4. Dull the shiny-object syndrome

Stop, stop, stop going off the deep end every time a new technology comes along. Many training organizations went gaga over Second Life and Google Glass and got little for their efforts—except, for some, a bad taste for technology, and for others, an unrestrained desire to try it again with the next toy. Either outcome is ill considered.

Likewise, assuming that great technology is all you need for success is folly. Technology is a tool, not a strategy. A good LMS cannot guarantee a successful training program. In fact, it can lull you into a false sense that all is well. Remember: Great technology, coupled with bad training, results only in more efficiently delivered bad instruction.

Of course great technology is exciting, but it should never distract you from your core mission of improving performance and helping the larger organization succeed. Training organizations that tout the interactive technologies built into their classrooms or the sophisticated infrastructure of their eLearning efforts, over the value-add of the training programs themselves, may not be around in the long run. Technology can be powerful, but it can also be hypnotic at times. Know when you are drifting from the former to the latter.

5. Rein in scope creep

Get real about your mission. It’s likely narrower than you think. Many training organizations, CLOs, and corporate universities start out with a limited, defined, and achievable mission, only to see it expand over time. After all, when you’re done training everyone in the domain or your original charter, what are you going to do to keep enrollments up? This leads to scope creep, which can ultimately kill you.

Before you know what’s happening, as you chase enrollments you are offering two, three, even four times as many programs. Worse, you are starting to offer multiple versions of the same program. The five-day course, the three-day workshop, the one-day briefing, and the three-hour overview come in rapid succession, followed by similar programs online, and the inevitable “refresher training.” This all comes with associated baggage in the form of more staff, more training capacity, more technology, and more money. Soon your little, focused training program has become an albatross, forcing you to do anything you can to feed it, and attracting the knives of the budget cutters.

Stick to your knitting. Expand only with the support—including financial support—of your clients. And never, ever rely on courseware marketing in lieu of demonstrating real value to keep you going.

6. Build training leadership professionalism

Too often, people are appointed to leadership positions even if they are not ready to assume the role; that’s just a fact of organizational life. We all know people like this—people who don’t belong in those positions and are not effective in carrying out the organization’s mission. T&D is not immune.

We can mitigate this problem to an extent. We can say that business experience is only one key requirement for a training leadership job, and also require some learning and development experience on the part of senior training leaders. We can make it palatable for senior training leaders to partake in some form of ongoing professional development. It may not be courses, but certainly we can find (or build) learning experiences that would be very helpful for future leaders in our profession.

We can insist that the organization have adequate learning leadership bench strength. One key responsibility of a learning leader must be to identify and develop her or his replacement.

But most importantly, we can work to make a training leadership role valuable, not just to the organization, but also to the leader. If our leaders—now and in the future—come into the job just to get their “ticket punched,” well, we will get what we deserve.

Assuring your organization’s sustainability

When training (or learning) organizations fall out of favor, or fail entirely, much of it can be due to hubris. When they are threatened, you’ll hear a familiar chorus: “We’re too important to fail.” (Sound familiar?) When training departments are slashed, they expect a hue and cry about their demise from their former clients. It rarely comes. Too often, those clients saw it coming long before their training colleagues did.

There are also structural reasons for failure. Costs, professionalism, capabilities, mission, value proposition, and leadership are some of the major ones. It’s not too late to change your direction, and it’s not rocket science. Just sit down and seriously talk about your business model and whether or not you are on a sustainable track. Failure to do so, not just once but on a regular basis, can seal your fate. And when it’s all over, you could be the only one surprised.

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