In The Rise of the Chief Learning Officer in the War for Talent, Bloomberg BNA examines the critical role that CLOs play in today’s competitive business market. The author turns to Consensus advisor Ed Cohen, the only chief learning officer to take two different organizations to the top ranking for learning and talent development.


by Genevieve Douglas

The success of a talent management strategy in today’s competitive labor market may well be determined by a little-known position: the chief learning officer.

Younger workers typically want constant learning in the workplace, and it needs to be at their fingertips, Ed Cohen, learning and leadership development consultant for Nelson Cohen Global Consulting, told Bloomberg BNA. “That has really changed the game a lot,” he said.

The competitive labor market also means that employers will have to hire workers who aren’t appropriately prepared or developed in terms of skills, Cohen noted. “That is where the CLO really comes into play,” he said.

The CLO role first emerged in the late 1990s and was predominately focused on learning and development, but the role “has expanded quite a bit” since that time, according to Cohen. In some cases, the chief learning officer position is also responsible for the organizational development strategy and the talent management strategy. This can include performance management, career development and succession planning, he said.

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Today, there is a global war for talent, and companies are looking at how to best retain skilled employees, acquire new talent and attract top performers. Talent management and learning and development practices are among the key ways of doing that, Cohen said.

“The reason why it has become even more critical is because we are in this era where you have an exodus of the baby boomers,” Cohen said, noting that approximately 65 million baby boomers will likely retire by 2028. “That’s more in a 10-year span than the U.S. has seen in 25 years,” he said.

At Appirio, a global cloud consulting IT company, the CLO is viewed as a strategic partner who helps develop company culture, which in turn contributes to customer satisfaction, Cat Lang, chief learning officer at Appirio, told Bloomberg BNA. “It’s not just about keeping employees happy, it’s about making sure that we’re building a level of competence and expertise” that provides exceptional service to our customers.

Lang said CLO functions are different from more traditional talent management in a few ways:

  • They must be able to shift quickly for talent needs and not necessarily focus only on the long-term needs of the organization. “I need to be able to anticipate what customers will need, where the business strategy is going and putting programs in place to achieve those goals,” Lang said.
  • CLOs have to create learning and development programs that can cater to a growing remote workforce. “My team and I work to make sure all of the distributed initiatives are connected,” Lang said.
  • Metrics should be based on both employee and business success. Lang and her team work to create programming that will develop leadership skills for all employees at all levels.

The CLO team also promotes career development and learning for employees through robust mentoring programs. “We focus on cross-company experiences, meaning we hire a very diverse set of experience and perspective. We place a heavy emphasis on respect for expertise and collaboration among employees. This offers a lot of opportunities for mentoring,” she said.

Appirio also is forming employee resource groups, community-based mentoring and other programs to provide opportunities for employees from different groups and levels to work together without the confines of a more formal training environment, Lang said.