In the mid-1990s, a new C-suite title was born when General Electric CEO Jack Welch dubbed Steve Kerr the company’s “chief learning officer.” Since then, CLOs have sprouted up at major firms in several industries. But what does this new breed of “learning leaders” bring to the table that traditional human resources departments and employee training programs do not? How does an increased emphasis on learning improve an organization? And do new technologies, like distance learning, simulations and online portals, enhance or impede work-based education? To answer these questions, Knowledge at Wharton spoke with Ed Betof, former vice president of talent management and CLO at Becton, Dickinson and Company, who is a senior fellow and academic director of Wharton Executive Education’s Executive Program in Work-Based Learning Leadership; Mike Barger, vice president and CLO at JetBlue University; and Ann Schulte, vice president of global learning at MasterCard Worldwide.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Knowledge at Wharton: Chief learning officer (CLO) is a title that many of our listeners may not be familiar with. What exactly is the role of the CLO and what is the CLO’s relationship to the C-suite? Maybe we should start with you, Ed.

Betof: The chief learning officer in organizations is the senior leader responsible for the development of talent in the organization. Most frequently that person oversees a corporate or organizational university and works with other C-level officers and executives, as well as other leaders in the organization, to develop an aligned strategy, to develop people skills and leadership skills consistent with the business’s goals and strategy.

Barger: I think that’s an excellent answer. I think that the primary responsibility of the organizational learning leader is to connect all of the energies of the learning function to the strategic objectives and needs of the business. That is our primary responsibility. And so, you are connecting the talent of the learning function, faculty and their energies with those needs of the business.

Knowledge at Wharton: Historically, Human Resources departments have been in charge of programs that enhance employees’ skills, such as on-the-job training and tuition reimbursement. Why is there a need for a separate role that’s wholly dedicated to learning? 

Schulte:  Well, I think that in the environment that we’re in today, identifying the skills and the competencies that are necessary for an organization to be successful is a critical first step. Once those competencies have been agreed upon at a strategic level by the organization, the learning department and the learning leaders can come in and provide a variety of different interventions.

In the old days, as you referenced, when training existed in the HR department, a lot of times those interventions were limited to a class of some sort. Today, we talk about all different sorts of ways to help employees build their skills and become continuous learners, so that they can continue to contribute to the strategic goals of the organization.

Barger: I think the evolution of the learning function has moved more from a training and skills delivery function to more of a performance engineering function. Our job now is directed much more at improving frontline performance — again, connecting that performance to business improvements, which is considerably different than I think what HR and training used to do. I think now our energies, as I mentioned before, are really directed at driving performance improvement through all levels of the organization.

Betof: One thing that I would add is, in addition to addressing the skills, knowledge and talent needs for today, the chief learning officer and the functions that they lead are responsible for anticipating and working with other leaders in their organizations to anticipate the skills, the knowledge, the talents necessary next year, three years and even five years, possibly even beyond, depending on the type of organization. So, it should be just about be impossible now, going forward in very contemporary organizations, to have a strategic business plan without a strong talent and talent learning element — not just hanging at the end of that plan, but integrated into the fiber of the strategic plan. 

Knowledge at Wharton: What is a corporate university, exactly? And is this a growing trend?

Schulte: I think Corporate Universities have been around for a while, and I do think they are evolving. And they may be a little bit unique or have their own flavor, depending on the organization. At MasterCard University, we have seven population-specific colleges that actually just help our learners understand and it helps us target the specific programs that may be directly related to the skills or the competencies that they need to build for the particular business unit that they’re in.

A lot of it is virtual. When we talk about the Corporate University, we are not talking about a training center, or a set of dedicated classrooms, or what have you. It’s more conceptual; it’s a learning portal, if you will, that provides access to a tremendous amount of resources beyond just classes. There is on-line learning, there are collaborations, there are links to outside partnerships, academic institutions and the like, that are all intended to provide knowledge that is necessary at the moment the employee needs it.

Barger: I think the Corporate University philosophy allows corporate leaders to be able to emphasize the importance of learning to the success of the organization. A Corporate University doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a centralized or a de-centralized function. In our case, at JetBlue University, it is a completely centralized function, which means everyone that does training at JetBlue all live under the same roof — not necessarily in the same geographic location, but all under the same “departmental” roof.

What that allows us to do is to have a very common educational philosophy. It allows us to cross-pollinate faculty. So, in our case, we can have flight instructors teaching flight attendants and customer service people. And having this centralized approach or common approach to education allows you to really connect with different work groups, which is one of those key business challenges that organizations are dealing with today – that is, trying to get different work groups to work better together. That is something we can accomplish better in the Corporate University environment.

Knowledge at Wharton: In many cases, employees are offered particular education options, like tuition reimbursement, but it’s more of a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. This seems to be an entirely different situation. Not only are people performing their job functions, they’re being asked to factor in education. How do employees view this — is it a perk, or an added pressure?

Barger: Well, I think that the idea of the Corporate University is to again elevate the expectations of the development that one would get in the function. So, I think that as individuals come into the Corporate University environment, they expect not only to get knowledge or skills but they expect to receive some sort of developmental opportunity that will really contribute to their ability to succeed on the frontlines.

Schulte: Actually, we’ve seen that a lot of it is about what Mike mentioned earlier. It’s about high performance, and that is improving individual performance, working on team performance — and that eventually translates into organizational performance or having a high-performance culture. What we are seeing is that for a lot of our employees, this development and the company’s willingness to provide them opportunities to develop and grow their skills and learn continuously is very important to them. It’s not something that they feel we are making them do; it’s something that they look forward to and are appreciative of the opportunity to continue to grow their careers and their personal capabilities. 

Knowledge at Wharton: Are there particular incentives for employees to participate? For example, is there a certain amount of status attached to completing various levels of training?

Schulte: Some universities are structured that way, where there are very prescriptive curriculum paths: You complete this curriculum and then you move to the next curriculum, and that qualifies you to have a certain set of responsibilities, or what have you. Others are more open, and there’s the idea that career development or career management ultimately, in today’s tumultuous market, rests with the employee. You’re the captain of your own career.

And if you’re given the opportunity, and you sieze the opportunity to learn a new skill or to increase your competency in a particular area, there are no guarantees that there is a position open for promotion, or anything the minute that you finish that certification. But, when things do become available, if you’re ready because you have taken the initiative, then you are a step ahead of the game.

Knowledge at Wharton: How do you measure the success of these kinds of programs?

Schulte: That’s a big question.

Barger: That is one of the most challenging questions that I think corporate learning leaders have. I think that a lot of our success today is really driven by the extent to which we’re able to meet the strategic needs of the business. So, as Ed mentioned before, as businesses define their strategic objectives and they align those objectives across all of the business functions of the organization, the learningfunction has a responsibility to hold up their end of the bargain and support the strategic objectives of the company. And, to the extent to which they do that, this will define how effective they are.

Betof: That question, which is one of the most frequently asked questions, cannot be answered in one way. You really need to take a look at different populations, different needs, and different ways that learning leaders structure their work. Let me give you a specific example of one way you can address it: Just about every company today reports that they lack bench strength. Some — in fact, I would say many — report that they lack not only bench strength, but they lack incumbency strength at the leadership level in their organizations.

So, a learning leader in many organizations either has responsibility for, or partners with those who oversee, the overall development of leadership talent in the organization — through succession planning, through job challenges, through movement into new roles. If you take the supply of leadership talent today and for tomorrow and you begin to measure progress in bolstering that pipeline, you can say with some reasonable degree of confidence that the combination of efforts that company is taking — through job assignments, through its careful succession planning, through its learning efforts — begins to show definite improvements in both the quality as well as the quantity of the talent that you have in those leadership ranks. That would be one way. But, you’d have to break that down into various learning challenges in answering a question about measurement.

Knowledge at Wharton: has had an ongoing debate about whether new technologies, such as online portals and distance learning, enhance education or impede it. What’s your take on this?

Schulte: I feel pretty strongly that they enhance learning. Technology is an enabler; it’s not the learning in and of itself…. We have a global population that we try to reach, and it allows us access to people that we couldn’t reach face-to-face in a much quicker fashion. It also allows us to do things such as simulations — a lot of things that we can practice, which we would not be able to do in the operational environment, are enabled by technology.

Barger: I think the key is not using technology for technology’s sake. One of the significant changes in learning over the last couple of decades is that we now deliver learning more in the context of the environment that these people are going to be working in when they’re doing their day-to-day jobs. Pilots, for example, are going to train in simulators that represent the real thing about as well as you can.

We’re going to use other technologies in the classroom and out in the workplace that are going to simulate the work environment. There’s not a particularly clear line between the training environment and the work environment. So, when they move from learning and into the execution of their day-to-day jobs, it’s a very comfortable transition. I think that in that context, technology plays a huge role in helping folks get comfortable with the kinds of tools that they are going to have available to them when they’re operating day to day.

Betof: We can say with some reasonable level of confidence that experienced chief learning officers and senior learning leaders can select the right methods of delivery. There are certain things that will never substitute for face-to-face work. And, I can say with that same level of confidence that, for the technology support that is [now] available for learning, there are probably certain things that can’t substitute for that. And, it’s a combination of selecting them carefully and sometimes blending them carefully — what we call “blended learning solutions” — that is, I think, more the answer than not.