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The role of Chief Learning Officer and why it matters
Max Wessel

The role of Chief Learning Officer and why it matters

This is the final part of the article which was first published last week. The World Economic Forum and PwC jointly launched a report, Putting Skills First: A Framework for Action, at the Forum's Growth Summit 2023.

It looks at how hiring based on skills and competencies, rather than qualifications, can address the growing skills challenge and help drive the green and digital transitions.

Here, Max Wessel, Chief Learning Officer at SAP, and Patrick Hull, VP Global Learning & Future of Work at Unilever, explain some of the challenges and what their roles involve.

There was a lot of talk about creating this culture of learning and how we get people to the space of continuous learning and accessing all these resources.

I would say the latest shift that we're seeing is how can skills become the real currency that is used to help inform talent decisions, to help inform succession planning and to help inform the kinds of learning and courses or resources that we deploy.

The next generation of Chief Learning Officers and the current generation are all looking at how we can create this strong skill signal. How do we really ensure skills are a currency that we can rely on to match people to jobs and projects?

What trends are affecting the future of work?

Wessel: For all Chief Learning Officers, there's a major demographic shift in the workforce that we have to think about.

Our lifetimes are continuing to extend with advances in health care, and population growth is slowing in most parts of the world.

The situation that you see playing out in France right now with increasing retirement ages and all the tension that comes from that will play out all over.

When your career starts at 22 and ends at 75, you have an opportunity for multiple arcs. If you take that as the big theme, our careers are lengthening, then there will be a couple of by-products.

The importance of your degree will be far lower, because at 55 the relevance of the degree that you got 33 years earlier will be far less significant than the on-the-job expertise and training you received in the prior three decades.

The second thing is, people will not want to do the same thing over that 50-year-plus period in the workforce.

Patrick Hull

— Max Wessel, Chief Learning Officer at SAP

The responsibility and/or opportunity of people to help folks on that path to whatever the next thing is in their career is high.

And the relationship between people and employers is going to change, because the likelihood that they start in one place and end in that place will continue to decrease.

The significance of internal training increases dramatically in that context, and the need for teams to not just do the basic upskilling but take on mid-career onboarding and then reskilling initiatives in big form is quite high.

The thing that I think we're missing is if you take that context for a Learning Officer, strategic workforce planning is a part of the job on a multi-generational basis.

We need more people in these organisations thinking strategically on this generational demographic shift.

Hull: If you were designing a data and analytics or AI course six months ago, you wouldn't have mentioned ChatGPT or generative AI.

Things are just changing so fast in terms of the environment in which we are operating that you need to come back to skills.

The way you apply a skill or the things that you need to be exposed to in that skill, that's constantly changing, but the skill is fairly constant.

We're talking about prompt engineers and the roles that are using that. But the core skill set is there.

If you were designing a data and analytics or AI course six months ago, you wouldn't have mentioned ChatGPT or generative AI.

Things are just changing so fast in terms of the environment in which we are operating that you need to come back to skills.

— Patrick Hull, VP Global Learning & Future of Work at Unilever

The fact that the environment is changing so fast means that from a learning point of view, you don't have the time to define a course on much of this stuff because it's outdated by the time you launch it.

So it is much more about that democratised learning and giving people access to the right resources in the flow of work. And it is about how we ensure people are active learners.

Skills is the unlock there, because if we're showing people that by staying current in your skills, by making sure that you're learning about ChatGPT and that sort of thing, you will ensure that you have access to jobs in the future, future opportunities, that's the key unlock.

For so long, we have been trying to get active learners to learn by saying learning is good for you, but actually, it's really important for your career and for your ability to stay relevant.

We need to focus on making sure people realise this is so important for them to stay relevant in the work that they do.

Wessel: I measure success in a number of ways. For SAP, we want an increase in depth, we want an increase in completion, and ultimately we want job mobility.

The fact that we can instrument everything that's happening across our ecosystem is quite interesting.

This is not data that we had before. How are people going through programmes? Where are they using these skills? The fact that we can monitor that is quite useful.

We've pursued a big skill-based shift, we're driving a big role-based architecture change.

There's massive changes we're driving in terms of how we deliver content. I would love to see more learning leaders who find themselves with the skill set and the mentality of product leaders, because that's ultimately what we do.

We run organisations that deliver a product to a constituent. It may not be the thing that we sell.

We need to exist at the confluence of desirability, feasibility and viability, just like any product leader. I do hope that is a lasting change at SAP, and that it is seen elsewhere.

Hull: The key measure of success for me will be that we get to a place where we can genuinely match people to jobs based on their skill sets – that people feel these are good matches, that the organisation feels these are good matches, and we can then speed up that matching, and it can become the death of succession planning and all the work that goes into that.

In fact, that would be a good measure of success. So we no longer have any succession planning, we literally just let the matching happen and we create this talent marketplace based on skills.

What advice do you have for someone looking to move into a similar role?

Wessel: I'd say jump and find your wings on the way down. The most important thing is to make sure that you're learner-focused.

If you're passionate about this and you focus on what the right outcome is for your learners, you will have a massive impact. You need to have awareness of the changing world of work and be willing to test things out.

You need to be willing to ask questions about why something's working and why it's not. But it's that same learner-focused mindset that will make you successful.

Hull: Whenever I look at people coming into learning, I want to know that they have a genuine passion and a hunger for learning and development.

If you are just doing it to tick a box, that's not going to be enough. You need to have constant curiosity and hunger to learn yourself, because that's what you are wanting to inculcate in others.

The other thing is that how learning is designed is a real skill and an art.

There's a magic and a science to it. How do you make it relevant in your context? How do you create an environment where people get that surprise factor that makes them remember things? So learning design is another core part of the role, and you've got to be able to interrogate your team's learning design work to make sure that's there. The third piece is you've got to be able to think beyond the causes and resources to that environment, to the network, to the enabling characteristics that you are putting in place within your organisation.

From learning infrastructure, to the technology infrastructure, to the mentoring and coaching environment, to the support from leaders, with leaders as teachers. So you've got to have a real passion and a bit of acumen in that space, as well as a good network within the organisation to get that side of things to happen.

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