Two Surprises at CLO Symposium By Dave Vance

Two Surprises at CLO Symposium

By Dave Vance


I was surprised by two things at the Fall CLO Symposium in Austin. First, I was surprised by the L&D mission statements of many speakers. Second, I was surprised by what is apparently an industry-wide and unchallenged swing to a learner-centric approach. The two surprises may be related.

My first surprise occurred as I listened to three speakers in a row start their talk by stating the purpose of their L&D group. I applaud them for starting with a mission because I believe a good, clear mission statement is vital. My surprise came as each one stated their mission in a way that was not directly tied to their business. The first and third said the purpose of their function was to increase employee engagement. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that providing employees with learning opportunities will generally increase their engagement. Furthermore, highly engaged employees are likely to work harder and provide more discretionary effort, both of which should translate into better corporate results. And the more engaged they are the less likely they are to leave which avoid the considerable cost of replacing them.

So, engagement is a great thing, but should that really be their primary purpose? In industries with very high turnover, perhaps it will be a top business goal. For most organizations, however, there are a number of business goals which the L&D department should be supporting like increasing revenue and productivity, decreasing operating costs, improving quality and safety, enhancing customer or patient satisfaction, and sparking innovation. Not a single mention of any of these. It seems to me that the primary purpose of L&D should be to help the organization achieve its goals. This should be done by aligning programs to the business goals so you can impact those directly AND by finding ways to increase engagement which will contribute indirectly (but importantly) to the business goals. In other words, I think your CEO would like to hear about more than engagement.

The second speaker said their mission was to “leverage technology”. Period.  This reflects an absolute confusion between the means and the end.  Leveraging technology is a means to an end – it will never be an end in itself. Why do you want to leverage technology? To accomplish what? The “what” would give us insight into the mission. Of course you should leverage technology, but you need to be clear upfront on why. So, three out three speakers did not provide a compelling reason for the L&D function to exist. And we wonder why L&D gets cut first?

My second surprise may be related to the first. For the first day and a half, it seemed every speaker I heard on learning (I did miss some so consider this an imperfect sample) talked about the wonderful move to a learner-centric or self-directed approach. Some companies have already reorganized their departments around this approach. Common elements in support of this approach are trying to find out what learners want and giving them more of it. Much talk about the need to move away from creating content or teaching classes. L&D’s new role will be that of curator. Some at the conference even told me that company goals and learning needs are changing so rapidly now that there is no role for any business-centric or company-directed learning. Worse, I didn’t hear anybody challenge these assertions. If there was a debate over the last couple of years I missed it, and it seems this is now the accepted wisdom in the field. Pardon me, but I object!

We need to have a good discussion around this topic before our profession does some serious damage to itself. Like so much else, it seems to me there needs to be a middle ground here. It is wonderful that employees want to learn and that there are more ways than ever before for them to do just that. The potential to connect with and learn from others has never been greater, especially when you think about social media and all the online learning available. L&D departments should certainly find ways to help employees find the learning they need and do what they can to encourage informal learning. But that does not mean L&D departments should stop providing business-centric learning which we will define as learning planned to help achieve business goals. Senior leaders and experienced employees have wisdom. Why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of that wisdom and let new employees know what they will need to be successful or what experienced employees need to take their performance to the next level? True, a good employee with enough time will probably figure out what they need to know and may be able to secure that knowledge informally, but why not speed the process up? Plus, I think many employees would appreciate the guidance. So, it seems to me there will always be a role for business-directed learning, not just for compliance but to help employees more quickly be as productive as possible in pursuing the business goals.

I think the learner-centric approach does make perfect sense when the learning is not aligned to business goals but in support of an effort to increase employee engagement. Many employees want opportunities to grow and develop outside the requirements to be successful at their current job. Self-directed learning is perfect in this case since each employee will have unique needs, and L&D departments should help facilitate this process by making as many learning opportunities available as possible.

So, my two surprises may be related after all. If the mission of L&D is simply to increase employee engagement, a learner-centric approach makes perfect sense. However, if the mission of L&D is to help the organization achieve its business goals, then there is most definitely still an important role for business-centric learning. Blind acceptance of the current industry trend away from business-centric learning will put an end to our quest to be valued, strategic business partners. If we continue in this direction we will not deserve a seat at the table and L&D budgets should be dramatically reduced.


  1. David,
    No one said it would be easy. Thanks for being a beacon in the storm.

  2. Colin Geissler says

    Hi David,

    Good points.

    Dr. Saul Carliner’s writing solidified the following for me: There are only three reasons to do anything in business — to generate revenue; to contain costs; or to meet an organizational, industry or government regulation (for non-profit and government groups I soften the first one to “to add significant value”). For me, these three statements should be the starting point for any L&D group’s mission statement.

    At the project or program level, a crucial piece of the triad is the “or” which means pick only one focus (and have your business sponsor also commit to only one). If you have more than one of these as goals, then your project may be pulled in opposite directions and may end up satisfying no one.

    Like you, I can see if a company is dealing with an acute problem related to the costs of employee attraction, productivity and retention then having the L&D group focus a project/program on employee engagement could go forward if there will be a net containment of those costs. But, as you point out, that program (or the L&D department’s whole focus) alone won’t help the company directly generate revenue and grow.

    So then what is at the root of your two surprises (which from some industry reports seems to be reflected in their data, too)? Is learning actually becoming more decentralized and employee-driven? Is the L&D function actually losing influence over learning?

    Or is it that there are more artiacts of ‘informal’ learning which can be more easily shared so it appears that more is happening than ever before? In other words, its always been happening but now we can see it more easily. If so, is this what L&D groups are trying to respond to with these notions of “curating” content? Since misinformation can be like a virus, does L&D see that a combination of verification, gate-keeping, standards, contextualization, etc. are needed … which to me looks like a whole lot of work for unknown gain. Instead, does L&D call this self-directed learning and employee engagement in an attempt to deal with the uncertainty and to shift the accountability? I don’t know.

    Unlike other trends such as mobile learning and gamification which seem to be driven by a combination of ‘gee-whiz’ thinking and vendor promises, what are the key factors contributing to this shift? Figuring this out might help re-orient L&D to focus on achieving business goals or at least get to a ‘middle ground’.


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