Why C-suite leaders must become chief learning officers

20 January 2020 Consultancy.uk 7 min. read

Training, learning and development, powered by a rapidly growing array of innovative edtech tools, represent a new front in the battle for competitive advantage, argue Simon Rowan and Andrew Davidson from private equity firm Dunedin. 

Those businesses committed to workplace learning have an opportunity to use edtech to build stronger and more loyal workforces, overcome skills shortages and embed a culture of excellence that can unlock the organisation’s potential. This is why C-suite leaders must become chief learning officers. 

With investment in education technology (edtech) booming, today’s C-suite leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to leverage new tools to drive value through training and development throughout their businesses. 

In these uncertain times, businesses might be expected to be cutting back on learning. But while it’s a natural instinct, if the outlook is unclear, to rein in all but the most essential spending, training and development budgets do not appear to be suffering. The latest ‘UK L&D Report’ suggests two-thirds of companies in the UK expect to increase or maintain such budgets this year.

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There are good reasons for that. For one thing, boards are increasingly conscious of the returns on investment available from targeted spending. One study found that companies offering comprehensive training programs generate 218% more income per employee than those that don’t, and enjoy profit margins that are 24% higher. 

Moreover, as the UK’s skills shortage continues to bite, costing the economy more than £6 billion a year by some estimates, many organisations are seeking to retrain their existing workforces rather than recruit when new capabilities are needed, particularly for digital transformation. Finally, employees want to learn: the University of Middlesex says three-quarters believe a lack of development opportunities at work is preventing them fulfilling their potential.

In addition, the way in which edtech is transforming every aspect of learning in the workplace is driving a renewed commitment to training and development. If workplace education has the potential to unlock competitive advantage, edtech tools enable boards to target spending more precisely than ever before, drive greater value through revolutionary teaching methods, and monitor returns on investment in a way that was once impossible.

New technologies to relearn the learning process

With so much to gain, businesses failing to embrace edtech innovation risk missing out. And with edtech often delivered through the as-a-service model, employers have the option of trying new ideas to see what works – and what doesn’t – without committing substantial sums to upfront investment.

What is the most Frequently used external Training method your company employs to train employees?

Many are therefore experimenting with new ideas – from creativity courses for accountants, say, to trials of emerging technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, and artificial intelligence-based learning. Technologies such as game-based learning enable staff to receive training in new and exciting ways that are a million miles removed from the classroom-based approach that once proliferated. Remote learning tools allow employees to undertake training at a time and in a place of their choice. 

It’s not only the training itself that is evolving but also the way it is organised and maintained. Learning Management Systems enable businesses to manage and monitor the training undertaken individually by every employee, whether for compliance or regulatory reasons, or for personal development – and to design tailored programmes according to staff’s needs.

Analytics tools, meanwhile, enable businesses to hold training budget controllers to account – to measure the improvement generated by learning and development programmes through any number of metrics from productivity, engagement and efficiency to the business’s ability to innovate.

CEOs and boards that have yet to consider what is possible with the edtech revolution are in danger of being left behind. The opportunity for the c-suite is to develop a more skilled group of employees who are confident and happy in their roles, even when confronted with potentially disruptive change; tangible benefits include increased output, higher-quality products and services for customers, greater staff loyalty and reduced employee churn. 

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In pursuit of cultural excellence

Nor should boards underestimate the value of demonstrable commitment to lifelong learning in reinforcing the values and culture of their businesses. In organisations highly dependent on their intellectual capital, the idea that employees and employer are growing together and passionate about continuous development can be immensely powerful. 

At Dunedin, we’ve seen the impact of that sort of culture on the businesses of many of the companies in which we’ve invested. At the global asset and wealth management consulting firm Alpha FMC, for example, we worked with the business to preserve and strengthen its culture during a period of rapid growth; its united workforce, energised by the company’s commitment to high-quality, specialist work and its lack of hierarchy, was the key driver of that growth. 

We’ve observed similarly positive results at businesses such as the professional services firm Blackrock and the forensic accounting firm FRA, whose staff are passionately committed to maintaining their business’s market-leading positions. Such companies thrive precisely because of the cultures they have carefully nurtured over an extended period. And those cultures are built on a determination to work collaboratively with their staff for mutual benefit and advancement. 

In this context, edtech tools offer exciting new benefits for boards that want to continue investing in a culture of excellence. They will provide the means to equip all employees with the broad range of skills that both they and their employers require for the future – and to re-equip staff as those needs evolve. Your company’s chief learning officer may yet become an even more crucial role.