New Talent in the Learning Department

By Elliott Masie
(This article originally appeared in CLO Magazine in September, 2011:

If you were able to add five new people to your Learning Department, what roles and skills would you hope to enhance in your team?

This is an intriguing question that we have been asking CLOs over the past year and one that I suggest you ask yourself as you evolve your organization’s learning strategy. As learning technologies, workforce dynamics and content models change, we need to take a fresh, brave look at the talent requirements of our own function.

My conversations with CLOs have uncovered two approaches for adding new talent to the Learning department. In fact, many CLOs have advocated pursuing aspects of both of these approaches.

Learning Competencies 2.0: One approach is to take a look at the changing nature of learning in our organizations and to recruit a new set of professionals with very different skillsets to develop the next generation of programs. CLOs have mentioned these examples of roles that would be on their wish lists:

  • Librarian: As the amount and format of content both created and used in the organization multiplies, a key challenge is “discoverability”. How will learners find the right nuggets of content? A modern librarian will be able to add extreme value with metadata, search readiness, content taxonomies and federated search models.
  • Learning App Developer: This is someone who can rapidly put together a learning app - to run on a device like a tablet or smart phone - that aligns with a single learning offering or that is focused on a specific role/task in the organization. Don’t look for someone with a college degree in this area, but an agile app developer could supercharge the learning department.
  • Community Mayor/Gardener: Sites like SharePoint can be ghost towns when leveraged for a learning program. They need leadership and someone to remove the “weeds”. Community management is a growing competency as we shift toward communities of practice and distributed collaboration.
  • Video Competencies: You don’t need a videographer, but a learning department will benefit greatly from someone with skills and experience in the use of video for storytelling. Editing techniques, framing perspectives, meta-tagging and even the development of video templates will be critical as the organization adds large amounts of user created and scripted video to the knowledge mix.
  • Workplace GPS/Performance Support Designer: I anticipate that we will have fewer traditional instructional designers as we expand our content/context offerings. One role that organizations could deeply benefit from is a designer with competencies in building “learning-at-the-moment-of-need” solutions like performance support or workplace GPS. Assistance should pop up and be readily available as workers perform new tasks or forget key steps. This professional can increase your team’s capacity by significant leaps.

These roles could be developed within your current staff, but most CLOs were looking at the opportunity to bring in some very different and fresh “blood” into the learning function. 

Business Acumen & Experience: A second approach to adding new talent to the learning function addresses the fact that many CLOs feel the need to beef up internal business knowledge/experience within their learning groups. They reach out to high performers within key business units and attempt to recruit them for a short- to medium-term stint in the learning department. This gives the learning function:

  • Greater Internal Subject Matter Expertise
  • Business Language & Fluency
  • Tighter Alignment with Real Business Requirements & Metrics
  • Networking within the Learning Function
  • A Shift in the Career Path of the Learning Team – from Career Learning Professionals to Developmental Roles for Rising Leaders

This model has been used successfully in at least two worlds: pharmaceutical sales and military organizations. Drug companies have recruited top sales reps or managers, who are on their way to their next positions, for several-year assignments in the learning department. Likewise, the Air Force has made a stint in the learning and education function a core career step for high potential staff.

Organizations taking this approach often create a boot camp and mentoring process to bring the business focused staff to readiness on learning projects.  Caution: we are not turning these folks into instructional developers or designers! The goal is to use their business acumen to drive and focus learning projects on the needs of the front line workforce.

Another benefit of adding experienced folks from the operational side of the organization is to shift the “brand” of the learning department. Several Fortune 500 companies have reached out to business leaders to become CLOs; that immediately changed the “C” suite’s and the rest of the organization’s perception of that role.

The learning professional of the future may naturally combine both of the approaches I’ve mentioned, but for now, let’s explore how we can add this type of talent to our teams and get ready for the next wave of learning opportunities.

Leadership Development Rituals Challenged!

By Elliott Masie
(This article originally appeared in CLO Magazine in July, 2011:

Organizations spend over $13 Billion a year on leadership development and training. We invest in our new leaders, our rising leaders and our established leaders. They go to leadership retreats, to business schools for professional development, spend time with the “C” suite occupants, participate in 360 degree feedback, get coaches and learn multiple theories of leadership and management.

These activities can be powerful and transformational on a personal and career development level, bringing participants into leadership circles and helping them absorb organizational culture on deeper levels. Their participation also provides opportunities for organizations to preview employees’ potential, which shapes their future assignments.

Yet, most organizations do not have much, if any, evidence of the efficacy, efficiency or impact of these investments. We know they can be powerful. We often have personally experienced and value the intensity of the attention that signals to the workforce that someone is being groomed and prepared for leadership. Still, we don’t have a lot of evidence to shape our redesign of leadership development and training.

Over the past year, I have been interviewing senior learning leaders about their corporate leadership development programs. One word keeps coming out in our discussions: “rituals”. For better or worse, many designs for leadership development programs are full of rituals – activities that have been done repeatedly over the years – that have face-value validity and evoke powerful reactions/introspections from leadership candidates. But, CLOs will often describe these more as “rituals” than as proven, evidence-based selections of design activities.

For example, a ritual might be to have well known leadership experts/authors from top tier business schools spend half a day with potential leaders, summarizing their latest books or research and telling powerful stories about their work with other corporations. This might cost an organization $10,000 to $50,000: powerful, memorable, fun, stimulating - but still a ritual. Why a half day and not 3 days? Why bring the person in live vs. show a YouTube video of the same story?

The answers are often all about tradition, the expectations of the new leaders and the value of a common shared experience. Good answers, but perhaps it is time for us to take a fresher look at leadership development from a design rather than ritual perspective. In fact, let’s challenge some of our most common practices in leadership development and see if there are any better alternatives:

Duration and Delivery: Most leadership programs, particularly at the senior level, are structured as face-to-face events – usually over 5 to 10 days – often as immersion programs after someone is nominated as a “high potential” employee or promoted to a senior level. From a design perspective, let’s consider alternative durations that are shorter or that stretch over 2 years. Play with hybrid and blended learning modes that decrease the time in the classroom and increase field-based gatherings.

Leverage Technology: Imagine handing each leadership candidate a tablet that would serve as their connection to key expertise and feedback – from coaches to video segments done by other leaders – via live video chat. Add a GPS link between the tablet and the talent system and provide suggested conversations or lunches with key leadership exemplars as they travel to various corporate offices.

Expertise Shifts & Project-Based Learning: Imagine using the leadership faculty quite differently. Rather than using “Sages on the Stage”, bring them in to be observers and facilitators of real-time, project-based learning, where the leadership cadre tackle a major challenge facing the organization.

Real-Time Redesign: At the end of the next leadership program, take 2 hours and ask the current learners to redesign the program for the next batch of rising leaders. You will be amazed by what they increase, decrease, re-order, re-format and add to the program. They will not see their experience as a ritual; rather, they will give you some fresh input about alternatives.

Random Selection: Slip a few people into the leadership program that might have been chosen randomly. In other words, challenge your own assumptions about who might be the next leader. If the leadership training is really impactful, it might be interesting to see the effect on a counter-intuitive leader.

Design for the Empowered Learner: Your leadership group will be among the most empowered learners in the organization. They will often be voracious readers, deep networkers and efficient masters of assignments. Make sure your leadership development designs acknowledge and leverage their traits.

There is nothing wrong with rituals. They become part of the fabric of our shared stories as leaders. The key is to continually look at the DESIGN dimensions of our leadership development programs to create tomorrow’s rituals based on today’s evidence. Carpe Diem!

Protect Your Learning Brands!

By Elliott Masie
(This article originally appeared in CLO Magazine in May, 2011:


Agile learning organizations need to be careful about internal learning brands. External events associated with certain tools that the organization uses could suddenly damage a brand.


For example, thousands of organizations have deployed wiki software for collaboration, providing employees, customers and suppliers with the capability to access (and contribute to) a continually updated knowledge base. Great benefits have resulted from these wikis.


What is the brand of an internal wiki? Some organizations just call it their wiki.  Others add a corporate name, such as “DelzaCorpWiki”, and others create a brand to avoid using the word wiki (e.g. “Delza Knowledge Base”).


To be honest, most organizations don’t spend a lot of strategic energy naming their internal learning/collaboration tools and systems. So what happens when one of the following occurs?


  • External Scandal with Tool: We all saw the headlines a few months ago that shouted “Secrets Exposed by WikiLeaks!” The next day, I received calls from CLOs around the world considering dropping the word wiki from their wiki deployments. In fact, most organizations did migrate away from the wiki brand while continuing to use the powerful software.
  • Vendors Change Over Time: Your LMS, LCMS or webinar system will not last forever. If your workforce refers to learning pages or even online meetings by a commercial brand, what happens when the organization switches systems? You don’t want to hear, “We are having a Centra session on Webex”, nor do we want to overly affiliate learning system functionality with an external supplier; that will add to the challenge of remixing our tech systems.


I always advocate that organizations design and manage their internal learning brands. Imagine referring to your learning management, content management, collaboration, video conference, intranet and other systems in one of two ways:


  • Multi-Vendor Brands: Use a phrase that talks about capacity. Make it multi-vendor- and specific-technology-neutral. “Telepresence” and “Content Repository” are two examples.
  • Corporate-Specific Brands: Build an internal brand, with or without your corporate name. For example, one company uses Microsoft’s SharePoint for internal collaboration and file sharing, but calls it “KnowledgeCentral”.  Another company calls their video conferencing capacity “Acme Connect”, which has grown each year to now include desktop, room and telepresence technologies from 3 different suppliers.


My friends who are vendors will not fully agree with this approach. Clearly, they would love for organizations to adopt their brands along with their solutions. I am not suggesting that you hide or bury their brand names, but in a rapidly changing world, why embrace a single supplier brand, knowing that we are going to expand, evolve, mash up and change?!


You can always compromise by blending two brands: “KnowledgeCentral, powered by Google or IBM”.


The other more subtle reason for avoiding external brands in the learning space relates to the extreme differences among deployment effectiveness. In our Learning CONSORTIUM, there are 3 large insurance companies that are each using a certain LMS provider. One company is totally delighted with the deployment. A second has had deep struggles, especially as it has made major (and difficult) customizations to this LMS. The third almost ended up in court, deeply dissatisfied with this LMS provider and feeling trapped by internal investments. To have 3 different experiences with a single LMS provider is not unusual; however, in this case, as users made their way through the insurance industry, they brought external brand images with them as they moved from one employer to another.


Managing your learning brands is not just about naming. It is critical for a learning leader to monitor, survey and continually address key issues, including:


  • Brand Confusion: How clearly do employees refer to specific learning tools and systems?
  • Brand and Mission Alignment: Can we align a learning system brand with enterprise missions? E.g. A manufacturing company that is deploying Lean Manufacturing might refer to a knowledge system as “JIT Answers” or “Just in Time Knowledge Center”.
  • Covert/Joke Brands: What are users really calling systems? Some great projects have become failures and internal jokes. For example, if e-Learning has become overly affiliated with boring compliance training, it might be called a “CYA” module, which loosely stands for covering our “corporate rear ends.”
  • IP Issue Avoidance: While it is tempting to create a “Pharma YouTube”, bluntly, you don’t own the YouTube brand. Make sure that you don’t steal a brand. Your legal office will be not happy!
  • Externally Understandable: Increasingly, our learning and collaboration tools will reach outside of our corporate borders, touching customers, partners and wider industry groups. Make sure the brand has meaning and marketing value to external users.


Finally, we will expand, evolve, trim, dump, supercharge and evolve our brands.  We will clearly be impacted by external trends, such as short video stories or shared, wiki-style writing spaces. This is a great time to design, deploy and manage our learning brands to be clear, sustainable and powerful.