For many organizations, the rapid evolution of technology and the pace of change have forever changed how organizations train and develop their staff. At organizations with chief learning officers, CLOs and chief information officers must now work together to deliver training that aligns with an organization’s strategic goals and carries out its mission.

Recently, Peter Shelby, CLO at the National Reconnaissance Office University discussed his thoughts on the key challenges facing CLOs and CIOs, in a discussion with Don Berbary, president of Learning Tree International. Berbary shared Shelby’s observations with Breaking Gov. Shelby is charged with coordinating all the required training and learning for the National Reconnaissance Office, and co-chairs the Federal Government’s Interagency Chief Learning Officer Council. He has also served 24 years with the Marine Corps.

Shelby talks about the importance of bridging gaps between the two functions and the need for continuous learning across technology functions within an organization.

Don Berbary: Why do agencies need CLOs? What value distinction does the CLO provide that a CIO can’t?

Peter Shelby: CLOs are vital. Why do you need a chief financial officer? Why do you need a chief executive officer? Those positions coordinate efforts across an organization to ensure they are aligned to meet corporate mission requirements efficiently and effectively. Before there were chief learning officers, individual business units would go out and buy whatever learning they needed without the strategic picture of overall organizational needs―there was a lot of redundancy, and learning wasn’t aligned to strategic goals, which wasted corporate resources.

Now, you need leaders in organizations that understand the entire business. The chief learning officer is tapped into that strategic mission and builds learning to support it. The CLO coordinates all learning efforts across the organization to eliminate redundancies, ensure that it’s focused on mission needs, and make sure that there isn’t learning taking place that’s counter to the culture and needs of the organization.

Are there any major challenges that CLOs and CIOs encounter as they try to bridge gaps between their two divisions?

Shelby: Absolutely! Everything has been stove-piped in most organizations, especially in the federal government. So there’s often poor communication across divisions, even within organizations. Now, we’re moving to a place where we are constrained by budgets, and we must communicate across organizations. Some of the issues that happened 10 years ago were because organizations couldn’t communicate or wouldn’t communicate. We have to figure out how to communicate, and do it securely; that takes the combined effort of the CIO and CLO. How do we get information out? How do the systems communicate with one another? And, then, how do we do it securely?

So, how do you do this? What are the best strategies for effective CIO and CLO collaboration?

Shelby: Communication. We really have to get together as a team. You have a whole group of geniuses that do learning for a living, and you have another whole group of geniuses that do IT for a living. Bring the geniuses together in a room and discuss their various needs-it’s very powerful. The learning division understands all the learning that has to be delivered. We share that with IT, and they figure out how to do it. That’s kind of an amazing thing, and my team works with them every single day. Our two teams communicate daily to put in place the infrastructure needed to deliver learning.

Why do all agencies need to be thinking about continuous learning? What’s the business case for continuous learning?

Shelby: Continuous learning is the cornerstone of an adaptive organization. We need skill sets to accomplish a mission, so we reverse engineer it. We talk to the chief executive and the director of our organization and ask them:

  • What do you have to accomplish over the next five years?
  • What are the missions you are assigned to do?
  • Now, what are the skill sets you need to do them?

Then, you have to decide. In some cases you are going to buy learning, and in others you are going to go out and find the people who already have the skill set you need. For example, say I need a Chinese linguist. Well, it could take 15 years to get a linguist to the proficiency we need.

So what do you do?

Shelby: You don’t just go out and buy that; you find and recruit it. But, for the most part, the skills that you need are part of the workforce you already have. Recruiting is being reduced; our budgets are being reduced; there are hiring freezes. So, CLOs have to look five years out in advance to find out what skill sets are needed, and then put a learning plan in place-a human capital development plan-that directly aligns with the missions and strategies of the organization.

Outside of your organization, do you collaborate with other intelligence agencies to come up with best practices for a unified continuous learning structure? If so, how do you do this?

Shelby: Absolutely! Initially, we came together as chief learning officers and asked, “How do we do this?” Then, we backed up a little further and said, “Hey, this is what our idea is―we should have instant access to all learning across the intelligence community.”

Everybody should have access to the same learning. It shouldn’t be based on budgets or anything else. We all need to have information and learning, so let’s do it centrally. Buy enterprise licenses rather than an individual agency license, and that will dramatically cut learning costs. So, I talked to a chief information officer about that, and they said sure, we can do that. And we started building an infrastructure to do it. We ran a pilot first with combatant commands, which are stationed all over the world. We had to figure out how to get all learning that happens in the national capital region out to all those employees who are spread all over the world. We found the best way to do it was to have a single learning portal. We called it Joint Intelligence Virtual University―JIVU. This became the learning management system for all of those commands. It allowed them to log on anywhere in the world and access all the learning we had housed on our servers, including catalogs for classroom instruction.

And, they didn’t have to buy a learning management system to do it. If they already had content, it was migrated into our learning management system, and we shut theirs down. If they didn’t have a learning management system, we brought a capability to them they never had before. We realized $26 million in cost avoidance.

That sounds like a great case study; a great example of saving money yet accomplishing more.

Shelby: Our learning strategy received the Chief Learning Officer Gold Medal for Global Learning, and we went from there. We took that idea and concept, and proved to the Director of National Intelligence that it worked. Then, he started taking steps to do that across the entire intelligence community. They branded it AGILE (Advanced Global Intelligence Learning Enterprise), and we’re in the process of running a pilot now to see how it really works. But, in the process of running that pilot, we found that there were intelligence groups, let’s say the Open Source Center, that didn’t have a learning management system; they immediately migrated to AGILE. We brought them a capability they never had.

And, so we’re trying to do that across the entire intelligence community so there is a single interface for learning for all 17 organizations in the intelligence community, thereby eliminating the maintenance costs of managing their own systems.

Don Berbary is president and general manager of Learning Tree International and is based in the Washington, D.C.-metro area.