Why Companies Need a Chief Learning Architect

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The world of corporate learning has gotten very complicated lately.

Learning management systems, MOOCs, simulation tools, content management systems, new content providers, social profiles, collaborative learning, video sharing, mobile learning, on-demand learning, new forms of assessment, and the use of Big Data are all changing rapidly. And companies are spending more money on training (up 15% this last year), they find skills gaps more daunting than ever, and they spend more than $130 billion on training.

Added to this is the fact that most large corporations have somewhat of a "mess" in their corporate learning infrastructure. I've been working with three very large global organizations over the last 60 days (brand names) and these companies each have dozens of learning platforms, disparate e-learning content, no integrated assessment, and multiple learning portals. Yes, this is a very complicated problem.

Ten years ago, when the e-learning marketplace was young, companies were happy to create a single "virtual university" – a learning portal that more or less held most online content and maybe even had a window into the formal course catalog. Today that kind of solution seems like a tinker-toy compared to the wide variety of content, technologies, and platforms we need to manage.

And adding fuel to this already confusing marketplace is the explosion of new venture money going into "learntech" or "learning technology." There are now hundreds of MOOCs, new LMS companies (we count over 200), and more new assessment tools than you can count. I just previewed three hot new ones: YouScience, Good.co, and Logi-serve – each of which have different models and very powerful technology to assess skills, capability or culture.

Companies like Articulate, AxonifyCuratr, Knewton, Learncast, Bloomfire, Bunchball, Forio, and others are adding gamification, visual design, broadcasting, and new forms of customization.  SuccessFactors is investing in learning technology at a rapid rate:  Jam, Automatic Learning Program Pages, Presentations, and the company's new MOOC platform. Peoplefluent just released its advanced video management platform. And SumTotal now supports context-embedded learning in applications like Salesforce.

This is perhaps the most innovative period in learning technology since the word "e-learning" was first coined in 1998 (right before the .com bust).

How can you possibly keep up on all these amazing new solutions and bring them together into some form of an integrated learning portal for your company?

Answer: this is not a "learning" or "training" problem, this is a problem of what we call "learning architecture."

Need for a Learning Architecture

We have been writing about and talking about Learning Architecture for years now, but I dont think people have heard us.  (Our fault for not being clear enough.) Just like you have an IT architecture which provides standards, common platforms, and a constrained environment for IT in general, you also need one for learning.

A learning architecture deliberately constrains what tools you will use, it fits them into a model that reflects your different learning modalities, and it provides a guideline for the L&D and business leaders to develop and deliver training and knowledge sharing in an easy to use and easy to locate format. We don't want everyone in the company publishing materials in different forms with different metadata into different places, it won't be discoverable or consistent. On the other hand everything can't go through L&D to be shared. So we need an "architecture" which uses standard tools, an easy to use interface, and a set of platforms that manage content, forml and informal programs, mobile access, and analytics.

And all this is not easy.  Hence the need for a Chief Learning Architect.

Just like all the other "chiefs" we have (Chief HR Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Engineer,…) the Chief Learning Architect owns the architecture. He or she has to get to know everything that's out there, and everything that's in your company too. Their job is to build a roadmap which brings together these tools, platforms, and content into a form that is easy to use, scales, and delivers great experiences.

I know lots of people who do this – they tend to be both "learning geeks" as well as "technologists" – but they also have to have great leadership and communication skills. They don't have to run a large organization, but they need a small team to go out and vet new products, work with IT, and really make sure they're monitoring how everything works.

The L&D community is filled with people who are capable of this job – but frankly I don't see the job description very often. My suggestion: create one.

If you have more than several thousand employees your L&D organization and infrastructure is probably already getting out of hand. You're likely spending millions of dollars on training, and there is more content being produced every day. Why not invest in the skills and focus to bring it all together into a seamless, powerful employee (and customer) experience?

Just like great buildings, cities, and countries are designed by architects, so is great learning.

Josh Bersin

Josh Bersin writes on the ever-changing landscape of business-driven learning, HR and talent management. His favorite topics include strategic talent management, creating high-impact learning organizations, and how organizations drive business change and competitive advantage through talent strategy and technology.

13 thoughts on “Why Companies Need a Chief Learning Architect

  1. I agree with John, actually — the best designed building in the world will be crap if built with crap materials. I did a comparison of the Chief Learning Architect role to the Curriculum Manager role on my blog – I think the one responsibility this post misses, or perhaps that I missed in this post, is responsibility for the quality of learning. Sure, that should be the responsibility of the instructional designer, but we all know that many orgs sacrifice formal design, and even the formal role, in the name of agility. So one person, or one person’s group, should have governance over not just the tools but also the assets. Let’s build that architecture out of solid, quality materials, shall we?

  2. I’ll certainly agree that architectural issues have been around since the advent of the second LMS to hit the market, however I submit that architectural responsibilities have always (should have?) resided with the CLO – it’s just that the shift we’ve seen in the past five years is that CLO’s solidly need to be more technically-savvy.

    Many CLO’s I observe today have their roots in OD or formal learning structures. Few, IMHO, have a strong technical foundation. Not that they necessarily need to know how to program in HTML5 or create in Lectora or Captivate, but they should have a solid grasp on this aspect of their industry. It’s not adequate any longer for a CLO to have one or more technology experts on their team, they need to own much of this expertise themselves – particularly when it comes to organic content creation and collaboration.

    Being able to translate improved organizational efficiency doesn’t always mean just one LMS, but it may instead mean creating an approach around big data so that diverse systems can be maximally leveraged in the sweet spots to which they cater. Holding vendors to task to demonstrate unique value (in light of what is already deployed) should be the hallmark of an astute CLO who is in regular conversation with their CIO/CTO about what the existing infrastructure already includes.

  3. There is one thing I think we have lost sight of in our infatuation with all the new technology and gee whiz delivery tools. If we design ineffective training and distibute it via a world class delivery system, we still have ineffective training.

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