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Q&A with two experts: The rise of the ‘Chief Learning Officer’ and why it matters

Max Wessel from SAP and Patrick Hull from Unilever explain how the role of the 'Chief Learning Officer' has evolved.

Max Wessel from SAP and Patrick Hull from Unilever explain how the role of the 'Chief Learning Officer' has evolved. Image: World Economic Forum

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Aarushi Singhania
Specialist, Education, Skills and Learning, World Economic Forum
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  • Max Wessel at SAP and Patrick Hull at Unilever are part of a growing addition to the C-Suite that is taking charge of learning and development.
  • Identifying skills gaps and upskilling and reskilling employees is increasingly important for business transformation and preparation for the future of work.
  • Here, Wessel and Hull explain how the role has changed and what the future holds for Chief Learning Officers.

Around half of the children born today will live to 100, which means they could have a 60-year career, according to Stanford University's The New Map of Life report.

Lifelong learning will therefore be crucial – with reskilling and upskilling taking centre stage to keep up with the pace of technological change and its impact on work.

This is increasingly the focus of 'Chief Learning Officers', who are spending most of their time thinking about the strategic generational shift in the workforce – and rolling out development and training programmes to upskill and reskill employees as businesses transform.

The World Economic Forum and PwC jointly launched a report, Putting Skills First: A Framework for Action, at the Forum's Growth Summit 2023. It looks at how hiring based on skills and competencies, rather than qualifications, can address the growing skills challenge and help drive the green and digital transitions.

Skills First: A Framework for Action.
Towards a skills-first approach to hiring. Image: World Economic Forum/PwC

Here, Max Wessel, Chief Learning Officer at SAP, and Patrick Hull, VP Global Learning & Future of Work at Unilever, explain some of the challenges and what their roles involve.

What is a Chief Learning Officer?

Wessel: I am lucky to have been in this role for about two-and-a-half years. And when I stepped into the role, we took it as an opportunity to meaningfully expand the mandate that the learning organization had. Within the context of what we do, we focus on the broad-scale workforce transformation across the SAP ecosystem. That means that we are responsible for not just the traditional talent management, leadership development and skilling inside the company. But we also focus on upskilling and transforming the SAP practices within organizations.

We have about 110,000 employees at SAP. We have about 1.1 million professional consultants that are working full-time on implementations with partner organizations around the globe. Obviously, many millions more folks are managing those systems in customer environments and then using their systems. And then there's a slew of freelancers that we support through another piece of our learning initiatives, which is developer relations in communities. In that mandate, we effectively spend all of our time thinking about how we assess where we are as an ecosystem right now. And how we establish where we need to go from a scale perspective over the next three to five years, because we know there will be massive change.

What does a typical day look like?

Wessel: There's a lot going on under the hood. Today, the first conversation that I had was around partner adoption of our updated learning platforms. And so we talked about product changes, content changes and support changes that would increase people's use. We immediately pivot into more internal topics, so the next set of questions was around a content release that we're going for in terms of our sales and partner enablement around solution support. And this afternoon I'll be spending a lot of time on our talent programmes.

The cadence for me is trying to split my time roughly into thirds, between those core talent, internal topics, between the externally facing topics that are relevant across our organization and our partner organizations, and then a third on how we upskill the ecosystem and get everyone ready for the change that's coming in the technology ecosystem.

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Hull: A typical day is really varied. At the moment, my days are spent designing a leadership development intervention for our top 200 leaders who are coming together for a conference in a couple of weeks' time. Then I'm working with other members of my team, looking at how we measure the impact of the learning work that we are doing, and how we create what we call a strong skill signal that helps the business understand what skills we've got, what skills we need, and how strong we are in all those different areas. And then the third piece of work is with our talent team, our reward team, and even our org design team, working together on common squad projects, looking at how we create a more integrated way of looking at talent, learning, organization and reward.

How do we bring a seamless user experience and a much more enhanced initiative to the organization that helps us become much better at managing careers, managing our most valuable talent, and understanding where we need to be doing things differently on reward, but also how we do it in combination?

What initiatives have you introduced as part of your role?

Hull: We have recently gone through a big transformation in terms of how we run our business. We've shifted the centre of gravity from markets and countries to business groups. And as a result of that, we're very much looking at what leadership is required to succeed in this new context. So a big piece of my work is defining that leadership that's required based on stakeholder interviews, focus groups, feedback, understanding where are the tension points, and assessing leaders against a profile that we've created of what good looks like in the new organizational construct.

We are also measuring the impact of the learning organization. I believe half the learning budget is wasted – we just don't know which half because we don't measure everything we're doing very well or consistently. I spend a lot of time with my team looking at how we are making sure we are getting a baseline assessment of people prior to them doing any learning interventions, and then how we are measuring it again afterwards and how we are helping the business. Our data might show that maybe the environment isn't supporting people to develop those skills or to be as psychologically safe as they want to be. So we want to also provide those insights and information back to the organization. So we're making sure that we've got this kind of assessment process in place.

Top 10 skills of 2023
These are the key skills deemed most valuable to employers in 2023. Image: World Economic Forum

Wessel: SAP has for a very long time had a vibrant education business where our customers and partners, and even some of our employees, would come and sit in training centres and pay pretty steep prices to get access to the world's best subject matter experts. But if you think about the broad-scale transformation of e-learning in the last two decades, the internet opened up access at much lower prices to the world's best subject matter experts.

One of the things I did very early on as Chief Learning Officer was starting a large-scale re-platforming of our digital offerings. The goal was to make sure that we had some base amount of content that was relevant to practitioners. We built a new platform and got it out to market, and scaled it up to reach as many people as possible, giving folks the ability to upskill themselves and find jobs. It's about corporate training emulating what has been tried and true and tested in the private sector.

The other side of the coin is the skill transformation inside SAP. For the 110,000 people inside the organization, where we have generic industry roles such as designers or operations specialists, we've undertaken a massive effort to lay the foundation for a broad-scale skill change. How do we build skill-based curricula that are personalized and match people's career ambitions? We had an index of 7,000 specific skills that had come up in each business unit at SAP that didn't match one another. We retired more than 5,000 of those skills and have roughly 1,900 today.

We went from "this is all our own taxonomy" to "this is standard". That foundation has made it possible for us to speak the same language between our recruits and our internal employees. Now two organizations with very different focuses can actually carve a path forward in workforce transformation. We can now say that, for example, Sarah gets a personalized programme because she has indicated this is what she wants to do next, and we know not just what role she's at, but we know specifically for Sarah what are her strengths and weaknesses and how we can augment her to get her ready for that next step.

How has the role of Chief Learning Officer changed over the years?

Hull: Going back to the early 2000s, it was all about face-to-face courses. How are we creating great training programmes that have a good impact on key skills and leadership skills. Later on, there was a shift from courses to resources. So it was democratizing learning, how do we get content and resources to people when they need it? In Unilever, we went from that to saying: how do we get people actively learning?

There was a lot of talk about creating this culture of learning and how we get people to the space of continuous learning and accessing all these resources. I would say the latest shift that we're seeing is how can skills become the real currency that is used to help inform talent decisions, to help inform succession planning and to help inform the kinds of learning and courses or resources that we deploy. The next generation of Chief Learning Officers and the current generation are all looking at how we can create this strong skill signal. How do we really ensure skills are a currency that we can rely on to match people to jobs and projects?

What trends are affecting the future of work?

Wessel: For all Chief Learning Officers, there's a major demographic shift in the workforce that we have to think about. Our lifetimes are continuing to extend with advances in healthcare, and population growth is slowing in most parts of the world. The situation that you see playing out in France right now with increasing retirement ages and all the tension that comes from that will play out all over. When your career starts at 22 and ends at 75, you have an opportunity for multiple arcs. If you take that as the big theme, our careers are lengthening, then there will be a couple of by-products. The importance of your degree will be far lower, because at 55 the relevance of the degree that you got 33 years earlier will be far less significant than the on-the-job expertise and training you received in the prior three decades. The second thing is, people will not want to do the same thing over that 50-year-plus period in the workforce.

When your career starts at 22 and ends at 75, you have an opportunity for multiple arcs.

Max Wessel, Chief Learning Officer at SAP

The responsibility and/or opportunity of people to help folks on that path to whatever the next thing is in their career is high. And the relationship between people and employers is going to change, because the likelihood that they start in one place and end in that place will continue to decrease. The significance of internal training increases dramatically in that context, and the need for teams to not just do the basic upskilling but take on mid-career onboarding and then reskilling initiatives in big form is quite high. The thing that I think we're missing is if you take that context for a Learning Officer, strategic workforce planning is a part of the job on a multi-generational basis. We need more people in these organizations thinking strategically on this generational demographic shift.

Hull: If you were designing a data and analytics or AI course six months ago, you wouldn't have mentioned ChatGPT or generative AI. Things are just changing so fast in terms of the environment in which we are operating that you need to come back to skills. The way you apply a skill or the things that you need to be exposed to in that skill, that's constantly changing, but the skill is fairly constant. We're talking about prompt engineers and the roles that are using that. But the core skill set is there.

If you were designing a data and analytics or AI course six months ago, you wouldn't have mentioned ChatGPT or generative AI. Things are just changing so fast in terms of the environment in which we are operating that you need to come back to skills.

Patrick Hull, VP Global Learning & Future of Work at Unilever

The fact that the environment is changing so fast means that from a learning point of view, you don't have the time to define a course on much of this stuff because it's outdated by the time you launch it. So it is much more about that democratized learning and giving people access to the right resources in the flow of work. And it is about how we ensure people are active learners.

Skills is the unlock there, because if we're showing people that by staying current in your skills, by making sure that you're learning about ChatGPT and that sort of thing, you will ensure that you have access to jobs in the future, future opportunities, that's the key unlock. For so long, we have been trying to get active learners to learn by saying learning is good for you, but actually, it's really important for your career and for your ability to stay relevant. We need to focus on making sure people realize this is so important for them to stay relevant in the work that they do.

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How do you measure success in your role?

Wessel: I measure success in a number of ways. For SAP, we want an increase in depth, we want an increase in completion, and ultimately we want job mobility. The fact that we can instrument everything that's happening across our ecosystem is quite interesting. This is not data that we had before. How are people going through programmes? Where are they using these skills? The fact that we can monitor that is quite useful.

We've pursued a big skill-based shift, we're driving a big role-based architecture change. There's massive changes we're driving in terms of how we deliver content. I would love to see more learning leaders who find themselves with the skill set and the mentality of product leaders, because that's ultimately what we do. We run organizations that deliver a product to a constituent. It may not be the thing that we sell. We need to exist at the confluence of desirability, feasibility and viability, just like any product leader. I do hope that is a lasting change at SAP, and that it is seen elsewhere.

Hull: The key measure of success for me will be that we get to a place where we can genuinely match people to jobs based on their skill sets – that people feel these are good matches, that the organisation feels these are good matches, and we can then speed up that matching, and it can become the death of succession planning and all the work that goes into that. In fact, that would be a good measure of success. So we no longer have any succession planning, we literally just let the matching happen and we create this talent marketplace based on skills.

What advice do you have for someone looking to move into a similar role?

Wessel: I'd say jump and find your wings on the way down. The most important thing is to make sure that you're learner-focused. If you're passionate about this and you focus on what the right outcome is for your learners, you will have a massive impact. You need to have awareness of the changing world of work and be willing to test things out. You need to be willing to ask questions about why something's working and why it's not. But it's that same learner-focused mindset that will make you successful.

Hull: Whenever I look at people coming into learning, I want to know that they have a genuine passion and a hunger for learning and development. If you are just doing it to tick a box, that's not going to be enough. You need to have constant curiosity and hunger to learn yourself, because that's what you are wanting to inculcate in others. The other thing is that how learning is designed is a real skill and an art. There's a magic and a science to it. How do you make it relevant in your context? How do you create an environment where people get that surprise factor that makes them remember things? So learning design is another core part of the role, and you've got to be able to interrogate your team's learning design work to make sure that's there. The third piece is you've got to be able to think beyond the causes and resources to that environment, to the network, to the enabling characteristics that you are putting in place within your organization.

From learning infrastructure, to the technology infrastructure, to the mentoring and coaching environment, to the support from leaders, with leaders as teachers. So you've got to have a real passion and a bit of acumen in that space, as well as a good network within the organization to get that side of things to happen.

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