The Chief Learning Officer


The Chief Learning Officer.  I love the ring to it.  I am convinced that this position is going to be the number one leadership role in organizations in the very near future.  The world is changing so rapidly, it is exponential (especially in tech).  The key to success will be how an organization can accelerate learning for its people; A fine-tuned, talented, diverse team of people who are in an accelerated learning mode that is effective at all layers will be the champions.

As a teacher at the awesome Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry (PSII), I have set out to create a very entrepreneurial mindset in our students.  Not that that necessarily means business, but just the attitude of, “Get out there and make something happen!” It has definitely accelerated their learning.

The brilliant John Seely Brown, one of the world’s top innovators, has co-authored a paper entitled, “Lessons From the Edge: What Companies Can Learn From a Tribe in the Amazon“.  It is a fascinating example of a group in accelerated learning.  The paper stresses that it is imperative to “Re-think the way you learn from and adapt to the world or risk vanishing forever.” The authors outline 3 specific lessons to ensure that an organization remains on the forefront of innovation and change:

1. Cultivate Talent

2. Leverage Resources

3. Stage Your Moves

These 3 lessons, I think, will form the backbone of the Chief Learning Officer’s role.  Of the 3, I believe that the most important factor will be the development of talent which will be the focus of the remainder of this post.


What a computer programming university student learns in the first year becomes obsolete by their fourth.  The pace of change is just too rapid.  The internet has leveled everything and the pace is only going to quicken as more and more people throughout the world gain access to tools that enable them to create.  Indeed, it is an exceptionally exciting time as innovation can come from anywhere.  And I mean anywhere.  The world is only getting more and more connected and with initiatives to bring the internet to remote areas of the world (Google blimp), it will be amazing to watch the products that get developed.  This in turn puts tremendous pressure on old, stodgy businesses that have enjoyed “First World” advantages for years.

Thus, it is essential to not just find talent, but develop it from the ground up and then ensure that the organization maintains an accelerated pace of learning.  This is a monumental task and the key to survival.

Specific strategies to accelerate learning and develop talent:

1.Training programs are limited.  What is required is depth of understanding in specific contexts.

It is like what is mentioned above, training content becomes obsolete very, very quickly. What is needed instead is a model of constant learning.  This is why I choose to mentor learners through collaborative projects that are of the highest professional value to the groups’ abilities.  Like making art films and creating products for the tech industry.  Through this, they gain key insights and understanding within a specific context that allows them to easily iterate onto the next project which enables an accelerated learning environment.

No more industrialized training.  Instead we must look for depth through competencies rather than courses or training programs as competencies are a process, a continuation.  A course ends whereas a competency by its very nature is about constant improvement and growth.  Please take a look at this competency model that Jeff Hopkins has created – this is the vision of the Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry.

Combined with a set of competencies that fit the specific organization or school would be a focus on big ideas.  Not any prescribed outcome, rather, an emergent curriculum on what was needed for that moment by either the company, school or individual.  Think about the X axis being the competencies and the Y axis as being the big ideas.  The Z axis would be the depth to which the competencies and big ideas intersect and are assessed.  Again, this is the model necessary for a world of constant change.  This is how to accelerate learning.

All of the above ideas I have got from Jeff Hopkins. I strongly recommend you talk to him.  At the very least, please watch his proposal for the new grad curriculum for BC.


2. Tools, processes and platforms to support and encourage innovation outside the walls of an organization (school) so they can experiment fully.

Open it up.  Open source all the way.  Allow freedom. It is impossible to get innovation when things are locked down and prescribed.  Of course, hang onto your core intellectual property, but give the rest away as the power now resides within networks (Tesla).  This is what I have been embroiled in this year starting-up the Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry.  I have chosen to connect with the tech industry in Victoria and we have had an incredible year of symbiosis with both Limbic Media and VIATeC.  My colleagues have equally connected with experts in their fields too.

As more and more people learn about us and how we are set on changing education, they get inspired and our network continues to grow.  We trust that this will set an example for our learners to get out there and build their own professional networks.

We, at PSII see the organization (building) as just a hub.  Come do work and collaborate, but then get out and work in the field.  We know that learning doesn’t just happen within a school or company’s walls.  It happens everywhere.  Indeed, some of the best learning happens through getting dirty.  In my opinion, the best learning happens through experience.  It is essential to allow people to take big risks and fail if they need to.  Most of the time, in school, this is routinely discouraged to the point that students become afraid to step out of the box, try new things, and fail.  Learning from mistakes is by far the best teacher and it is even more powerful for learners if it is done within a professional context that has specific meaning and value to the participant.


3. Encouraging, supporting and developing passion that cultivates resilience, learning and adaptation to hyper-changing conditions.

Start with the learner.   It still perplexes me as to why people find this idea so radical.  From government to classroom teacher, many just cannot see out of the box of prescribing specific outcomes to be met by the student or employee.  Of course, there are baselines and having foundational knowledge is important.  Unfortunately, that is where most education stops.  Delivering content is an outdated system for 2014.  Instead, focus on processes.  Focus on context and meaning.  Both of these things are far more powerful when the learner is allowed to pursue what they really want to learn.  When someone really wants to learn something, they will typically go far and beyond any prescribed outcome which in turn creates better knowledge retention and skill building.

High school is an excellent example of not supporting students to develop their passion.  I have a student who hates the Social Studies curriculum and how it is taught.  He has no interest in Canadian History at the moment and is in full rebel mode against it.  In a mainstream high school, it would be irrelevant what he wants or thinks about the course.  Thus, he does nothing to complete assignments, indeed, he does his best to not learn anything at all because he is forced to work within very narrow confines.  He leaves the course after a semester having gained nothing but more resignation towards the system.

Instead, if he was allowed to follow and develop his passion on Japanese History, he would flourish.  This is what excites him and he researches it constantly on his own time.  The processes are identical – critical thinking about history and its cause and effect, learn how to do deep research and cite sources, etc.  Once he learns these processes, he can transfer it to absolutely any other project or endeavor – like when he is ready to learn some Canadian History.  Is it really that difficult to allow individuals to follow their passion?  Of course, we still hold them to the high standards we all want and provide mentorship with experts, but we allow them to develop their own lines of inquiry.

Apparently, this is still way too radical for most of the status quo.  At some point, this old system will implode as it cannot keep up with the big shift that is currently underway in all industry on Earth.  Those that understand how to encourage and support their people’s passion will survive.  Like these guys:  Valve.

Sadly, most people don’t know what their passion is.  It has either been beaten out of them or not developed.  Find it you must!  Love what you do and you will never work another day in your life.  It really comes back to motivation. Understanding that initiative is arguably the most important thing to have for the future of work will ensure success. It is relatively easy for a student to go from kindergarten all the way to graduation without having had to take responsibility for their own learning.  Doesn’t it leave your breathless?

Keep spoon-feeding kids worthless worksheets and precise instructions and society will continue to produce human beings who do not live up to their full potential.  They have never not had to figure it out: take this course, read this, be here at this time, fill in this blank, due by Thursday at 3. Again, it is critical to allow people to take initiative for their own learning.  Content, learning outcomes and grades are mostly immediately forgotten, initiative is what really counts as it leads to resilience and confidence to meet the hyper-changing environment.

I recently met with an innovative teacher working in the public system and she recounted her experience of having to fight like mad to be able to have one day where the students could choose what they wanted to work on.  It took her a year to pass this by the board. And the kids did some amazing stuff with that day.  However, the general consensus before was that the kids are just going to slack off and do nothing.  Really?  So it is much better to lock them down and make them fill out worksheets that will be forgotten immediately?  Is that the better alternative?  I think not.  Instead, let learners follow their passion.  Of course, they need to have tools to help complete tasks like time and project management.  But you cannot learn time and project management through a lecture – it must be done.  It must be practiced.  Telling people what they have to do and when they have to do it destroys motivation, tenacity and builds the opposite skills of what is needed for work in 2014 and beyond.

The most successful organizations will be the ones who can break out of the containers of old models of learning and embrace new models; because, again, success will reside within a team who can innovate and learn the fastest.  For those still relying on the old system, the time to change is now.  Let people follow their passion – it leads to far greater learning and in turn, produces far greater results.


4. Inquiry (questing) disposition

Inquiry is critical to accelerating learning for an organization.  This continues from above – let people learn about things that are passionate to them. The role of the Chief Learning Officer, is to help people formulate deep questions which in turn, should lead to more and more questions.  We need to stop cultivating a top down approach where the boss/teacher is considered the bastion of knowledge and instead embrace a bottom up approach where the learner drives the process.  This knowledge that the individual gains, can then be brought back to the organization to be shared or taught, further strengthening the team’s learning and their capacity to operate in the market place and the world.

With the internet revolution, all learning can be documented.  Indeed, as someone hiring talent, I would be most interested in seeing their work, not some number from a course.  What does that mean anyway?  At the moment, from my last 8 years of experience in education, that mostly means regurgitating material.  Those regurgitation skills are no longer needed by the work world.  Show me the money.  I don’t care if you got a perfect score on your Social Justice midterm – demonstrate to me how you are actually doing social justice in your community.

This is why inquiry is by far the most powerful process.  Combined with the easy and free technology that exists today, this is the path that will lead to ensuring people become successful at asking big questions and trying to find those answers.  In education, nothing must come from a can any longer.  It needs to be organic, grown from the roots.  As this questing disposition is on the other end of the spectrum of traditional schooling, how can companies expect their employees to push new boundaries if they have had 12 years of formal education that has given them no opportunities to do so?  It requires practice.  We can’t just tell people to be creative and look for problems to solve.  This is a disposition and it must be developed over a period of time.  It is much better if the school system develops this earlier than a company having to “train” it in a professional setting.  Employees should already come equipped with an inquiry/questing mentality.

At PSII, we have been moving into the inquiry/questing model.  It has been very difficult.  The education system and society have conditioned our youth very well to not ask big questions.  We made some initial, very large assumptions that learners would just dive right into developing their inquiry and charge forward.  Nobody was used to doing this.  We learned a lot this year, iterated like crazy and I think we will have a tremendous second year developing and supporting our learner’s to embrace inquiry to accelerate their learning.

Based on this year’s experience at PSII, it is going to take some time for society as whole to adopt this approach.  Yet, there really is no time to wait.  Massive changes are already rocking the world and organizations have to change or die.  An organization cannot wait for an inert education system to swing the ship around.  It needs to accelerate learning now.


5.Actions over resume

It is absolutely essential to cultivate, create and maintain a portfolio of best work.  As mentioned in the section above, numbers on a piece of paper signifying a result in a course are becoming meaningless.  It is necessary to show the work.  It is easily done now.  Without an online presence that demonstrates professionalism and collaboration with others, it will become increasingly difficult to secure the best job prospects.

There are dozens of tools to choose from.  Everyone works differently.  One individual might post 25,000 times/year on Tumblr while another might write 10 superbly crafted posts that get shared 25,000 times.  The medium is not as important as the message.  What is important is demonstrating ability, connectivity and imagination.

And storytelling. Tell your personal story.  That fits into the organization’s story.  Be transparent.  Show the process of your work.  Again, it is incredibly easy to do so now.  Develop a following.  It doesn’t have to be huge, but it is incredibly important to have a professional network.  These actions demonstrate to a much higher degree the level of professionalism of an individual than a resume can.


6. Work environment

Atmosphere is very important.  The physical space needs to be carefully crafted in order to promote the most connections happening.  This exponentially increases the chances of serendipity to occur.  A fascinating example of this is John Seely Brown’s coffee alert:

when the Center for the Edge independent co-chairman John Seely Brown (JSB) led Xerox PARC, he had floor-to-ceiling whiteboards installed by the coffee machines. When fresh coffee was brewed, an email alerted the entire floor at the same time. Everyone rushed to get a cup of coffee and “luckily” ran into others they had not met yet or had not seen in a while. These encounters often resulted in conversations that turned into white board discussion that attracted other participants. An electronic image of the white board was sent out to others across the organization to stimulate connections and serendipity in the virtual setting as well.”

We too at PSII have been doing our best to increase serendipity.  It is an open space concept reminiscent of the one-room school house updated for now.  People walking into the space comment on how it feels like they are in a big living room; there are rugs underneath all the tables and soft lighting as well as abundant natural lighting.  All the tables are arranged in a fish bone formation that ensures no one is back to back and promotes the most open visual view.  At the same time, if a learner needs to get away from it, there are 11 break out rooms to find quiet space.

It is not just the physical space, but also the systems, rules and management.  At PSII, there are no bells or regimented classes.  Everyone is expected to have a plan and a schedule.  Just like in any professional setting.  This does not happen in the traditional school setting.  Everything is given to a student – where they have to be, at what time, when they can take breaks and so on.  Very efficient and perfect for the factory.  Unfortunately,( or fortunately) there is no more factory.  Most students get very little practice in personal responsibility and planning.  Two very important skill sets that should be practiced early (like 14).  It comes back to constraining people’s optimal work habits and forcing everyone to learn one way.  We know this is the antithesis of deep learning. Letting people eat when they are hungry and take breaks when they need one are all supportive of a healthy work environment.

Most importantly of all though is the role of the teacher/manager in this open space concept.  The role has changed from enforcer to facilitator. Mentoring a learner through a complex process is the way forward.   We no longer need the teacher/manager as dessiminator of knowledge, rather, they now must try to make as many connections for the learner as possible in the most personalized way within a specific context.  Chief Learning Officers, teachers and managers who can facilitate a free and open learning environment to experiment, collaborate and explore the boundaries while creating things of value for the world will be the winners.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.