Learning has become a full-time job for firms

Chief learning or knowledge officer jobs started to crop up at Fortune 500 companies in the early 1990s, when General Electric is credited with being the first to formalize the role.

Chief learning or knowledge officer jobs started to crop up at Fortune 500 companies in the early 1990s, when General Electric is credited with being the first to formalize the role.

Marketing services firms have been late to the game, often combining training with HR, but as the role has popped up at some of the larger ad agencies, global PR firms have followed suit.

The CLO post recognizes that learning is now an executive function, said Tim Sosbe, editorial director of Chief Learning Officer. He notes that spending on learning has also grown steadily – between 10% and 20% per year since 2002.

"Education is a strategic tool," he says. "It touches everything a company does."

Ketchum has had a CLO since 2002, when Robert Burnside joined from consulting firm Corporate University Exchange. Burnside notes that the position encompasses traditional training and development, as well as organizational development.

"The marketplace itself is putting pressure on all businesses... to work faster, cheaper, harder, and smarter," he says, adding that Ketchum already had development programs – such as Camp Ketchum and Ketchum College – in place before it formalized the CLO position.

Burnside currently reports to Dan Madia, Ketchum's senior partner and global chief administrative officer, and oversees two staffers. And although Ketchum has always stressed training, establishing that role helped it find ways to make it "more practical and in the moment," Madia says.

Edelman doesn't have a formal CLO post, but recently expanded its Edel-U training program, which teaches both organizational and skills development.

"Clients tell us, 'Give us the big idea.' You're being stretched strategically," says Derek Creevey, Edelman's chief of staff, who runs the program with Adriana Jaramillo. "It's imperative to the development of the firm," which last year added global training to its boot camp and leadership development programs.

Through biweekly conference calls, client managers present case studies of some of their most innovative work. Between 600 and 700 staffers join on these calls, which are held twice to accommodate all time zones, Creevey notes.

"We recognized that local training was fundamentally about the craft of PR," while global sessions inspire new ideas about how to approach client work, he says.

Once the program launched, Edelman saw another benefit: Staffers feel part of the global network. To that end, Jaramillo was brought to New York from the firm's Mexico City office to lead the program. She ensures that larger offices don't overshadow smaller ones, Creevey notes.

Staffers also use blogs and the intranet to share ideas about issues that resonate across practices and geographies, such as the results of its annual Trust Barometer or the rapidly aging population. Collaboration among practices at Ketchum led to a report on the Avian flu crisis and its potential impact across industries.

Other firms that have formalized the position include Burson-Marsteller, which has a chief knowledge and research officer, and Porter Novelli, which has a knowledge development and learning team.

Weber Shandwick has its learning and development officer report into HR, as well as task forces on which training programs should be created.

"There's a lot of attention paid now to global exchanges," says Joyce Bloom, EVP and chief HR officer.

Key benefits of a CLO:

Greater coordination between offices and practices

Staffers feel part of a global network

Someone is in charge of developing best practices for learning

Greater flexibility in responding to rapidly evolving marketplace

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