The History of the CLO

Chief Learning Officer (CLO) may be common business language today, but the formal title is only about 25 years old. So, how did this role come into existence, and how has it changed since then? We’ve collected definitions and data points around this influential position, and what challenges may lie ahead for the modern CLO. One thing is for sure, this role isn’t going anywhere anytime soon–last year alone, corporate training spending grew by 15% to surpass $70 billion, proving that education is an increasingly important part of business.


Broadly speaking, the CLO is in charge of managing corporate learning strategy and operations so that it aligns with business objectives. Yet, as analyst Josh Bersin reports, the role often incorporates multiple facets, requiring CLOs to be familiar with such diverse areas of expertise like new technology, talent acquisition, change management, and leadership development.

The First CLO:

While the role has theoretically existed in practice much longer, Steve Kerr was named as the first official CLO in 1989, reports eLearning Industry. After earning tenure at USC, Kerr then began contracted work with GE to assist with their “Process Improvement and Organizational Change” program. Eventually, Kerr’s success lead to an opportunity as the Vice President of Leadership Development at GE’s training facility in Crotonville, New York. eLearning Industry reports:

One month into the new position, Steve did a ‘Work-out’ session with some of the top brass. They suggested that Steve be the Chief Education Officer, or CEO, for all of GE. He had fun with this and went to Jack Welch saying, ‘I’m going to be a CEO just like you.’ Jack gave a robust laugh and informed Steve that there can be only one CEO at GE. Instead Jack offered, ‘You can be chief learning officer.’ And that is the origin of the Chief Learning Officer.

Timeline of CLO Growth:

The University of Pennsylvania’s Executive Doctoral Program, PennCLO, is the only one of its kind among top-tier universities, integrating academics with the realities of the workplace. In establishing itself as a key component to cultivating future CLOs, PennCLO has created a timeline that offers a snapshot of the past:

  • 1981: Bill Wiggenhorn founds Motorola University
  • Mid-1990s: Jack Welch gives Steve Kerr the title of Chief Learning Officer at GE
  • 1999: Jeanne Meister publishes “blueprint” for corporate universities: “Corporate Universities: Lessons In Building A World-Class Work Force”
  • 2000: Business Horizons article profiles 10 pioneering CLOs; concludes that CLOs use learning strategically with increased pressure to produce tangible value from learning investments
  • 2002: T&D article “Meet the New Chief Learning Officers” discusses competencies
  • 2002: CLO Magazine debuts; “The CLO’s Role” discusses role (change agent, business ally, financial manager, learning leader)
  • 2004: ASTD publishes updated competency model for workplace learning professionals
  • 2004: ASTD Launches LXN (Learning Executives Network)
  • 2004: First CLO Symposium in Dana Point, California
  • 2006: ASTD/Penn publishes research on 92 CLOs in “Profiling a New Breed of Learning Executive”
  • 2006: Penn launches program for CLOs

Looking Forward:

As technology becomes an increasingly important part of learning, the modern CLO is tasked with sourcing and evaluating new solutions. This means active communication with the CIO, which Peter Shelby, CLO at the National Reconnaissance Office University, highlights as an important component of the job. “Our two teams communicate daily to put in place the infrastructure needed to deliver learning,” Shelby says. “We have to figure out how to communicate, and do it securely; that takes the combined effort of the CIO and CLO.”

Most recently on the list of new technology trends is mobile learning, which has climbed alongside personal mobile usage, and cloud technologies, which continue to be impactful in driving business transformations. For the CLO, it’s a matter of dissecting how trends like these can have an impact on their learning organization in 2015, and beyond.