Hitting the Streets as Chief Learning Officer

When I became the "chief learning officer" at a foundation about a year ago, it struck me that once again I was adorned with a job title my relatives wouldn't understand. I'd worked as a community organizer for over 20 years and the "organizer" job usually generated blank stares at family gatherings. Some relatives believed I helped people organize their closets.

With the "learning officer" title, I imagined relatives wondering if I were some version of a British bobby, blowing my whistle at people who refused to learn or didn't learn fast enough.

Of course, "chief learning officer" may be viewed as a euphemism for "director of evaluation," a more easily understood title. Yet when it comes to inspiring the creative, dynamic learning we all desire, evaluation director is not exactly the most welcoming title. Chekov believed that if an author placed a gun in the first act to create tension, at some point the gun had to go off. Evaluation is similar. It's a loaded gun and everyone waits for it to go off. It inspires fear, not inspiration.

I've come to embrace the "learning officer" title, for while mysterious, it is less threatening and, more importantly, it gives me more room to maneuver. I've come to believe that as a learning officer I have to be active in a range of activities— evaluation, strategy and organizational development.

By organizational development I refer to how a foundation strives to become a learning organization. Evaluative feedback is like water. When it flows over hard ground, it doesn't sink in. When it reaches soft ground, it feeds the soil and supports growth. Many organizations are like hard ground. They are torn by unresolved conflict, distrust, and unhealthy internal competition. These organizations have little capacity to absorb evaluative feedback and to adapt. To enable a whole organization to learn and evolve, we must soften the ground by building a staff environment that supports trust, collaboration, and inquiry. In an organization with prepared ground, evaluation matters.

Key to becoming a learning organization is the regular use of the pause button. Organizations have to take periodic time outs in order to absorb feedback, to reflect and to adapt. And these time-outs must be built into the master calendar. Otherwise it's too easy to allow the pressures of grant deadlines and day-to-day management to consume all of our time and energy, and to leave us on auto-pilot, even if that pilot is flying us into a cliff!

Here at The California Endowment, we've instituted the pause button in a couple ways. We bring our program staff together quarterly for a two-day in-person meeting to work on cross-department collaboration and strategy development. And we convene the local evaluators in our place-based work every few months to develop and refine the assessment tools we are using to measure progress.

In using the pause button and in creating a safe space for reflection, we give up some control and predictability. In our staff sessions, for example, we've seen the disconnects in our strategy bubble up and demand attention. In the daily grind, we tend to push the truly difficult issues to the margins but once we pause, we can't as easily escape them. They surround us!

In the ideal setting, synergy exists between evaluation and organizational development. The two modes interact in such a way to build an organizational culture that is dynamic and truly mission-driven.

In this sense you might say that a "chief learning officer" may also need to serve as a "staff culture developer."

Try describing that job to Aunt Shirley over a Thanksgiving dinner.

Jim Keddy is a Vice President and Chief Learning Officer at The California Endowment. His work is informed by a variety of sources and experiences including community organizing, public opinion research, Paulo Freire-inspired adult education, liberation theology and most importantly, basketball coaching with 7th and 8th grade girls.

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