Article

Learning Transfer

What is learning transfer?

Learning transfer is the process of taking the knowledge and skills learned in a training course and applying them in a real-world work setting.

Welcome to our web page and guide on learning transfer. This page has links and signposts to resources to enable you to deliver on a critical but neglected aspect of the majority of training programmes. It will help you get to grips with learning transfer, give you ideas and resources you can use, and enable your journey to making your training programs effective so they provide tangible and positive impact on your organisation.

Like many terms, the phrase ‘learning transfer’ seems to mean different things to different people. In organisational learning, it usually refers to the implementation of learning that has happened in a prior formal event, such as a training course or an elearning course. It means the translation and application of the learned knowledge, skills and attitudes into effective action that improves job performance, is sustained over time, and is beneficial for the output of the workflow.

You will also hear terms like training transfer, embedding learning, making learning stick, transfer of learning, and others. When you are talking to someone about learning transfer, ask them what they mean by it, so you have a common understanding. The conversation will go better if it is not based on different assumptions.

Learning transfer is a crucial component of any successful training programme, as it ensures that the time, money, and resources invested in the training are not wasted. Without learning transfer, the skills and knowledge gained during a training course won’t be fully utilised, resulting in a lack of return on the investment.

Learning transfer should underpin the whole notion of training. And yet too often we focus on the transmission of information from the trainer to the trainee, and then the retention of the information by the trainee.

Training success comes from people using what they learned, not just learning it, and using it in a way that benefits the organisation and its stakeholders. Once people have learned something, do they cross the knowing-doing gap and apply the learning?

And of course, unless the learning is applied, it is likely to be quickly forgotten anyway. It becomes ‘scrap’ learning that costs money but is discarded. This means that the lists of ideal or recommended learning topics are not much use. You need to deliver what is relevant to learners right now, not because it is on some list, but because it is needed and will be put to use to get better results, and as a result of that use is also likely to be retained for future use.

Sustainable, competitive advantage is not so much based on what an organisation and its people know, but what they do with what they know. The global training market is worth well over $300 billion, but how much of that ‘lands’ and makes a difference? If you are reading this page, you already know the answer: ‘Not nearly enough’.

Learning transfer is the elephant in the room for many in L&D, and this elephant is BIG! The case for proactively driving the learning transfer process is self-evident, and yet so many people choose to behave as if the elephant is not there. How can people keep ignoring it?

Paul Matthews, L&D expert and founder of People Alchemy, is the author of ‘Learning Transfer at Work – How to Ensure Training >> Performance’. It is the third book in the learning and development at work series and founded on significant research as well as many years of hands on experience.

This book is full of practical ideas you can use to do two things…
1. Convince those around you that the learning transfer elephant is real
2. Introduce processes and activities that deal with this elephant

Implementing learning transfer will get you better returns on your budget as well as improve your reputation in the business, so what are you waiting for?

The case for learning transfer

Why is learning transfer important?

Organisations invest significant resources and funds into training their employees; however, a substantial portion of this investment often doesn’t lead to the desired enhancement in employee performance. Personal experiences of training courses, workshops, and other learning initiatives reveal that people tend to forget much of what they’ve learned and rarely implement these teachings in their jobs. The primary goal of such training is not merely to complete a requirement but to effect change in employees’ job performance. The success of training hinges on the successful transfer of learning, and when this doesn’t happen, the resources invested in training go to waste.

The phenomenon of training not translating into actual job tasks is a widespread issue. Various studies have demonstrated that only a small fraction of the content taught in training is actually put into practice at work, with estimates ranging from 5% to 30%, all of which are dishearteningly low. This emphasises the need to focus on strategies that encourage and facilitate the transfer of learning into practical tasks. By prioritising these approaches, organisations can significantly enhance the effectiveness of training and maximise the returns on their training investments.

Learning transfer in the flow of work

By definition, learning transfer takes place in the flow of work. Having said that, the activities and factors, or lack of them, that affect learning transfer occur over the entire duration of a learning or training programme.

If the programme is a traditional training event, you can think of providing a wrapper of learning transfer activities that run prior to the event, during the event, and after the event. When this is done well, the event itself recedes in importance as a component of the programme. The event becomes just a step amongst many others that lead to the desired behaviour change.

A very similar programme should also be used when instigating a new operating procedure where there is no training course and the ‘learning’ is minimal, but there is still a need to operationalise that learning and ensure that people consistently do things in the new desired way.

When you think of this programme of activities that leads to behaviour change, think of it as a learning workflow.

A lot has been written in the last decade or so about design thinking and more recently how it is being brought into the learning and development arena. For example, springboard.com/blog/design/design-thinking-process but there are many good articles easy to find.

Design thinking means the iterative process that is usually described as covering five phases: empathise, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

This article uses design thinking as a process to look at how you can design a learning workflow.

This next guide will…
• take you through the design steps to create a learning workflow that is guaranteed to change behaviour, and
• explain how you can deliver this using the People Alchemy Learning Workflow Platform.

Learning transfer is dependent on behaviour change and generating reliable behaviour change is dependent on using a learning workflow. Therefore, you need a learning workflow wrapped around your training to achieve learning transfer and business impact. Hence, this article’s title: Learning transfer requires a learning workflow solution.

The 12 lever model for effective learning transfer

One of the things that seems to stop people designing and delivering their programmes with an emphasis on supporting the trainee to achieve learning transfer is that they don’t know where to start. Out of all the things they could be doing, they don’t know which ones are important and will have the most impact. Luckily, there is a considerable body of research that can point us in the right direction.

One person who has investigated all the studies, papers and academic articles on learning transfer is Dr Ina Weinbauer-Heidel. This is her story.

Around 2010 she was designing successful senior leadership programmes for a business school in Austria, and at that time her definition of success was that the courses were well subscribed and generated repeat business. Everything was going well, and then she read a book called Die Weiterbildungslüge, by Dr Richard Gris. The book caused quite a stir in the German speaking L&D world as it challenged the status quo with a title that translates roughly as The Continuing Education Lie. Dr Weinbauer-Heidel said her first reaction was denial: “How can that book be right when what I am doing here at the business school is successful?”, but the idea of the systemic failure of training to generate acceptable business impact wouldn’t go away.

Her response was to look at the research and she was surprised to discover that there was so much of it, and that it stretched back over 110 years. Also, despite so much published information, what it didn’t seem to have was any unifying or practical solution that would solve the learning transfer issue she now knew existed. At the time she was looking for a project for her PhD and chose to review the literature and find the ‘holy grail’, the ‘secret’ of learning transfer.

Her research over several years identified more than 100 determinants of transfer, and so her project changed from finding the ‘holy grail’, which seemed characteristically elusive, to finding a way to simplify what she had found and make it practical and useable.

The simplification process focused on three main areas. One was to remove from the list the transfer determinants that were only mentioned in one study. Another was to remove those that had a low level of correlation with transfer; in other words, they were a factor, but not a significant one. The third was to remove those determinants that could not be controlled or utilised. An example of these is the intelligence of the trainee. The higher the trainee IQ, the more learning transfer occurred, but testing for intelligence before allowing someone onto a training course has some ethical and practical considerations.

She ended up with a list of 12 determinants of learning transfer that are controllable and have a high impact on transfer. She called these the ‘12 Levers of Transfer Effectiveness’, and they give you a roadmap to follow when deciding what support will be required to succeed at enabling learning transfer. She divided these into the three areas which have become a de facto standard following the paper Transfer of Training: A Review and Directions for Future Research, published by Baldwin and Ford in 1988. The areas are training design, trainee and work environment.

She published her findings and recommendations in a book Was Trainings wirklich wirksam macht: 12 Stellhebel der Transferwirksamkeit in December 2016. The book was translated into English in 2018 and is titled What Makes Training Really Work: 12 Levers of Transfer Effectiveness.

You can see more of her excellent work at The Institute for Transfer Effectiveness.

Dr Weinbauer-Heidel has kindly allowed us to reproduce a summary of the 12 Levers of Transfer Effectiveness in our ebook on designing training for business impact. Get your free copy here…

Learning Transfer Platform

In a Chief Learning Officer magazine article, Robert Brinkerhoff describes a Learning Transfer Platform (LTP) as “a cloud-based software platform that wraps custom-designed interactions and learners’ engagements around and into more traditional employee development workshops and seminars. This creates a learning/performance improvement journey for each participant.”

The success of formal learning depends on how well the learner can transfer their newfound knowledge and skills into the workplace, and generate new behaviours with a resulting improvement in performance.

You know that most formal training has less impact than we hope for, and you know it makes sense to support and encourage people after a training course to get the impact you want. That kind of individualised post training support, from managers and peers, is now within reach when you use a Learning Transfer Platform for their learning journeys.

As well as managing the journey, an LTP manages the measurement. You can put in place a variety of measures to quantify the success of the journey, to get data for ROI calculations, and to measure observable behaviour change over the course of the journey.

One of the biggest problems with post-training activities is learner engagement, and getting effective support from their managers. A Learning Transfer Platform will hold learners accountable for the activities they are assigned, and give you data and reports to understand who is stepping up, and who isn’t. It will make things easy for their managers and provide the managers with the support they need to make learning transfer happen.

An LTP turns your training event into a training programme. It manages the pre-work you want to do, and this is particularly important where you are employing a flipped classroom model. It manages that critical immediate post-workshop period when people return to their workplace. And then a Learning Transfer Platform manages ongoing growth and practice to ensure that the material covered in the workshop lives, and results in changed behaviours.

Measuring learning transfer

This article discusses the importance of identifying training needs and measuring the impact of a training program in an organisation. It emphasises the need to start with a clear understanding of the desired behaviour change that the training program aims to achieve. The key points are as follows:

    1. Identify Training Outcomes: The first step is to determine what outcomes stakeholders want from the training program. Most commonly, the desired outcome is a change in behaviour, leading to improved performance aligned with organizational goals. A behavioural needs analysis is recommended to identify specific tasks that need improvement to address the presenting business problem.
    2. Evaluate Performance Goals: Once the target tasks are identified, stakeholders should articulate how they want these tasks to be performed differently. Creating a detailed document that describes the desired behaviours is crucial. This step may require coaching managers to focus on behavioural outcomes and creating suitable evidence criteria for performance.
    3. Design and Deliver: With a clear list of tasks and behavioural descriptions, the training program can be designed and developed with the end goal in mind. The focus should be on how to deliver the desired behaviours effectively. This involves identifying the necessary skills, providing knowledge, and creating opportunities for practice and reflection.

The article underscores the importance of starting with a clear understanding of behavioural measures and outcomes before proceeding with the design and delivery of the training program. Without a well-defined set of behavioural measures, it becomes challenging to evaluate the effectiveness of the training program.

Why do people avoid implementing learning transfer?

Hopefully, you can see how learning transfer fits into the conversation about learning and development, and why ignoring it simply isn’t an option. And yet, learning transfer still seems to be the resident elephant in many rooms where a training programme is under discussion. When the elephant is pointed out, there is usually an acknowledgement of its existence, followed by a slide back into the comforting rut of course delivery. “Yeah, we need to do something about that, but right now we need to focus on the logistics for all the trainees from the EMEA region.”

Why do so many people in L&D do little or nothing about learning transfer when doing something is such simple common sense? Perhaps the elephant has been there for so long that people in L&D now just assume that it’s part of the furniture.

This elephant is BIG, and should be impossible to ignore. The case for proactively driving the learning transfer process is self-evident, and yet so many people choose to behave as if the elephant doesn’t exist. Why? If we look at some of the reasons that people avoid implementing learning transfer methods, we can start to understand how to change the conversation.

By the way, some of what follows may annoy you as it is a bit provocative, or you may find you are gritting your teeth and wishing you didn’t agree.

Download this ebook to see the 13 barriers to implementing learning transfer and how to fix them.

The learning stack and its relevance for learning transfer

Reflection is one of the most important factors that contribute to successful learning and is especially important as a factor in learning transfer. According to the constructivist model of learning, people play an active role in constructing their understanding and knowledge of the world through reflection. They use reflection to embed their new information within their existing concepts and experiences. Some would say that learning cannot take place without reflection. Lev Vygotsky, the pioneer of social constructivism in learning, talked about “consciousness being formed by communication”. In other words, reflecting on and then explaining what you have done, are doing, and intend to do next, becomes a significant learning activity in its own right.

This has significant consequences for understanding and creating the conditions under which people learn most effectively and then utilise that learning. It’s not enough to tell people about a concept, skill, or behaviour, they also need opportunities to experience these, and then reflect on their experience to incorporate them into their model of the world, and use them effectively. For example, I might intellectually understand the steps in a negotiation model, but until I sit across the table from someone and use that model in the real world, I don’t really ‘know’ it. And until I practise that model many times in many different situations, and reflect on the results I get, I won’t be able to use it as fluently as an expert. It will still be theoretical knowledge rather than practical, and learning transfer has not yet happened.

Here is more information…

Learning transfer models

There are over 20 learning transfer models that have been proposed in what has become a field of study within learning theory. Many of these transfer models are based on the work done by Edward Thorndike (1874 – 1949) over 100 years ago. In a seminal article, Thorndike and Woodworth (1901) proposed their common-elements theory, according to which transfer is a function of the extent to which two domains share common features. Their theory of transfer states that the extent to which information learned in one situation will transfer to another situation is determined by the similarity between the two situations. The more similar the situations are, the greater the amount of information that will transfer. Similarly, if the situations have nothing in common, information learned in one situation will not be of any value in the other situation.

Follow this link for useful information on two useful models and how they can help with designing training that has a better chance of transferring into the workflow.

How learning transfer affects the brand of L&D

If the outcome of an L&D initiative is to get people doing things differently, and this is the most common desired outcome, then learning transfer is the only way to achieve it. If learning transfer does not happen and the goal is therefore not achieved, the L&D initiative has failed, and the blame for that failure gets laid at L&D’s door.

If the activities of a department are seen by the rest of the organisation as usually failing to deliver much that is useful, guess what, the reputation and brand of that department suffer.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon said, “Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.” What do people say about L&D? Without effective learning transfer strategies built into every L&D initiative, what they say will not be complementary.

Conversely, if L&D manages their programmes and the necessary learning transfer, the organisation gets the outcomes it wants and L&D is seen, and has a brand, of the department that gets results.

Is lack of learning transfer a problem for the business?

Yes. Clearly, if the business is spending money on training and seeing little or no change as a result of that training, then the money was wasted. And waste of money is clearly a business problem.

It is interesting that a large proportion of the money spent on training around the world is not measured by the impact it has on the business. The measures usually in place are the eponymous happy sheets, or the number of hours that an employee bum is on a seat doing some kind of learning initiative.

Somehow, L&D in many organisations get to spend their budget without linking that spend to data showing the spend has a definitive and tangible impact on business performance. Other departments such as logistics or marketing have to show that what they are spending has a positive impact on the delivery of the organisational strategy. Why not L&D?

Senior people and organisations generally think of training as being ‘a good thing’ and they are constantly bombarded with articles talking about the skills and talent shortage. It seems self-evident that an organisation must provide training, and therefore a budget is set aside to do so without ensuring that the use of that budget is properly aligned with what the organisational strategy requires.

You have probably never heard someone say, “Our workforce is doing all that they need to do as well as they need to do it, so therefore we don’t need to change anything.” There is always room for improvement in the way that people do their jobs and that means there is usually a need for some kind of learning and development initiative as part of that improvement process. However, that improvement will only ever happen if the L&D initiative has learning transfer built into it.

The simple truth is that organisations do need to do training and development, and therefore they must include learning transfer as part of the delivery processes. Leaving learning transfer steps out of training design is definitely a business problem and should be fixed as soon as possible to avoid more wasted money.

Your Turn! Apply learning transfer to your development programmes

This check list is for organisational development programmes and training providers

Hopefully now you have all the information, you will be ready to start implementing learning programmes for your business that are based on learning transfer science / philosophy and design for sustainable behaviour change.

Here is a check list you can adapt for organisational learning programmes, whether designed internally or for external clients. Or share them with your training provider to ensure the programmes they offer you will have the desired business impact.

1. Agree with the responsible manager a definition of the performance problem they are trying to solve.
2. Engage in a performance consultancy process to ensure training is a valid component of the solution
3. Do a behavioural needs analysis
4. Define your behavioural outcomes in observable terms
5. Design a learning workflow that will enable people to achieve the desired behaviours
6. Decide how you will deliver the workflow and hold people accountable for their tasks
7. Use the 12 levers of transfer effectiveness to discuss the roles and accountability for all the stakeholders
8. Run a pilot and then us the Success Case Method approach to refine the learning workflow
9. Measure as you go by observing progress towards the desired behaviours
10. Hold the learners and all stakeholders accountable for their agreed input
11. Iterate and improve. Think Kaizen.
12. Celebrate milestones, especially when they are successful!

You are ready to go! And we are at hand if you have any questions along the line 🙂