But we already do learning transfer… honest!

“Transfer of Training – That almost magical link between classroom performance and something which is supposed to happen in the real world.”
J. M. Swinney

Many L&D people I speak with say that they have taken care of the learning transfer issue and yet, when pressed, they admit that their learning transfer results are often poor and little better than just delivering the training on its own.

When I ask exactly what they are doing about learning transfer, here are some of the responses:

  • I leave it up to the line manager
  • I send them emails or text messages with facts from the training to remind them
  • I give them access to a portal with lots more information
  • I ask them to set some goals
  • I rely on trainees’ desire to improve their performance
  • I bring in coaches, either internal or external
  • I set people up with support, perhaps from peers or graduates from an earlier cohort
  • I run action learning sets
  • I give people tasks and activities to practise and experiment
  • I run a project that uses the new learning.

In most cases, the trainer just wants to move on to the next group of people in the queue waiting outside their training room. “Let’s at least get the delegates through the training. We don’t have the time or resources to do anything else.”

The role of line managers in learning transfer

When L&D is pushed about learning transfer, the most common response by far is that learning transfer is the responsibility of the line managers. This is certainly true as a statement, but learning transfer usually fails in practice unless those line managers get considerable support to operate in two different ways.

  1. The line managers are responsible for the learning transfer environment that surrounds the trainee as they return to work.
  2. They should also be responsible for helping the trainee implement and grow into their new skills. It is nowhere near enough for a line manager to have a few conversations after a training course.

Whatever you are doing now for learning transfer, take a good hard look and assess how successful it is. Is it working? Can you prove it?

Very often any activities that do occur happen in isolation rather than being coordinated into a learning transfer workflow. What’s more, the people involved are not held accountable for producing tangible and measurable results against the programme outcomes.

A learning transfer ritual

Here is a common example: the training is nearly over and one of the traditional training rites is taking place. The trainees are being asked, in the name of learning transfer, to make a note of some actions they will take the next day, when they return to their job. You know how it goes. “Hey everybody, we’re getting near to the end now, so I want you to write down a few actions you will take and some goals you aim to achieve, given all the material we have covered in the last couple of days in this workshop.” And yes, I know, there are ways to make this process a bit more engaging, but something like it is happening every working day up and down the country as people start wrapping up their time in the training room. And every time it happens, whoever is paying for that training is being sold down the river.

I never could set my own training goals

And here’s why. Whoever paid for that training had some specific business outcomes in mind, or at least hopefully they did, otherwise why were they reaching their hand into their pocket? Whether those outcomes are right or wrong, reasonable or not, they are what the paymaster is paying for. The trainee should be sent back from the course with a list of actions and goals that will deliver on the desired business outcomes being paid for.

And yet, here we are, at the end of a long day in the training room, with people watching the clock and wondering when they can escape. And now they are asked to come up with their own actions and goals. I’ve been in that situation more than once, tired and with a head full of new and un-assimilated information, and I can’t remember ever coming up with a decent goal. So, I wrote down a few things to capture some words on paper that looked as if I had thought about it. I certainly was not engaged with whatever I wrote, so it had no power beyond helping me get the day finished.

Quite apart from the lack of ability to come up with a decent goal at that point in time, there was another major problem: I never knew what the overall business outcomes of the training were, so even if I had produced a decent action or goal, one that mattered to me because of what I had experienced in the training, it probably wouldn’t have been enough to fully support the business outcomes of the paymaster.

If there are five key changes being sought by the organisation, it is most unlikely that each trainee will set five goals that align with those key changes, even if they care about them.

And it’s not just the trainees; I doubt many of the trainers who asked me to write down goals knew those overall business outcomes either, so they couldn’t guide me through the goal-setting exercise in class to set goals that supported the desired learning transfer. Learning transfer should be about enabling the organisational goals that the learning is designed to achieve rather than allowing brain-tired trainees to replace them or dilute them with their own personal goals, which may not have that much to do with what the organisation is looking for.

What are the consequences of not meeting training goals?

But even if you set goals that are relevant and support the true programme outcomes, how will trainees answer if you ask ‘what will the consequences be if you do nothing different following the training?’ If the answer is “Nothing” or “Nobody would notice anyway”, then you have a problem.

If they anticipate no consequences, good or bad, people will usually fall back into their comfort zone and do what they did before. They won’t put in the time/effort/work needed to achieve their goals or implement the new learning.

And, of course, that raises the question: how much time/effort/work? Successful learning transfer flows from a philosophy of focusing on the business benefits of the learning programme rather than the learning outcomes. The entire learning programme should be treated like a business process, where the required inputs and the desired outputs from each step in the process are defined. Each process step should be designed to get those outputs, and the outputs measured where appropriate.

When is the training course finished?

If you are developing a learning programme to improve, for example, report writing skills, when can you say that the programme is finished? You could argue that it is only when the report writing skills of ALL the trainees are sufficiently improved and are consistent over time that the desired business benefits have been achieved. Then you can truly say that the programme is successfully finished. This will usually be months for most learning programmes and even years for others. These timescales MUST be built into the overall learning programme design, and expectations set for all concerned.

For example, if it is decided that the training course should be a one-day workshop, how much time does the trainee need to spend, both before the workshop on getting ready and after the workshop on practising and embedding the new behaviours? Three days over six months? So, call it a four-day development programme running over six months, one day of which happens to be in the classroom. If you ‘market’ it as a one-day workshop, that is all the time people, both trainees and their managers, will reserve in their minds for the programme, and the lack of follow-up activity will mean it has little impact.

Learning transfer stakeholders

Over the lifecycle of a training programme, there are many people other than the trainees, their managers and the trainer who will have an interest or involvement in it – including those who will be affected by it. These are the ‘stakeholders’, who may be internal and/or external to the organisation. Some stakeholders may have a disproportionate influence, so it is well worth doing a stakeholder analysis to understand who the players in the game are, and their likely play.

The objective of analysing stakeholders is to achieve a thorough understanding of their requirements and their interest in, and impact on, the project. The stakeholders’ positions (in terms of influence and impact) may be rational and justifiable, or emotional and unfounded, but they must all be considered since, by definition, stakeholders can affect the change process and hence the programme.

Start the analysis by brainstorming a list of all the possible stakeholders. Some will fit neatly into groups, and some will not. Position them on a 2×2 matrix chart with axes ‘Level of power’ from low to high, and ‘Level of interest’ from low to high. By the way, be careful who sees this matrix as you could ruffle a few feathers if it is seen by the wrong person.

The level of stakeholders’ importance to the project and the potential of their impact will determine the level and type of stakeholder management activities you need to adopt. It’s important to spot your influential supporters and equip them with good project information. At the very least, you will need a communications plan. This is designed to ensure that all communications address each stakeholder’s particular interests, issues, and needs.

What you are trying to avoid are comments such as

  • Why didn’t you tell me…?
  • Nobody told us…
  • I didn’t understand that…
  • But we can’t do that then…
  • We didn’t know that…

Communicating to learning transfer stakeholders

Create a communications plan specifying who needs to know what, why, when, how and how much. Make sure you are clear about who should be consulted, or at least informed before, during and after any work/stage or phase takes place.

Although, for you, the programme might be of obvious benefit and the desired results worth striving for, any change will typically generate some opposition, either active or passive, and this will take place in a political climate. It is well to heed the words of Niccolo Machiavelli from The Prince, “There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than to initiate a new order of things. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old system, and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new one.” You need to be aware very early on of who are actively or passively against the project and find a means to neutralise them or win them over.

Successful learning transfer is as much about managing the environment and expectations surrounding a training course as it is about setting activities for people. The various stakeholders need to know what they must be prepared to contribute to ensure the success of the programme. If they resist this commitment, the learning programme is already on shaky ground. The executive sponsor who is seeking the business benefits must step in and mandate the commitment required, for example a time commitment, or the business benefits will not be realised.

12 levers of learning transfer to help you plan your training programme

I recommend using the 12 levers of learning transfer model created by Dr Ina Weinbauer-Heidel. This provides a handy ‘checklist’ of discussion points to have with all the stakeholders to plan what learning transfer activities are needed and who needs to be held accountable for doing them. The 12 levers model helps the stakeholders see the greater picture and that it is really a systemic intervention that is required, not just an event in a classroom.

You can get the shortened list and a process to figure out what changes to existing training programmes are required in my ebook “How to Reboot Training for Tangible Business Impact”. Download it here.

What is a Learning Transfer Platform and how does it work?

Learning transfer