Who is accountable for learning transfer?

Just for a moment, let’s assume that learning transfer following a learning intervention, and the subsequent changes in the way people do their job, is important. Really important.

Let’s do a thought experiment…

Come on, together, let’s hallucinate that the need for behavioural change output from training is true :-)

Got this premise in your mind?

The learning transfer challenge

Now, a challenge for you. It’s time to get tough!

How much sustainable behaviour change are you managing to achieve from the training courses you deliver? If you are like most people delivering training, the honest answer is ‘not that much’ or perhaps more honestly, ‘I don’t know’.

Maybe you, as an Learning & Development professional, can take home your salary knowing that most of the training you do is a waste of time. Maybe the people who ask for the training are happy with that low level of impact. Maybe, like some L&D people I speak with, you can bury your head in the sand or look the other way and make nonsense noises while you plug your ears with your fingers. Maybe you say some nice words about learning transfer and do a few things that might help, but really you are just doing what you have always done.

Or maybe you are waking up to the reality that we should, as professionals, be doing much better than we are at producing business impact from our training courses. Given you are reading this blog, I trust you are in the ‘let’s do better’ camp and this entails providing support to the trainees to help them succeed.

> A mindset for learning transfer

There are many in L&D who would cough and splutter in indignation at this ‘challenge’. How did you react?

Maybe you are one of the very small minority of L&D professionals who are doing a good job of learning transfer and that ‘challenge’ genuinely does not apply to you. If so, I salute you.

Or maybe you just feel very uncomfortable when someone calls out what should be obvious to all: the emperor has no clothes. In the parable of the emperor’s clothes, the embarrassed ruler came to his senses and realised that he had been deceived. He had been living within an illusion where everybody was pretending something was real when even a child could see that it was not. Somehow, so many people are living within the illusion that training is working well, when even a cursory examination shows that it is in most cases not delivering on its promise.

If learning transfer is important and therefore should be done, and it is possible to do it, and people are avoiding it, we end up in the murky waters of responsibility and accountability. Who is responsible for making it happen, and who should be held accountable if it doesn’t happen? In other words, “when and where does the buck stop?”

The chain of accountability for learning transfer

Stop and think for a moment about the last training course you were involved with. Who was accountable for making sure learning transfer happened? When asked that question, very few people have an answer. In other important organisational activities someone is accountable, so what’s different about learning transfer?

One reason is that the activities required for successful learning transfer come from many people across different departments, and it is most unlikely that each person will do their bit and all the parts will magically coalesce into a successful programme. Somebody needs to be the conductor of the orchestra. The conductor in turn requires each member of the orchestra to play their part in the symphony. And then somebody else, perhaps whoever booked and paid for the orchestra to perform, holds the conductor accountable for the quality of the performance. So, who holds the event organiser accountable? Perhaps the people who paid for tickets to attend the concert. There is, inevitably, a chain of accountability.

Now, think back again to the last training course you were involved with. What was, or should have been, the chain of accountability, perhaps even starting with the company shareholders or owner? Where did the chain break? If you fix that link in the chain, are there more weak links further down the chain that will then break? Take a step back and consider how accountability plays out in your organisation.

Accountability for learning transfer is driven from the top

Accountability is a facet of organisational culture, often driven from the top. Does the senior team take ownership? Do they accept accountability or are they full of excuses? It is easy to say that a person should be accountable, but for delegated accountability to be effective, it must also be accepted. No-one wants to be held accountable for something that is likely to fail; that is a poisoned chalice.

Alongside delegating accountability, you must also ask people if they have everything they need to be successful. If they say ‘yes’, then they are well on their way to accepting ownership and accountability. If they say ‘no’ then they will not take ownership, and if/when things go wrong, they will drop into spectator mode and watch as things fail. You might even get ‘I told you so’ comments. On the other hand, if they feel a sense of ownership because they have accepted accountability, they will step in to solve the problem when things go wrong.

Accountability is not a set-and-forget state of affairs. Each person in the accountability chain must do some ‘counting’. That’s the origin of the word! They should be holding regular reviews and checking the results being achieved by the person that they are holding accountable for those results. And of course, to do any of this, there must be measures in place. If you are going to hold somebody accountable for producing a specific set of results, you need to be able to measure those results to understand the level of success. In addition to defining the accountability chain, there must also be an understanding of the specifics of what each person in the chain is accountable for.

Accountability vs responsibility for learning transfer

By the way, don’t get side tracked by the notion of responsibility vs accountability. Some one who is responsible and lives up to that responsibility does what they are asked to do regardless of how the results of what they do play out in the greater game. If things don’t ultimately work out, they say “I did what I was asked to do.” You might think of responsibility as taking ownership of activities while accountability is taking ownership for the outcomes of those activities.

Assuming we are still in this joint hallucination I encouraged at the start of this blog, start building a list of the activities that are needed for learning transfer – who could be responsible for doing each activity, and who could be held accountable for that activity having the desired effect.

OK, you can let the hallucination go now and return to your normal reality. Or maybe this idea of the indisputable need for learning transfer has leaked into your normal reality.

Has it?

Learning Transfer at Work

Learning transfer