The case for learning transfer

Organisations put a lot of resources, and considerable money into training their employees. Unfortunately, a large proportion of this investment does not convert into the desired improvement in employee performance. You don’t have to rely on the research to know this to be true. Consider your own experiences of attending a training course, or indeed participating in any other formal learning initiative from elearning to workshops to seminars to videos and even specially designed games. How much do you remember now from that course, and how much did you change the way you did your job after the training course?

What is learning transfer?

I started my book on the topic of learning transfer like this…

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Despite this sage advice from the King of Hearts, most training fails because it does not start at the beginning and does not keep going until the end.

The Queen of Hearts would probably shout, “Off with their heads!” for such a transgression, so it is lucky that we are not L&D practitioners in Wonderland. Nevertheless, to avoid even the possibility of beheading, let’s begin at our beginning and define what we mean by ‘learning transfer’. Then we can proceed to explore the true beginning of training, and when it has reached the end.

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. Every definition I have seen talks about the application of learning, so the term learning transfer means much more than just transfer, or movement, of learning from one place to another.

It also means the translation and application of the learnt knowledge, skills and attitudes into effective action that improves job performance, is sustained over time and is beneficial for the output of the workflow. (1)

You will also see the terms ‘learning transfer’, ‘training transfer’, ‘transfer of learning’, and ‘transfer of training’ used interchangeably in the organisational learning context. In an educational context though, the term ‘transfer of learning’ is more about the transfer of knowledge forwards into another learning situation so there is a compounding effect of learning building upon learning.

There is always debate about semantics, and which words we ‘should’ be using. I think there are better things to spend our time on than arguing over which words to use, but I would suggest that it is a good idea to settle on the term that you use within your own organisation and keep it consistent.

Advantages of learning transfer

We deliver learning initiatives for a reason (let’s use the generic term training for simplicity), and the reason is seldom to tick a box to indicate the training was done, except perhaps in some cases for compliance reasons. We deliver training in order to change the way our employees do their jobs. We want them to use their trained knowledge and skills back on the job. The success of training can only ever be as good as the success of the learning transfer that takes place. When participants do not use what they learned during their training programme, resources spent on training are wasted.

Training that does not transfer into the workflow is a universal experience. Numerous studies have shown that only a small proportion of what is delivered in training is ever applied on the job. Percentages vary from 5% to 30% but the figures are all depressingly low. It behoves us to pay far more attention to the levers we can pull to enable and promote learning transfer (2). By doing so we greatly increase the effectiveness of training and thereby the return the organisation will harvest from the training investment.

Of course, we are not just talking about wasted training budget here. Every day an employee isn’t ready to work and ready to be independently productive carries a cost, not a profit. Shortening the ‘speed to skill’ time saves money as well as reducing frustration, improving morale, and providing other side benefits, such as lower attrition rates. If shrinking the time to proficiency is one of the most significant contributions that L&D can make to an organisation, learning transfer is the key to achieving this.

And it is not just the organisation that benefits from the many positive effects of learning transfer done well. The employees more effectively build their skills and capabilities, they become more promotable, more employable and as a result of becoming better at their jobs, derive more job satisfaction. It is a win-win for both employer and employee.

Transfer of learning strategies

It is tempting to immediately start looking at tools and techniques for learning transfer. This might be appropriate for the L&D practitioner who is convinced of its necessity, but many of the tools and techniques they will need to apply rely on the collaboration of others in the organisation, and the goodwill of many more.

The first part of the learning transfer strategy is developing a solid business case to obtain buy-in for what needs to be done. The argument to include effective learning transfer steps within any training initiative should prove so compelling and obvious that everyone in your organisation can no longer imagine delivering any training without it. In fact, it should become obvious that not using transfer when you could, would be tantamount to malpractice for any learning and development professional. (It’s a crime, if not quite deserving the capital punishment the Queen of Hearts was so fond of dishing out.)

Successful learning transfer depends on a mindset that permeates the entire learning programme and all those involved; from design through delivery to the end game. It depends on a focus on performance improvements and business benefits rather than learning outcomes. At a more practical level, it depends on a shift in focus from what it takes to complete a training event to what it takes to get employees proficient at their job using the material from the training event.

Learning transfer stakeholders

The people who are ‘doing’ the learning transfer are the learners, or delegates, or trainees, or whatever you want to call them. Much as it would make life easier, you can’t do it for them any more than a doctor can do your healing for you. To help you heal yourself, the doctor tries to provide the best conditions they can, so you have the best chance of recovery. Take a moment and think of all the things a doctor can do to help patients, from stitching up a wound to providing antibiotics to explaining a recovery regime to enlisting specialists and nurses to help, and enlisting your family to help. The list is endless and depends on the healing that you need to do.

Think of this as a metaphor for learning transfer. For learning transfer to be successful, there will be a ‘regime’ involved, a process over time, and it will involve the collaboration of others who have the same learning transfer outcomes as you do.

This is why ensuring you have a totally compelling argument for learning transfer is so vital to your success. You need to convince all the other stakeholders of the case for learning transfer and do it to such an extent that they are eager to help you achieve what is now the obvious thing to do.

Implementing learning transfer as an integral part of a training programme means change. Any change in an organisation requires resources, usually time and money, and whoever is providing that time and money needs to know they are going to get good value for their investment.

A critical part of any learning transfer strategy is a list of the stakeholders and how each will be affected. For each stakeholder you need to consider how you will convince them of the need for their involvement, whatever that is, and also consider how you will hold them accountable for doing what needs to be done.

The case for the ‘case for learning transfer’

Hopefully I have convinced you of the necessity for building a compelling case for learning transfer alongside any training programme you wish to deliver. I see it as a critical success factor for any training programme.

One of the components within your case for learning transfer will need to be the practical means to deliver the learning transfer ‘regime’ as we called it earlier. In order for people to buy into your strategy for learning transfer and your proposals to supercharge your training programme, they need to know that you have considered risk and have a plan that will enable you deliver on that plan efficiently and effectively. This is where a Learning Transfer Platform (LTP) can play a part, especially if you need to scale to more than a few trainees.

People Alchemy is a modern LTP that ensures the new knowledge and skills from a training event are applied in the workplace. Note that this is not an Learning Management System (LMS) although you might also include an LMS in the technology you bring into the mix for your training programme. With a Learning Transfer Platform in the mix, valuable training budget is no longer wasted, and the business sees results.


See more:The Difference Between a Learning Management System & Learning Workflow Platform’ and ‘How to Reboot Training for Tangible Business Impact’.


(1) ‘Learning Transfer at Work: How to Ensure Training >> Performance’ by Paul Matthews
(2) 12 Levers of Transfer Effectiveness (Dr Ina Weinbauer-Heidel)