The cultural elements of learning transfer

It has been said that to avoid learning transfer problems, don’t do any training. Instead do other things that bring learning and provide tasks that embed behaviour change directly into the workflow. However, training in a classroom, physical or virtual, is unlikely to disappear any time soon. It is still the mainstay intervention of most learning and development departments. There is considerable pressure to reduce the amount of face-to-face training because it is seen as too costly in comparison to online training, and of course the pandemic has had a significant impact, but I maintain that it has its place.

The balcony moment

The importance of this physical separation from the daily grind should not be underestimated. If employees have no opportunity to step away from their working environments, the same old behaviour, for good and ill, is constantly reinforced, and the chance for more reflective, committed learning is lost. Harvard professor Ronald Heifetz calls this a ‘balcony moment’: the imperative for leaders to leave the dance floor periodically and reflect on the patterns and movement below.

Let’s get learning transfer right

It’s interesting that people are seeking to reduce training, rather than fix the major issue with it: lack of learning transfer. Is this quest to reduce traditional training time a result of disillusionment with training as a tool? Is it because people feel there must be something better? Or is it simply a way to reduce costs? If we get learning transfer right, training and other formal interventions are viable tools to use in the quest to improve organisational performance. This in no way means that all training currently taking place should keep running and just have some learning transfer bolted onto it. There is more to it than simply moving towards a closer relationship between learning and work.

Towards a learning organisation

As organisations attain higher levels of learning maturity, their mindset about employee development shifts away from viewing learning and development as stand-alone, separate, external activities. Instead, they view learning and work as intimately connected, and development happening as part of their employees’ day-to-day work. Mature learning organisations are increasingly discarding long held or traditional beliefs about how learning should be created and facilitated, and are instead focusing on creating the right conditions, context, and culture for learning to take place. Peter Senge, who wrote the seminal book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of learning in Organisations, said in an interview, “A learning organisation is a group of people working together collectively to enhance their capabilities to create results they really care about.”

The cultural context

This cultural shift is surely vital, because learning transfer following a formal event is a process that is in turn part of a much longer process that predates the event, and extends long after it, all of which plays out within the cultural environment. The whole longer process and its surroundings must be considered if you want the learning transfer component to be successful. As with a chain, the entire process is only as strong as its weakest link. We therefore need to look at all the links in this chain, including those parts of the process that predate the actual learning transfer, because these set up the initial conditions and inputs. And since the entire process takes place over time, you can think of it as a workflow.

Learning workflows

It is advantageous to think of learning transfer taking place as the result of a workflow. The term ‘workflow’ presupposes a sequence of tasks, or even mini workflows, that build on each other, step by step, over a period of time. It is an orchestrated and repeatable pattern of activities that takes specified inputs and, all going well, culminates in a specified set of outputs. The word ‘workflow’ reminds us of the fact that people must DO something rather than intellectually learn something. Albert Einstein said “Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information”. So, think of the formal training event as simply one step in the experiential workflow that is required to get the results you want. A traditional training course, without an effective learning transfer workflow [internal link] wrapped around it, is most unlikely to deliver employee behaviour change or any significant business benefits. Without further intervention, the traditional structured and linear nature of learning in the classroom does not prepare people well for the more complex and ambiguous world of work.

Measuring learning transfer

As with any workflow, if the inputs are inadequate, the learning transfer part of the workflow can never produce the desired results. This of course highlights the need to measure the inputs and outputs to ensure they are adequate. Measure the inputs in two categories: those required at the nominal beginning of the workflow, and those required to support each step of the workflow that feeds into the next. Measure the final outputs to ensure that you are getting the necessary returns for the process to be worth doing at all. These final measures should relate to existing business performance measures and can also be based on tools and concepts introduced by Dr Donald Kirkpatrick, Dr Jack Phillips, Prof Robert O Brinkerhoff and others that measure learning success.

The strength of the cultural system

As with any other business workflow, learning transfer is part of a larger system, part of an even longer chain of interrelated workflows, and should always be considered within the context of the larger system. Unfortunately, learning transfer itself is a very weak link in most organisational systems. “For the most part, learning does not lead to better organisational performance, because people soon revert to their old ways of doing things”, according to ‘Why Leadership Training Fails – and What to Do About It’, an article in the Harvard Business Review (October, 2016). In their paper ‘Training Transfer: An Integrative Literature Review’ (2007) Burke and Hitchens state “Estimates of the exact extent of the transfer problem vary, …… to Saks’ (2002) survey data, which suggest about 40% of trainees fail to transfer immediately after training, 70% falter in transfer one year after the program, and ultimately only 50% of training investments result in organisational or individual improvements. Given these estimates, it is clear that learning investments continue to yield deficient results…” What they are saying is that returning trainees had less power to change the system surrounding them than the power the system had to maintain its inertia and shape them. Trainees tend to revert/conform to the system after doing training. In effect, the culture, if it is hostile to what has been learned, will “untrain” your employees faster than you can train them. However, it is possible to empower the trainees and to shift the culture in the system, so it becomes fertile ground for growth and development.

Let’s avoid scrap learning

Despite the common-sense argument that training that is not used is wasted money, the tools and activities to ensure successful learning transfer are often not used at all, or they are only used superficially and thus have little impact. This is not to say that all training is wasted. There are certainly training programmes that are successful in achieving the desired business results, but these are in the minority when compared to the vast amount of training that is delivered each year.

A systems view

In many cases, if the system does not change, it is unlikely to support individual change, and may well be inimical to it. There are considerable bodies of research that show that the effect of training over the longer term is limited, and yet senior teams still see it as the solution. One reason for this is that they view their organisation as an aggregation of individuals. Therefore, people must be selected for and trained with the right knowledge and skills to execute their strategy and improve the organisation’s performance. Competency frameworks are developed to suit the organisational strategy, and training courses follow. This makes very little, if any, allowance for the fact that organisations are systems of interacting elements, with structures and processes and leadership styles, as well as professional and cultural backgrounds.

Leadership matters

If we see the organisation as a system with many interacting components, and the captain of the ship/system is the senior team, it can be difficult to confront that senior team with an uncomfortable truth: failure to execute on strategy and change organisational behaviour is not solely down to individual worker deficiencies but is due to the way that the captain is steering the ship. It is much easier for the captain to hear that members of the crew need training than it is for him to hear that his own performance is contributing to the problem.

Winning at learning transfer

Thankfully, although a major factor in learning transfer, the culture of the organisation is not the only determinant. There are many others, which in turn would be more powerful when wielded within a supportive culture. Michael Leimbach of Wilson Learning conducted a study to show the impact of learning transfer activities in July 2013. Based on the results of his research, covering 32 research studies from recent years that compared the impact of training workshops alone with training workshops plus one or more learning transfer activities. He states, “This research allowed us to identify 11 specific actions that have a significant impact on whether training results in measurable performance improvement. Overall, we found that if an organisation implemented all these actions, they could improve the effectiveness of their learning by over 180%.” Learning transfer is a game we can win.

Some factors in learning transfer

In general, the research clearly shows that the amount of learning that is transferred back to the job doesn’t solely depend on how good the training course was. It also depends on

  • The importance given to learning and development by the organisation and whether the right training need was identified for the right person in the right job
  • How well the training course was designed to meet that need and how well the learners were prepared for the learning experience
  • How well the trainers understood the learners’ needs and how best to help them learn
  • To what extent the learner was supported while trying to use the learning back at work.

For a more detailed look at factors that affect learning transfer, see my ebook ‘How to Reboot Training for Tangible Business Impact

How to implement learning transfer at scale with our People Alchemy Learning Transfer Platform (LTP).

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