The first steps to effective learning transfer

“The beginning of a book is always the hardest part for me. I’m a Chapter 3 kind of writer, which means I naturally start at Chapter 3.”

Kami Garcia

Most training courses start at about Chapter 3, run for a few chapters, and then fizzle out long before the real story has ended. They are born out of discomfort or frustration with performance; someone floats the idea that a training course is needed, and Chapter 3 is underway.

Meetings are held to align the course with business needs and decide on the content that must be included. A couple of chapters later, trainees are sitting in a classroom seeing the results put together by instructional designers and subject matter experts, delivered by a skilled trainer. Reports go back to the managers interested in the story, saying the trainees rated the course highly, and the managers breathe a sigh of relief thinking the story has ended ‘happily ever after’.

What they haven’t yet realised is that the story has not ended. There are many more chapters to unfold with plenty of time for the villain to interfere, and where is the hero? There’s a hero? Well, there would have been one if the story had started at Chapter 1!

What are the foundations for successful learning transfer?

For your training course to be successful, that is, for it to have a tangible and beneficial operational impact, it is essential that the story of the training course starts from the beginning and on solid foundations. A knee-jerk training request as a response to a current or anticipated performance issue is NOT a solid foundation. If the training course is not seen as relevant by the participants, or their managers, it is virtually impossible to get them to put in the effort to operationalise their new learning and accomplish learning transfer.

Sadly, many trainees end up on training courses that have little or no perceived relationship with their real operational needs. Arguably, learning transfer starts with ensuring that the training course and the transfer of learning from it are worthwhile. This reminds me of a quote from Peter F. Drucker, “There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.”


Sending people on training courses that they don’t need is depressingly common. It seems that Learning & Development is often willing to ignore the need for performance diagnostics and unquestioningly accept the order for a training course. We are back to the shopkeeper mentality, and it’s time to greet one of the three elephants I often see in L&D meeting rooms.

When L&D ignores the obvious need to ascertain that a training course is required, and simply takes the order without a shred of evidence that the course will produce any business benefit, they are ignoring an elephant that is standing right in front of them – the performance diagnostics elephant. I have noticed that two elephants, performance diagnostics and learning transfer, tend to travel together. In any organisation, if you find one, the other is almost sure to be lurking nearby. The first step in addressing the performance diagnostics elephant is performance consultancy. Note, this is NOT learning consultancy, which is very different.

Performance Consultancy

What is performance consultancy?

Performance consultancy starts with the premise that there is a performance gap that needs to be bridged. As we start the consultancy process, we do not assume anything about the gap or its causes, or how it could be bridged.

Starting at Chapter 1 with a robust performance consultancy process protects you from delivering unsuitable training and saves considerable amounts of L&D budget. Many requests for training would never make it through the performance consultancy filter into the L&D department because often the real cause of poor performance is related to the operational environment, rather than the competence of the individual performers. If someone is not performing well, there are only two things you can do to improve performance: you can either change the performer, or you can change the context within which they are performing.

Performance diagnostics

The performance consultancy process applies diagnostics to the performance system to find the levers in the system that can be pulled to change the output of the system. One set of levers relates to the employee: the performer. Do they have the knowledge, skills, understanding, attitude and physical attributes to do the job? In other words, are they competent?

The other set of levers is to be found in the environment that surrounds that person when they are doing their job: the context. Is the employee supplied with adequate IT, tools, management, support and so on, to do their job? In other words, is the work environment ‘competent’?

I find it extraordinary that we go to sometimes inordinate lengths to build competency frameworks for people, yet we don’t do this for the environment within which they are working. For a full performance consultancy process, see Capability at Work: How to Solve the Performance Puzzle by Paul Matthews (2014)

Effective behaviour change

David McClelland’s team at Harvard summarised the requirements for any significant change to be lasting and effective as follows: people must

  • be willing to change (if they’re not, it’s a motivation issue)
  • be able to change (if they’re not, it’s a training/competency issue)
  • not be prevented from changing (if they are, it’s a ‘systemic’ issue).

The levers of change

When you have found the levers within the performance system, you need to consider which ones to pull, and in which order. Consider the costs of pulling each one, how quickly you can pull that lever to find out how it affects the system in practice, how the effects of pulling different levers are interdependent, and so on. Often, the first step will be some tests to find out the sensitivity of the performance system to specific levers.

Of the dozens of possible levers, it is highly unlikely that the only levers you will find are a lack of knowledge and/or skills, which means that your programme to improve knowledge and skills needs to work in tandem with other projects involving other levers. It is also often the case that you will find these knowledge and skills levers need no improvement at all, which means that you do NOT need a training programme to improve them, no matter how much noise your operational managers might be making as they request training programmes for their poorly performing team.

What are the common causes of poor performance?

In my experience, and that of others I speak with, around 80% of performance problems are caused by organisational and environmental barriers – in other words, environmental incompetence, rather than worker incompetence.

Think back to your own experience over the last month. Which tasks on your to-do list did you fail to do adequately? In other words, when did you underperform? Of those times, how many were because of your lack of knowledge or skill? How many were the result of outside influence? Was your underperformance correctable by further training? Even if the answer to that is yes, would training be a reasonable way to correct that?

Another test I have heard mentioned, though I wouldn’t try this for real, is to imagine one of the underperformers. If you threatened them by pointing a gun at their head, could they do the job? If they could, it means they know how to do it and can do it, so it’s not a training issue.

If, and only if, the diagnostics show that one of the levers you can pull is to improve knowledge and skills (and perhaps after you have tried pulling a few lower-cost levers just in case that is sufficient to get the change you want), you can then move to the next stage of setting up a learning intervention.

Think before pulling the knowledge/skills lever

You MUST be absolutely certain that the knowledge/skills lever is worth spending money on. What’s your proof that it is? Why that lever? If you don’t have proof, return to your performance diagnostics process, and go through it again. Management should not allow programmes to proceed unless the benefit to the business can be clearly articulated. Likewise, L&D professionals should not accept the responsibility for conducting a programme unless the business benefits are clear to both line and learning managers.

Please go back and read that last paragraph again. It will save you a LOT of money.

Learning Consultancy

OK, now we can move on. The next step is learning consultancy.

What is Leaning Consultancy? 

This starts with the premise, proven by the performance consultancy diagnostics, that there is a knowledge/skills gap we need to bridge, and that a learning intervention, probably alongside other changes, is needed to solve the presenting performance issue. The learning experts should now be looking at the whole picture to design a learning programme that

  • fulfils the learning needs identified in the performance consultancy process
  • aligns with both the strategic and tactical needs of the business
  • fits within the budget
  • includes learning transfer activities
  • includes enough measurement to check that it’s working as designed.

The instructional designers can get to work with their well-established models, such as ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation), to design suitable learning interventions. It is worth remembering at this stage to differentiate between information that trainees must ‘know’ and information they can ‘find’. With so much information readily available online, there is little point in attempting to get people to remember what they can look up easily. Regardless of whether they need to ‘know it’ or ‘find it’, the desire to drive learning transfer should permeate all design decisions for every element of the programme. After all, without learning transfer, most formal learning efforts are wasted.

How are Performance Consultancy and Learning Consultancy different?

A word of caution: it is very important that you do not get performance consultancy mixed up with learning consultancy. They are two different things and spring from two different assumptions. Performance consultancy starts from the assumption that there is a performance gap, and the diagnostics process is to identify the causes of that gap. Learning consultancy starts from the assumption that there is a knowledge/skills gap and seeks to design effective ways to bridge that gap.

I have spoken with many L&D people who claim to do performance consultancy based on the fact that they ‘align’ their learning solutions with the needs of the business. They are wrong. They are looking at a performance problem with the assumption that there will be a learning solution. From this basic assumption, they cannot do performance consultancy, they can only do learning consultancy.

In a sense, this is malpractice in the same way that you would accuse a doctor of malpractice if they assume that prescribing antibiotics is the only solution for any health issue that their patients present. The performance consultant, like the doctor, must start with an open mind.

In a way, this open-minded approach to a performance problem is the first step to ensuring successful learning transfer should a learning solution show up during the performance diagnostics as a necessary part of the total solution. Without beginning at the beginning, the foundations for any learning intervention are weak, and it will likely fail.

Begin your learning programme story at Chapter 1.

Further reading