Learning Transfer


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Figure 1 Learning transfer

Training, no matter how good, is a waste of time if it does not help improve the business. Training will have no impact on the business unless the skills are used back at the work place. Unused skills are soon forgotten; within six months it will be almost as if the training had never taken place.

As learning transfer is so important you would think that companies would put considerable effort into making it happen. Yet surprisingly few training organisations give learning transfer the priority it requires. Perhaps they think that learning transfer is a natural outcome of training and, as such, does not need nurturing.

Nothing could be further from the truth. New learning soon withers without constant attention. Unless considerable effort is put into learning transfer the effect on the business will be, at best, random and haphazard. Even companies that are aware of the importance of learning transfer find difficulty in making it happen.

In this article we will look at:

What is learning transfer?

The definition of learning transfer that I use is:

'The post-training application of the newly acquired knowledge and skills to improve the business.'

You may think this definition too lenient because the skills and knowledge could be used once and then promptly be forgotten. You might also argue that transfer is complete only when the students use the new skills and knowledge naturally, skilfully and automatically. This stiffer definition should always be the ideal to aim for even though it is much more difficult to measure and attain.

What prevents transfer from taking place?

Given that learning is not efficiently transferred to the business, the next step is to understand the causes of the problem. Assuming that the students are not bothering to use the skills over-simplifies the problem. It just leaves us imploring them to use the skills. Unless we understand why the students are not using the skills, we will make very little progress towards solving the problem. Only understanding the root causes will allow us to remove the barriers.

The following is a selection of potential causes for poor learning transfer. You will need to check whether they apply in your situation and whether there are any additional causes.

Poor needs analysis

Curiously enough, the seeds of this problem are sown long before the training ever takes place. If there is to be any chance of the students using what they have learnt, there must be a need for the skills and knowledge.

This takes us right back to the beginning of the training process - needs identification and analysis. Far too many people are put on to the wrong course, for the wrong reason, at the wrong time. Typical of these misguided reasons are: 'It's a long time since that person's been on a course', 'It's the next course in the series' and 'We had a few spare places to fill'. If the training has little or no relevance, it should come as no great surprise if it is not used.

Skills not used immediately after the course

If the needs analysis has been done correctly, the next aspect to look at is the initial use of the learning after the course. There should be an opportunity to use the skills.

Ideally the students should use the skills and knowledge immediately after the course. However, significant transfer still occurs if the skills are used within three weeks. If this were to happen after every course, there would be a lasting impact on the business.

The work environment

There can be an aspect of the environment that 'punishes' people who use their new skills when they get back to work. This is known as the 'charm school effect'. It is particularly prevalent in management and behaviour training.

A person returns to the workplace, experiments with the skills and uses a new vocabulary. Other people in their work group, faced with strange and new behaviours, start to feel uncomfortable. Although they didn't like the old behaviours, at least they knew what to expect. This nervousness prompts them to make jokes like: 'Look who just got back from charm school!' In this way people are taught not to use their new knowledge.

Even if the returning trainee does not suffer verbal abuse, the work group's lack of training in the skills can still provide an impediment. Many skills need to have a critical mass of people using them before they can take root in an organisation. If this critical mass is not reached, the skill becomes extinct. Once the critical mass has been exceeded, even those who were sceptical about the skills will be swept along with the rest.

The culture of the company often reinforces the behaviours we are trying to change. We take people out of this environment, train them to use new behaviours, and then put them back into the environment that caused the problems in the first place. We then wonder why the learning hasn't been transferred.

Little control over the transfer process

Another reason for poor learning transfer is loss of control over the process. When the students are in the classroom they are a captive audience. You can monitor and give feedback, you can coach and counsel. But once the course is over that responsibility passes to the students' managers.

One way to gain more control over learning transfer is to spread the learning experiences. For example, in the BBC's 'Managing Change' course the delegates meet a few days before the course. They do the introductions and get to know each other. The course runs for five days. At the end of the course the students are given projects to do when they return to work. Three months later the delegates meet again to review how their projects are proceeding.

This approach goes a long way towards enhancing learning transfer. However, waiting three months to check a project is too long. It does not allow for the monitoring, feedback and coaching that are required in the early days of learning transfer. Another problem with projects is that the students see them as additional work and a burden that gets in the way of their priority tasks. Consequently, it is put off and the bulk of the project work is done in a rush, just before it is due to be checked.

Using a trainer to coach a student through the early stages of learning transfer is an effective but expensive method. It also has the disadvantage that it is usurping the manager's role. Managers can only fulfil their role if they have coaching skills and they become partners in the training process.

Skills not learnt on the course

No transfer can occur unless the students develop the skills in the first place. Some training is of the 'hosepipe' variety. The trainer sprays knowledge and experiences in the hope that all the students will grow.

Ideally, we should measure each student's performance, give feedback and coach until every student reaches the required standard. As we will never have the time or resources to do this, we need to understand what can be done with the resources we have.

Courses that intend to teach a specific skill, or set of skills, range from half a day to two days. Although the length of a course depends on the skill and knowledge complexity, the following guidelines will give you some idea of what can be done in a fixed time.

Half a day
You can teach some basic concepts, models and terminology. There will be little or no time for practice. Unless the students practise the skills very soon after the course, there is little chance that the learning will be transferred. However, half a day of theory in the classroom combined with coached practice in the workplace is a powerful combination.

One day
A full day's course allows time for some practice but not enough time for a significant amount of learning to take place. As there is only enough time for one practice session, the students end the course on a low note. The practice will give them feedback on what they cannot do. They will not have confidence that they can perform the skills correctly.

One and a half days
An extra half-day sees significant skill improvement so the chances of effective learning transfer are greatly enhanced. The intervening evening also helps because the students can reflect on what happened during the day. Learning still goes on even after the practice has stopped.

Two days
Two days of training also allow the students to start a post-course project or to rehearse an application. Complex skills need to be taught in stages. When there is time pressure on a course there is a temptation to move on before the basics are thoroughly understood. Students who are confused early on in a course get and remain hopelessly lost. They will neither hear nor understand anything that follows. Longer courses have modules which cover different subject areas. Again, time pressure forces us to move on before the students have had time to breathe. Assimilation time is important for both learning and its transfer. The students need to check whether they have understood the information and how it fits into what they already know. They need to consider how they would use the learning back at work. Figure 2 gives an example of an assimilation aid.

Figure 2 An example of an assimilation aid

Time also has to be given for the trainer to summarise what has gone before and to introduce what is coming next. There also needs to be constant reinforcement of where the modules fit in to the overall scheme of the course.

Difference between work and classroom environments

Another reason for poor learning transfer is the difference, and sudden transition, between the classroom and work environment. The classroom can be compared to a gymnasium: its purpose is to develop skills. Work is like a sporting event - skills have to be used in a complex environment to produce results. An athlete works out in the gym, practises on the field and then enters a competition. No athlete would go straight from the gym to the Olympics. Yet this is what we do with our students. We give them the skills, send them back to work and expect them to perform like champions.

We need to manage the transition from the classroom to the workplace. We need to create a transition environment that is more challenging than the classroom and safer than the workplace. The transition between the two environments is not helped by the common perception that training is not work and work is not training. Training and learning need to be seen as a continuous process, an unending journey. The type of organisation where the distinction between learning and work becomes blurred is a learning organisation.

The European design managers of a large multinational organisation were to be trained in counselling.

The training started with a four-hour introduction to counselling and its techniques. Soon after the course each manager had a meeting with a facilitator to prepare for a real counselling session. Facilitators observed the managers carrying out their first counselling session. The facilitators explained to the counsellees that they were solely to observe the managers. After the session the facilitators gave the managers feedback and, where necessary, further coaching in counselling techniques.

One of the benefits of this training was that more appraisals were completed on time than ever before.


Trying to do too much

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. It should not start with a giant leap. Trying to cover too much ground too soon risks injury and exhaustion.

The same is true for learning transfer. Too many people return to their workplace and try to change the world overnight. Not only does this contribute to the 'charm school effect' but it is also a recipe for failure.

The first application of the skills and knowledge should be chosen very carefully. People need to succeed and to see the value of what they are doing.

Major Jeremy Moore, commander of the British land forces during the Falklands War, was asked what should be the first objective for a newly arriving battalion of paratroopers. A battle you are going to win, he replied.

What assists learning transfer?

The lessons to be learnt from what hinders learning transfer help us understand what assists the transfer of learning. These are:

Vocational qualifications

Vocational qualifications can be used to assist in both learning transfer and the evaluation of the course. Vocational qualifications measure a person's effectiveness in the work place rather than in the artificial environment of the classroom. A person is not awarded the qualification for passing a course. A course provides the background skills and knowledge that allow someone to demonstrate competence in the workplace.

If you design a course so that it is consistent with vocational qualifications you have an automatic link with the workplace. The skills are practised, managers function as mentors and competence is assessed.

Accrediting learning

Accreditation of your courses by an academic establishment rewards the effort put into learning and gives students a recognisable, transferable qualification. Students have to satisfy the requirements of the qualification and usually have to complete a project, thesis or dissertation which further facilitates learning transfer.

The Rover Body and Pressings Business, based at Swindon in the UK, is a good example of an organisation using this type of accreditation. Students studying their 'Total Quality Leadership' programme have obtained qualifications at certificate, diploma and master's degree levels.

It is essential that a good relationship exists between your company and the accrediting body so that accreditation supports the course objectives rather than the other way round.

Who is responsible for learning transfer?

The people who are responsible for learning transfer are, in order of importance:

It is often thought that learning transfer is most affected by what the trainer and student do during the course but, in reality, what is done by the student and manager before and after the course have a far greater effect.

Putting learning transfer into practice

As you can see transferring the training into the business can be both difficult and complex. Figure 3 shows a process for putting learning transfer into practice.


Figure 3 A process for putting learning transfer into practice

Train managers, coaches and assessors

The essence of learning transfer is support for the student before, during and after the training course. You would normally expect the trainer to provide support during the course. Support before and after the course is often a chance occurrence.

A process has to be installed and a support network has to be established and trained. Coaching and counselling are essential skills for managers and coaches. If you are linking your training with vocational qualifications, you will also need to have assessors trained and accredited.

Student/trainer selects skills and knowledge for initial application

Time is given during the course for the student to decide which skills and knowledge they should use during the initial application of the training.

Student identifies initial application opportunities

Students should have a clear idea of the situations where they can use the skills and knowledge. The initial application will not happen unless they have a vivid mental picture of the situation. They should be able to imagine what it will look like and how it will feel.

For this reason a student should not leave the course without being sure of when the application will happen and who will be involved. Do not accept a fictitious or generalised situation.

Student discusses practice opportunities with manager

For learning transfer to be successful the manager must support the skills and knowledge application. This step of the process happens more than once. Potential application opportunities should be identified before the course as part of the student's preparation. The discussion that occurs after the course is to let the manager know what is going on and to enlist their help and support.

Train managers, coaches and assessors

The essence of learning transfer is support for the student before, during and after the training course. You would normally expect the trainer to provide support during the course. Support before and after the course is often a chance occurrence.

A process has to be installed and a support network has to be established and trained. Coaching and counselling are essential skills for managers and coaches. If you are linking your training with vocational qualifications, you will also need to have assessors trained and accredited.

Student/trainer selects skills and knowledge for initial application

Time is given during the course for the student to decide which skills and knowledge they should use during the initial application of the training.

Student identifies initial application opportunities

Students should have a clear idea of the situations where they can use the skills and knowledge. The initial application will not happen unless they have a vivid mental picture of the situation. They should be able to imagine what it will look like and how it will feel.

For this reason a student should not leave the course without being sure of when the application will happen and who will be involved. Do not accept a fictitious or generalised situation.

Student discusses practice opportunities with manager

For learning transfer to be successful the manager must support the skills and knowledge application. This step of the process happens more than once. Potential application opportunities should be identified before the course as part of the student's preparation. The discussion that occurs after the course is to let the manager know what is going on and to enlist their help and support.

Student rehearses the application

Rehearsing the application in a simulated but safe environment is a powerful way to make a bridge between the classroom and the work place. It allows the new skills and knowledge to be tried out, mistakes to be made and feedback to be given.

Student applies skills and knowledge

By this time students should be fully prepared for their first application of their training. Where possible a coach should observe this initial application. The coach can be the person's manager or someone from a specially trained network of coaches. An alternative is the 'buddy system' where the students pair up and provide support, coaching and feedback to each other.

Student counselled and given feedback

As soon as the students have completed their first application, they should review their own performance. They should ask themselves what they did well and what they could have done better. Give them feedback to cover what they might have missed. Then provide any additional coaching and practice that they might require.

Assess student's competence

When both the student and coach feel that the correct standard has been reached, the student's competence should be assessed. If you have been following the vocational qualifications path the job will done by an internal or external assessor.

An alternative method is to give the student a project book to complete after the course. The project book would have questions and exercises that allow the trainer to assess the extent to which the skills were applied after the course.

This article is based on material that can be found in my book, Managing the Training Process

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