Book Review - Learning Transfer at Work

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Learning Transfer

Learning Transfer at Work by Paul Matthews is a look I definitely recommend to every learning and development practitioner who wants to improve the effectiveness of their l&d interventions. Three chapters into the book I was already sold on the importance of learning transfer and why we need to take it very serious. Accoring to Paul the main aim of the book is twofold:

To convince us and those we work with that the learning transfer elephant (or problem) is real.

Introduce processes and activities that help to deal with the elephant.

This is not a big book as it has just 240 pages and 14 chapters split across 2 parts in which Paul challenges us about why we must take learning transfer serious and how we can go about doing that.

The first section introduces us to the issue of learning transfer and some crucial things we need to consider to begin to tackle it. The second section is morepractical as it presents 166 tips, ideas and questions we can apply to start introducing learning transfer to  our interventions. This larger part of the book will give you some actionable learning transfer ideas.

Following is a brief review both parts of the book.

Part 1 - Overview

What is learning transfer?

In this chapter Paul gives us a good introduction of what Learning transfer is using some straightforward definitions, one of which is:

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.

But this chapter doesn't just focus on defining learning transfer, it expantiates on the ineffectiveness of l&d interventions because of poor or even no learning transfer. To be honest some of the data cited is quite sad reading and you wonder if our roles are not at risk of being taken over by AI or some other technological advancement if we are this ineffective. I do like the fact that Paul pointed out people wanting to reduce training when the real issue is dealing with the problem of learning transfer.

Why do we avoid it?

I'm sure like me you will find this chapter very interesting and in some cases hilarious, but it is one to reflect on. Here Paul has outlined 12 reasons why we avoid learning transfer. Three of them are:

  • Our job is to train people. We deliver the training and that's our job done. Learning transfer is not our respobsibility.
  • L&D has outsourced the training and the external training provider is only interested in selling training.
  • We do some stuff on learning transfer and it doesn't seem to make any difference.

Taking the time to read and think about these reasons why l&d does not do learning transfer and reflecting on them is really crucial because it will help us to question ourselves about why we may not be doing it.

The subject of accountability is also touched on. So who is responsible for learning transfer? For sure it's not just l&d, but being open about accountability, accepting the responsibility and doing something about it is necessary because if we don't, nothing will change. We will keep on investing in training which generates little or no returns.

But we already do learning transfer!

You've probably heard that one before or it may be what you say. So which of these are you familiar with?

  • We leave learning transfer to the manager
  • We send delegates emails and texts messages on facts about the training after it's ended to remind them.
  • We give people access to a portal with lots of information.
  • We run action learning sets.

There are more suppossedly learning transfer strategies listed which we may be using, but the lesson here is that they often don't work and that's because they are planned and used in isolation of the learning intervention. Learning transfer strategies not planned as part of the overall intervention will feel disjointed and fail. There are some great lessons to learn from this chapter which include the importance of realising that a training course doesn't just consist of the delivery, but also what happens before and after and it forms a whole workflow into which learning transfer should be integrated.

Also it is important to clearly identify the stakeholders that will have any influence on a learning programme and their level of influence because they will be instrumental to the programme's success and that includes helping learning transfer work.

Where does it start?

Where does your training start? Does it start on a strong or shaky foundation? Training that starts on a strong foundation is training that is needed and can be justified. A key to that is being able to do effective performance consultancy which is discussed briefly in this chapter. Performance consultancy differs from learning consultancy as it aims to identify performance gaps and what is needed to plug it. It also helps to identify whether or not a learning intervention is needed. It is only if the need for an intervention is identified that we can move into learning consultancy to decide how to design and develop the intervention. All that and more are discussed in this chapter which should really make us think about whether the training courses we put on are really needed. This is important because you can't do learning transfer on a course people don't really need.

Informal learning

The subject of informal learning is important to learning transfer because for learning transfer to happen, learning must happen beyond the classroom. We've all heard about 70:20:10, one of the most popular models within the l&d sphere inferring that 70 percent of Learning happens informally, but despite this there still isn't much we do to emphasize informal learning. The point of this chapter is that informal learning is important to learning transfer and purposely planning for informal learning to happen after an intervention will certainly aid learning transfer if done properly.

The Learning Stack

In this chapter, Paul presents a five-step model he calls the learning stack to help us understand how reflection aids learning, afterall reflection is important to learning transfer and behavioural change. The five steps are:

  • Unconscious reflection which involves practising something without really thinking about it.
  • Conscious reflection where we consciously think about something.
  • External reflection when we externalise our reflection such as writing them down or telling someone.
  • External reflection with consequences is when we think about what will happen if externalise our reflections.
  • Teaching someone else something, which is a great way to learn.

The higher up the learning stack, the better the reflection and of course the possibilities of learning transfer. Another lesson in this chapter is the importance of retrieval of information from our memory. The author discusses some practices that we can use to facilitate retrieval - based learning. The AGES model developed by Josh Davis and colleagues originally in 2010 is discussed to illustrate memory retrieval. The AGES model which stands for Attention, Generate, Emotion and Spacing focuses on four principles that help new learning to stick.

Triggers that work

In this chapter the Foggs Behavioural Model defined by the equation B = MAP where B is Behaviour, M is Motivation, A is Ability and P is Prompts is discussed. According to the model these three factors must be present for behaviour to occur. So for someone to use what they learnt on training, these three must be present, if just one is absent the behaviour will not occur. Another important aspect of the model discussed are the three steps that B.J. Fogg believes helps to change behaviour which are:

  1. Get specific
  2. Make it easy
  3. Trigger the behaviour

Mindset

In 2006 Carol Dweck, a Psychology professor at Stanford University published the book, Mindset - The New Psychology of Success: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your potential, in which she describes the fixed and growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset see ability as fixed and need to do the best with what they've got. People with a growth mindset believe it is possible to learn and grow and improve our talent and abilities. In relation to learning transfer, triggering new behaviours is really important and people's mindset does play a major in whether people will change behaviour. Paul spends some time exploring those two mindsets and references other information related to mindset including a TED talk and BBC programme. I definitely will be getting my copy of Carol Dweck's book.

Near and far transfer

Near and far transfer learning model is one of the most common learning transfer models. In describing the model Paul writes that, "the extent to which information learned in one situation will transfer to another situation is determined by the similarity between the two situations. The more similar the situations are, the greater the amount of information that will transfer. Similarly, if the situations have nothing in common, information learned in one situation will not be of any value in the other situation.

What this model infers is that far transfer is more difficult than near transfer. This is significant to learning transfer in that it helps us think about how we design learning interventions to facilitate learning transfer by making the situation where the intervention takes place or the  intervention itself to be as similar as possible to the real life situation. Paul discusses another model, the low road and high road transfer of learning which goes a bit further to explain what needs to happen for learning transfer to take place. While I won't go into detail explaining what the model suggests, I do believe these two models are worth researching as they will give us more insight into doing learning transfer more effectively.

Creating new habits

In this chapter Paul looks at something very necessary for learning transfer, habits.According to him, "doing something a significant number of times means we enter the realm of habits. So, let's look at habits to help us understand how they can both help and hinder us in our quest for learning transfer." That statement summarises the aim of this chapter. Some theory on habits is discussed, such as the CEOS theory which stands for Context, Executive and Operational Systems and Borland who published a paper on the CEOS theory does present a practical aspect in the discussion of the process of behaviour change which consists of four overlapping phases which are:

  • Problem diagnosis
  • Goal setting
  • Taking action
  • Maintaining change

On a more interesting note Paul helps us to understand the "it takes 21 days to build a habit" school of thought. The truth is it doesn't take 21 days. Dr. Maxwell Maltz's quote which is, "these, and many other commonly observed phenomena, tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old image to dissolve and new one gel", was later misquoted and taken totally out context.

Support

This is a really useful chapter as it gets us thinking about how to do learning transfer in reality. Paul makes one thing clear, the person doing learning transfer is the trainee, but they will need support to do it. That is where this chapter really shines as it introduces us to a very practical model that can help us think about how to support learning transfer called - The 12 levers of transfer effectiveness. This framework was developed by Dr Wienbauer-Heidel after years of intensive research and it presents us with 12 learning transfer levers levers split across 3 domains. I have summarised them below.

Levers for trainees

1.   Transfer motivation - yes, I want it

2.   Self - efficacy - yes, I can

3.   Transfer volition - achieving transfer success with willpower

Levers  for Training Design

4.   Clarity of expectations - Making goals transparent

5.   Content Relevance - Learning what is needed

6.   Active Practice - learning by doing

7.   Transfer Planning - step by step to implementation success

Levers for the Organisation

8.   Application Opportunities - everyday work is full of possibilities

9.   Personal Transfer Capacity - we (don't) have the time

10.  Support from Supervisor - the boss and transfer success

11.  Support from Peers -other people's influence

12. Transfer Expectations in the Organisation - transfer results as a new finish line.

More information on how you can learn more about this framework is presented as Dr Wienbauer-Heidel has written a detailed book on the subject titled -  What makes training really work: 12 Levers of Transfer Effectiveness. She also has a website (www.transfereffectiveness.com).

Measurement

This chapter tackles a really thorny issue for l&d. The key question here is, how do we know what we are doing is working? How do we measure the impact of learning transfer? And even more, are we measuring what is important? A number of resources are referenced to highlight the importance of measurement and how crucial it is to building an effective l&d offering. The Learning Measurement Study by Brandon Hall Group is cited saying that very few l&d teams collect metrics linking learning to performance. Information from Brinkerhoff's Success Case Method and Thalheiner's Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model are referenced as measurement frameworks. The section ends on a positive note with the author suggesting some actions l&d practitioners can take to improve their measurement strategies.

The brand of L&D

Another shock-in-the-system section, this time on branding, a subject most l&d people would not be able to put a couple of sentences together about. After all we don't work for the marketing department. But in all honesty, branding is important to l&d. This section of the book throws out a challenge to us. Think about it - What do people say about l&d in your absence? Not much probably. Research by Josh Bersin of Bersin by Deloitte rated l&d at a -8 Net Promoter score. This is extremely low and cause for alarm, but why? A reason is people's perception that training does not make much difference and a key culprit for that is (you guessed it) poor learning transfer. Therefore improving learning transfer is directly proportional to improving the l&d brand.

Part 2 - The Practical Stuff

This part of the book is all about ideas that you can learn from and use. The author suggests we consider all the ideas, try some of them and identify what works. On purpose there is not a lot of text for most of the ideas, since there are 166 of them. I believe the author leaves space for us to use our imagination in deciding how best to select and implement ideas. Following are 20 areas that these practical ideas focus on:

  1. Focus on the action that produces results.
  2. Changing culture so it's friendlier to learning transfer.
  3. Importance of the manager to learning transfer.
  4. Getting support from the necessary stakeholders.
  5. Identifying limiting beliefs.
  6. Onboarding and learning transfer.
  7. Experience and expertise.
  8. Barriers trainees anticipate.
  9. Access to digital platforms.
  10. Incentives.
  11. Blame culture.
  12. Involving managers in Learning design.
  13. L&D strategy.
  14. What do people really need to learn?
  15. Buying in generic training.
  16. Handouts and training manuals.
  17. Experiments and activities.
  18. Feedback.
  19. Adult versus child learning.
  20. Agile development of learning programmes.

Final thoughts

What is my verdict on Paul's book? Read it. Please read it. Be mindful that you will need to use it as a reference that you can dip into time and time again. This book contains lots of tools and tips that we can use to support learning transfer and while not all of them will work when we use them, Paul leaves us with no excuse of not knowing what to do

My final words go to the author, Paul Matthews. Thank you Paul for writing a book full of insights and revelation about learning transfer. Hopefully because of this book our learning transfer efforts will be much better.

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