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Learning transfer and the ‘angels’ share’: how to brew the perfect learning experience

Learning transfer is a lot like whisky making – it requires patience, time and the willingness to accept what is lost during the process.

25th Sep 2019
Learning Innovation Leader aNewSpring
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Whiskey on bar counter
iStock/invizbk

It happened in one week. On Monday, my two sons and I watched our favourite TV show, How it’s made. The episode was about making whisky. We learnt about ingredients, the brewing process, ageing, the function of the wooden barrels and the idea of ‘the angels’ share’.

Later that week I watched a nice Scottish movie about Robbie, a criminal guy who accidentally becomes a whisky expert.

The title of the film? Here it was again: The angel’s share.

Surely this was a sign for me to explore the topic a bit further and see how it might apply to learning and development.

What is the angels’ share?

The creation of whisky has a number of different steps including malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation or ageing.  

The ageing process is critically important. Ageing takes place in barrels made of oak wood. During the ageing process there is an ‘interaction’ between the wood and the whisky, giving the whisky its beautiful colour and additional flavour.

The process is influenced by the conditions in the warehouse where the barrels are laid on shelves.

Expecting all training to be applicable for 100% of people instantly is as silly as drinking whisky directly after the brewing process has happened and before its been aged.

The temperature and humidity in the warehouse influence the process of ageing, as does the exact placement of the barrel on the shelves.

Ageing also has another effect: due to evaporation a portion of the liquid ‘disappears’. One could say that portion is lost. Instead they call it ‘the angels’ share’.

I think it is a brilliant and kind of romantic idea to reframe ‘a part is lost’ into ‘a part is consumed by the angels in the warehouse’.

The angels’ share of learning

Every time I come across an interesting idea, I like to explore how it could be applicable in the field of learning and development. So, could ‘the angels’ share of learning’ be a useful concept?

There is a lot of pessimism around the effectiveness of learning interventions or programmes.

The call for instant return on investment and the aim for newly acquired skills and knowledge to be applied directly on the job seems to become louder and louder.

It’s often stated in articles, blogs and in social media conversations that the general effectiveness of learning interventions is very low.

It’s also been said that no other industry would survive with such low effectiveness and ROI rates.

It is not realistic to assume that all learning can be transferred to business results - and should that really be the aim anyway?

This is clearly a misconception, because in industries like advertising professionals know that only parts of their approaches are effective - and they never know which parts!

Even in highly engineered production processes like car factories, a large portion of activities create waste that is hard to get rid of.

Maybe, therefore, we should change our mindset a bit and take some other perspectives.

Expecting all training to be applicable for 100% of people instantly is as silly as drinking whisky directly after the brewing process has happened and before its been aged.

We need to be a little more patient and let the ageing process do its work.

An active process

Contrary to popular belief, ageing is not ‘doing nothing’. While the brews are ageing, a subtle interaction between the whisky and the wooden barrel takes place. It’s influenced by the context, the circumstances like temperature and location.

It really is an active part of the process and, while the end result might be a lower volume of liquid, what it contains is better – more relevant, if you like. 

With this in mind, could it be that ‘freshly brewed’ knowledge and skills need interaction with the physical, digital and interpersonal environment of day-to-day work to become more valuable? Isn’t this a crucial step in the learning process?

We can think of this as uncovering the essence of that knowledge, and deepening the ‘flavour and colour’ to turn a learning experience into performance.

It is not realistic to assume that all learning can be transferred to business results - and should that really be the aim anyway?

Isn’t it good enough for professionals to pick up just a few elements from learning programmes that are most useful for them at first, i.e. the essentials?

It might be that other parts need more ageing before they become more valuable to the learner.

Right place, right time

In whisky making, good barrels made of the right wood, with the correct treatment and stored in the most appropriate place create the optimal context for the distillate to turn into a quality whisky.

Translating this to learning therefore, shouldn’t we ensure that we create the right context and circumstances for learning to turn into performance? Just like whisky making, this takes time and patience.

It also means we have to pay attention to the context in which its taking place – the work environment – and try to remove any barriers for learners to apply their newly acquired knowledge and skills. We should also aim to go one better and reward them for it.

Training and learning transfer aren’t events and we need to stop thinking of them in this way. In fact, they are processes that take place and create impact over time.

To do this and get the best results from that part of the process, we need the ongoing attention and support of managers and peers.

It requires reflection and feedback – things that don’t occur spontaneously.

Learning professionals can’t manage this at their own. They can design optimal processes, tools and guidelines for transfer, but they need partnerships with learners, supervisors and managers to make it happen.

Learning is a journey, not an event

Training and learning transfer aren’t events and we need to stop thinking of them in this way. In fact, they are processes that take place and create impact over time.

When you think about it like this, it’s natural that during that process a portion of the new knowledge and skills might ‘evaporate’, thus becoming the ‘angels’ share’ of learning.

This is surely acceptable if the less relevant stuff evaporates, but the essential parts remain, and the end result is of higher quality.

Whisky makers have accepted the angels’ share phenomenon as part of their well-designed whisky ageing process – they trust that this makes the end result better.

It’s about time that learning professionals do the same – we’re all brewing something, and in our case it’s knowledge and skills.

Just like making whisky, creating effective learning for performance improvement is a delicate process.

The next time you need to have a discussion with your stakeholders about ROI and learning transfer, I hope that this analogy of the angels’ share will help them swallow this truth and savour it. Cheers!

Interested in this topic? Read Learning transfer: why we need to see learning as a pathway, not an event.

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