Learning transfer: are old-school training courses dead ducks?

Are old-school training programmes dead ducks?
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As bite-sized, self-directed online learning continues to evolve, should we be saying goodbye to class-room based learning? Or is there still value in adopting formal training, alongside experiential approaches, for enhancing learning transfer?

When I joined the world of work, lengthy, often residential, training courses were the ‘gold standard’ for imparting knowledge and new skills. They varied hugely in style, from didactic to highly experiential methods of instruction. Some were stimulating and absorbing, others dull.

I once calculated I had enjoyed nearly three years on training courses of one kind of another in my first ten years in employment, and spent the other seven years putting into practice most of what I learned. With hindsight, I benefited enormously from an employer with a generous and thorough approach to development.  

Organisations now face many pressures, including the need to develop, engage and lead employees through change. The pace of work is high, and organisations must adapt to the needs of a changing workforce while aligning training and development with organisational goals.

As the rate of change increases, so do training needs. For example, we are witnessing an explosion of new training needs in the financial services industry to ‘treat customers fairly’ (though they should have been doing that anyway) and, in the pharmaceutical sector, to ensure and demonstrate regulatory compliance. 

People are our greatest asset…

The need to invest in ‘the organisation’s greatest assets’ is just as strong today, despite pressure on training investment and the costs associated with maintaining a smorgasbord of internal and external training solutions. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the ability to iterate and adjust development and training to keep pace with a rapidly changing environment. 

Over the past few years we’ve witnessed reduced demand for formal training and increased demand for shorter training interventions. Employers and employees often provide ‘reasonable’ reasons as to why they can’t afford to be taken off the floor for training.

Does this mean ‘old-school’ training programmes are dead ducks?

We don’t think so yet… 

Technology and social collaboration apps offer huge, yet relatively unexploited, potential to improve training delivery, though they are not always being implemented for the right reasons. I am inclined to be sceptical as mounting work pressure often drives demand for online, bite-sized, self-directed or accelerated approaches.

The ‘time-poor’ problem also impacts time available to reflect on training, internalise knowledge and think about practical application.

Old-school training programmes, delivered face to face, still have great value in helping people understand basic concepts and gain foundational knowledge.

Has learning kept pace with generational change?

Failure to develop new generations entering the workplace impedes an organisation’s ability to recruit and retain the best talent. We’re constantly reminded that the latest generations to enter the workplace (millennials and, now, Generation Z) aren’t interested in money alone, but seek self-fulfilment, flexibility, stimulation and portfolio careers.

They are mobile-savvy, digitised and socially connected, and they expect training to be tailored to their individual needs and preferences.

Does the learning and development industry recognise this need? And, if so, is it ready to respond?

Is our challenge content delivery or learning application?

Charles Jennings’ 70:20:10 concept promoted an enlightened idea that the majority (or around 70%) of learning comes through experience, around 20% comes from social learning with colleagues and just 10% through formal learning such as classroom training or online courses.

It’s not a rigid algorithm, but we still struggle to convince clients to invest in the critical 70:20 element by ensuring that application in a real-world setting is relevant and provides a meaningful learning experience.

By observation, 70:20:10 doesn’t seem to work as well in practice when everyone is time poor and there is inadequate structure and support for the social and experiential learning component. Learning and development staff are often spread too thin to support this effectively, and many managers lack the time or inclination.

To activate learning, managers need to place greater emphasis on learning transfer, supporting learners to implement knowledge and skills, and reflect on and adapt them in a rapidly changing working environment.

To apply learning effectively, it is vital that people are clear about the context and purpose of training – what’s driving changes in ways of working and why is this important? With a clear understanding of the intent behind training, people will be more inclined to learn and apply. 

Despite increased demand for snappy, online, self-directed, digitised learning we still see, hear and experience the immense value in training programmes where people group together to discuss and develop concepts, interact as a group and share a common experience.

Old-school training programmes, delivered face to face, still have great value in helping people understand basic concepts and gain foundational knowledge. Face-to-face conversations are also effective ways to build trust, develop relationships and establish informal collaborative networks – we mustn't throw out the baby with the bath-water. Instead, we must think about how to upgrade and support the overall learning experience for time-poor employees and Generation Z. 

A blended learning approach is key

Let’s remember that people (no matter what generation they’re from) have different learning styles. A good start is to adapt or individualise learning and development approaches by determining, in real time, how people want to learn, what expectations are being set around learning goals and how learning is to be embedded and applied.

An ideal approach to delivery combines workshops, assignments and activities designed to improve learning transfer or adoption. Let’s use this opportunity to revive old-school face-to-face training programmes by using them to establish peer networks where social learning will take place, and plan how training will be applied in practice.

Technology has an important role to play in both content delivery and social collaboration. It plays such an important role in people’s lives now that we should take advantage of these new habits to create communities supporting social learning.

The rise of action-centred eLearning

Successful future training delivery will embrace technology and integrate with, rather than replace, classroom-based learning. But this only addresses half the problem.

We need to also address how training (in whatever form it’s delivered) is translated into performance, or the successful application of skills, at work. This requires L&D professionals to transition from simply delivering course content to taking more individualised approaches to acquiring and applying skills in a real-world environment.

In the future we will be placing more faith in digitised learning, but we need to remember not all online (or face-to-face) training is retained and applied. Experiential and social learning betters supports application. Many children, free from constraints, learn by making mistakes before they get it right. Our challenge is to provide similar opportunities for adult learners.

To activate learning, managers need to place greater emphasis on learning transfer, supporting learners to implement knowledge and skills, and reflect on and adapt them in a rapidly changing working environment.

This process must be social and collaborative, as this will provide opportunities for people to learn from each other through experience – it’s the dawn of action-centred eLearning!


About Mark Bouch

Mark Bouch managing director Leading Change


Mark Bouch is a speaker and proven leader in dynamic and complex environments. 

As managing director of Leading Change, Mark has an extensive track record developing change leaders and high performing teams capable of delivering ambitious business plans.

He has a 30+ year career combining senior leadership, strategy development, planning and operational roles.

Clients include major UK and international business and third sector organisations, including:

Francis Crick Institute, the largest initiative in biomedical research in Europe in over a decade

  • The Francis Crick Institute was the largest single investment into European R&D ever made
  • Implemented a strategy to action framework including coherent execution plans for the Crick’s five strategic priorities, focused on the first three years of transformation (DWB2018), and integrated it with existing transition plans

Pfizer, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies

  • Helped to address problems faced by development project teams - the programme was a great success leading to tangible business results
  • The team leader publicly credited the programme for catalysing a distinct improvement turning around a low probability of success & enabling them to file to regulatory authorities earlier than intended
  • Programme outcomes included a conservative 10% to the business impact of the consultancy intervention, and a true RoI was in the order of 50:1.

London 2012 Transport

  • Helped to facilitate London 2012’s transport readiness programme ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games - the most demanding the nation’s transport network had ever had to meet with over one million additional journeys on the busiest day
  • Helped the transport domain to manage incidents and coordinate activity effectively
  • Designed a command, control & communication (C3) exercise programme to rehearse and test leadership and management cells

Celgene, an American biotechnology company

  • Developed and facilitated a conference in Geneva to launch the European network and engage all affiliates in what the network planned to achieve
  • The conference incorporated experiential sessions to unite the team and strengthen intra-team relationships
  • Helped the leadership team to develop its mission using 5MAP tools

Compass Group UK & Ireland, the market leader in contract catering

  • Helped to weld the team together, define clear strategic direction aligned to the business and develop better relationships with sector customers
  • Designed and implemented a foundation programme of three modules over a 3 month period with follow-up and review meetings
  • The programme addressed the fundamentals of effective teamwork using Lencioni’s ‘5 Dysfunctions of a Team’ model
  • Used a 5QMA (mission analysis) process to help the team translate their overall purpose and intent into more focused short-term missions

Before establishing Leading Change, Mark held several senior roles, including:

  • Non-executive director of leadership at The Learning Architect - Advised and supported the founder throughout business launch and early development
  • Director at Sykes Fairbairn - Built and maintained relationships in major client accounts, developing consulting solutions and leading programme implementation
  • Consultant and director (UK) of McKinney Rogers International - Delivered 25% of consulting turnover through strategic alignment, leadership development, assessment centres and high performance team-working behaviour programmes 

Mark has a proven track record of:

  • Developing highly effective stakeholder relationships and establishing foundations for change
  • Developing strategy and plans, determining resources and priorities necessary for success
  • Building change leadership capability
  • Delivering operational leadership in challenging, fast-moving environments, for example leadership of operational Army EOD units providing counter-terrorist support
  • Developing and leading winning teams
  • Designing and executing successful change programmes at corporate and business unit level, for example, transforming the operating model of a NASDAQ/AIM listed bio-technology company

Mark is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and the Institute of Leadership & Management (Institute LM).

In his spare time, Mark is a keen skier and a member of The Ski Club of Great Britain. He is also trustee and chairman of Devizes Canoe Club.


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