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Stop neglecting learning transfer
SAHACHAT

Five unexpected barriers to learning transfer

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A lack of learning transfer is costing organisations money and preventing employees from doing their jobs properly. Here's what can L&D do about it.

8th Jul 2022
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Learning and development professionals have long been aware of the lack of learning transfer from training events, but typically, little is done about it. Training is delivered, and L&D moves on to the next room of people.

Time to change things up

I was very encouraged to see more references to learning transfer at the recent Learning Technologies Exhibition. But it begs the question: why is so little done about it to ensure training budgets are not wasted, and more importantly, ensure people are able to do their jobs better? There are some well-known reasons for the lack of learning transfer:

  • It’s just compliance training/tick box exercises
  • L&D’s job is to train people or deliver other formal learning
  • We can’t afford to do it (Wait a minute! then why waste money on a course without learning transfer?)

However, some reasons are more likely to be overlooked.

1. 'We buy the training from an external supplier'

When the training is outsourced, the training provider is primarily interested in selling training. If the subject of learning transfer is even discussed, it becomes a finger-pointing exercise. The supplier says that it is up to the client to handle learning transfer activities, and the client points at the supplier saying that their training course has not worked. To me, the responsibility lies in both camps. 

Otherwise, it is a bit like buying a car without wheels. Unfortunately, it seems to be acceptable to buy training, and to sell training, without wheels.

Employees look to their manager for a lead to understand what is rewarded and what is frowned upon

2. Management says, 'It’s not our responsibility'

Management says that their job is operational excellence, not staff development: 'L&D should be doing staff development.'

There are two aspects to this. One is that most management job descriptions state that managers should develop their team. The second aspect is that most of the learning that happens at work, happens on their watch. The 70:20:10 learning model tells us this, and even a moment’s reflection also tells us this from our own experience.

By their actions, the manager sets the mini culture within the team to be accountable or not, to learn or not, to blame or not, to help or not, to experiment or not, to seek excellence or not, to serve customers or not, to go the extra mile or not. Employees look to their manager for a lead to understand what is rewarded and what is frowned upon.

They are ‘developing’ their team members to behave a certain way by being the manager they are, and they have far more power over developing/moulding team behaviour than L&D ever will. A manager cannot abdicate their input into staff development because it is already baked into their role. They have no choice in the matter. The question is whether they will become aware of their power and use it consciously, or whether they remain unaware and use it haphazardly. 

3. 'Our managers are not trained coaches'

Some would say that managers couldn’t do it effectively anyway because they don’t have the time/skill/inclination/support.

This excuse is really scary because of the aforementioned powers. If managers are unaware of their power, the best we can hope for is that the use of those powers for better or for worse cancels out into some overall neutral effect. 

Letting managers off the hook for supporting learning transfer is just perpetuating an unacceptable situation from generation to generation of managers

It’s true that programmes supported by coaching show a better transfer of learning. It is also true that a manager cannot be expected to have the same level of coaching and mentoring skills as a trained coach, however, the manager is usually present from day to day, whereas an external coach is not. 

In my opinion, letting managers off the hook for supporting learning transfer is just perpetuating an unacceptable situation from generation to generation of managers. 

4. 'Our people are not ready for that kind of change'

Whenever I hear this excuse, in my mind I am thinking, ‘This L&D person is not ready to fight for that kind of change.’

The next thing that goes through my mind is ‘What are they scared will be uncovered by asking people to do something with what they have learned on a training course, and asking other people, such as their managers, to help them?’ Sure, people, especially managers, will need support, but to say baldly that managers are not ready, and therefore introducing learning transfer is not possible? Really?

5. 'No one is asking for it, so why change things?'

People may not be asking for learning transfer because they don’t know what they don’t know. But they are probably asking for better training because they want better results. Or they are asking for cheaper training so the results they are accustomed to getting don’t seem so expensive.

Is there pressure on your L&D budget because it is seen as an organisational spend that does not produce the results that could be gained by spending that money elsewhere in the organisation? Have you ever mentioned the fact that you could wrap a workflow around a training course to achieve good levels of learning transfer and therefore improve the results it gets?

I sometimes hear, 'We know we should be doing something about learning transfer, but we don’t know how to modify our training programmes to include it

Have you come up against these barriers to implementing learning transfer methods? 

Take a moment and list the reasons why your organisation avoids implementing effective learning transfer tools and activities. What supports and keeps these barriers in place? 

I do sometimes hear, 'We know we should be doing something about learning transfer, but we don’t know how to modify our training programmes to include it.' So, start reading about it. Begin with my book Learning Transfer at Work: How to Ensure Training Performance which includes 166 tips and references to other sources of good information on learning transfer. Then look for other resources on the web.

You may not realise it, but there have been over one hundred years of research into learning transfer so there is plenty of material around. In particular, take a look at Dr Ina Weinbauer-Heidel’s research on the 12 levers of training effectiveness. Isn’t it about time your organisation starts dealing with these barriers?

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