Training transfer – the extent to which learning is applied back in the workplace – is the cause of many a sleepless night among L&D teams. But is measuring the transfer of learning the wrong thing to be worrying about when a much greater challenge – of better integrating learning within work – lies before us?
Training transfer is big business. Over the past few years an entire ecosystem has been created around it.
A quick search will reveal consultants and companies across the globe offering their ‘effective learning transfer’ methodologies, learning transfer services, learning transfer platforms, knowledge transfer and training consultancies, advice on training transfer and much more besides.
Training transfer – a persistent problem
Despite all the academic research and all the tools and techniques, the challenge of training transfer, and the suboptimal results delivered by a vast array of training events and programmes across organisations and industries, persists.
Many reviews of the research on training transfer reference the work of Thorndike and Woodworth (1901) and the theory of ‘identical elements’ in their transfer of practice research.
Thorndike and Woodworth suggested that the level of transfer depends on the extent of similarity between training and performance environments. In other words, the closer the nature of the training environment is to the workplace environment, the more likely transfer is to occur. The greater the overlap between the two situations and contexts, the greater the chance of transfer. Where there is little overlap, transfer will be less likely.
Is there something in this 118-year-old research that we have missed?
In their recent review of the topic (Transfer of Training: The Known and Unknown), leading academics in the area Kevin Ford, Timothy Baldwin and Joshua Prasad describe the transfer of training as ‘one of the oldest topics of interest to industrial and organizational psychologists.’
These researchers also point out that a growing body of research has found that ‘training investments are related to a variety of important (firm) outcomes and can contribute substantively to competitive advantage, (but) there is far less consensus regarding the effectiveness of training at individual initiative level’.
Even more recent studies and new models to improve detailed understanding of the transfer process are helping shed light and improve training transfer and training effectiveness.
The Dynamic Transfer Model (DTM) proposed by Blume, Ford, Surface and Olenick is one example. DTM links the intention to transfer at the end of training to the initial attempts in using the knowledge and skills learned in the training, and then to the continuation of training transfer over time that impacts work behaviour and performance (evaluated in the context of work objectives and outcomes).
Source: Dynamic Transfer Model (Blume, Ford, Surface, Olenick)
The DTM model, as the name suggests, sees training transfer as a dynamic process and an interaction of individual characteristics, individual transfer behaviour and feedback loops. This model, as with many other transfer approaches, explicitly excludes productivity, utility, ROI, and team, unit or organisational outcomes. It is focused on training transfer at individual level.
Models and processes to determine the ‘unknown’ impact of the transfer of knowledge, skills and attitudes from formal training environments are fuel for the training transfer industry. Equally, they are important underpinnings for addressing the value of formal learning. However, simply measuring and quantifying training transfer is not going to address the root cause of the problem.
That root cause being the separation of learning from working.
Training Transfer – a ‘rather strange affair’
In ‘Time to Flip the Training Transfer Tradition’, Professor Rob Poell of Tilburg University argues that ‘the strong focus on transfer of training is a rather strange affair [...] if one accepts that people (can) learn all the time and everywhere (Billett, 2001; Lave & Wenger, 1991), the transfer problem seems to be created by separating learning from work in a formal training setting in the first place. In other words, we attempt to formalize learning and detach it from work, and next complain that it is so hard to make it relevant to the daily work situation.'
Poell recommends that rather than devoting so much time and effort on training transfer, we could put efforts into better understanding how people can learn in the workplace, with formal training being merely one context among many that can take place.
We can remove the training transfer problem completely by dispensing with training and integrating the learning into the flow of work.
The learning-doing gap challenge
The Thorndike and Woodworth research helps explain why some training input results in more transfer than others. When the logical or physical distance between the training environment and the work environment is reduced, then transfer is more likely.
The apprenticeship model is a case-in-point. Apprenticeship schemes evolved for clearly defined and stable types of work where explicit procedural or imperative knowledge can be identified, defined and then embedded in practice in the workplace. When this is done apprentices learn as part of their daily workflow.
By reducing or removing the ‘learning-doing’ gap, an apprentice plumber, an apprentice steelworker, or an apprentice butcher can learn and develop expertise while working, initially under guidance and, after a time, independently.
We can also address the training transfer problem for work requiring greater flexibility, creativity and decision making by removing the distance between training and working. Of course, we can remove the training transfer problem completely by dispensing with training and integrating the learning into the flow of work.
The inherent inertia of away-from-work training development works against us in fast-moving and continually changing environments. L&D simply can’t keep up.
Distance – proximity supports performance
“Learning is likely to be more effective the closer it occurs to the point of use.”
This proximity fact was pointed out in the book 702010 towards 100% performance, which I co-wrote with Jos Arets and Vivian Heijnen in 2016.
The diagram below, taken from this book, plots the realised value (y axis) against the proximity of learning to working. The closer the two, the greater the realised value.
This diagram is, in part, based on IBM Consulting Services (core model) work that defined three types of learning on the x axis:
- event-driven point solutions – the ‘access phase’
- learning integrated to role/process – the ‘integration phase’
- business alignment – the ‘on demand phase’.
The realised value (y axis) increases as learning and work merge.
Learning around the point-of-need
Supporting performance at (or just before) the point of need requires information and guidance to be provided as part of the workﬂow and to be current and relevant. This way of thinking is described very well by Hagel, Seely Brown and Davison (2010):
‘To succeed now, we have to continually refresh our stocks of knowledge by participating in relevant “ﬂows” of knowledge – interactions that create knowledge or transfer it across individuals. These ﬂows occur in any social, ﬂuid environment that allows forms and individuals to get better and faster by working with others.’
The work by Hagel, Seeley Brown and others highlights the dynamic nature of the information and knowledge we need for much of today’s work. If we continue to design, develop and deliver away-from-work training in an attempt to help address these flows of rapidly changing information and knowledge we are setting ourselves up to fail.
Training transfer problems will always occur. They’re part of the nature of away-from-work training.
Added to this, the inherent inertia of away-from-work training development works against us in fast-moving and continually changing environments. L&D simply can’t keep up.
The move from a training or learning mindset to a performance mindset is a critical one that L&D professionals need to make.
The mindset challenge
There is also a significant mindset barrier which L&D professionals need to overcome if we are to put in place optimal approaches for solving performance problems.
We need to dispense with the ‘training mindset’ and even the ‘learning mindset’ and focus instead on developing performance mindsets. Reduce our focus on inputs and become passionate about results.
When approached to help solve business problems, many L&D people display an inherent bias for training and formal learning as the prime solution they offer. This is understandable as L&D professionals will have systems and processes in place that have been developed with the aim of delivering training.
Even today, we see L&D professionals working in all areas – whether with functional development, management development or executive development – assume that solutions need to be built around a '10 first’ or 10+ approach – starting with formal learning and then adding social and (formal) workplace elements.
This ‘training mindset’ can serve as a barrier to more systemic thinking and approaches. Of course, at times training may be the best solution to address a business issue, but we don’t know that until we have carried out the ‘performance detective’ work – an analysis of the specific business issues that need to be addressed, the specific performance issues, and any influencing factors. Only then can we determine the optimum solution.
The move from a training or learning mindset to a performance mindset is a critical one that L&D professionals need to make. We need to build our approaches and solutions ‘outside-in’ – starting with clarity about the desired organisational outcome and then working back to defining the best solutions to help deliver that outcome.
Approaches such as the Four L&D Business Models™ and the Value-Based L&D™ approach, developed by my colleague Jos Arets, will help the move to performance mindsets. A whitepaper describing these can be downloaded here.
We are slowly developing better tools and approaches to determine the extent that training is transferred into the workplace. However, most of the focus to date has been on attempting to correlate individual training interventions with individual performance improvement. This is a laborious process when done well and is limited to measuring formal learning impact.
There is, however, a larger challenge to be faced with potentially greater rewards.
This is the challenge of integrating learning more closely with working. Success with this results in the removal of distance between the location of learning and the location of application, and the adoption of performance-centric mindsets where L&D operates as a trusted partner with our stakeholders and clients to create real value for the organisation. When this happens, the need for the current level of resource and focus on training transfer will fall away.
About Charles Jennings
Former academic and Chief Learning Officer. Co-founder of the 70:20:10 Institute.
Also Director of Duntroon Consultants and the Internet Time alliance