The great learning transfer swindle – and three ways to avoid the trap

The learning transfer swindle
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When it comes to measuring learning, quick and easy numbers are often the name of the game. But while metrics may sound impressive, they ultimately show little in the way of behaviour change. It’s time to take a long, deep breath and face our fears… There is another way. 

I’ve spent years studying contracts and briefing forms for learning and development projects. Each time, an existential crisis engulfs my being as I’m presented with long lists of deliverables that have no connection to performance at work.

Success criteria of on-time delivery, completion percentages and pass marks plague the documents at every fateful turn of the page. These are all delightfully simple and fast to report on. A tick-box fantasy – signed, sealed, delivered.

These types of metrics paint powerful pictures around the ability of a team to deliver the project, the success of audience engagement and the short-term memory skills of employees. They draw you into a story about ROI instead of focusing on value.

The ultimate reason for L&D’s existence is to improve performance. But when looking at traditional learning data capture, what are the numbers telling you about gaining, practising and improving skills?

“The key to learning any skill is to rehearse it. Break it down into sub-skills and then rehearse each of those skills. If you’re doing something other than that, you’re wasting your time.” Adam Robinson

It’s time to invest your energy into something more worthwhile – uncovering the vast unknown of what happens after the contract is complete. To move from these paper-based success stories and effect change requires a positive shift in self-awareness.

So here are three questions to ask yourself in a bid to avoid the seductive siren that presents itself as the great learning transfer swindle...

1. Are you looking in the right place?

Start at the beginning: all results are void if you are asking the wrong questions. You will never uncover the correct answer if you are looking in the wrong place, so consider carefully where prosperity lies.

Work to find the root cause

You may be surprised at what you find. Tools like ‘5 Whys’ and ‘First Principles’ thinking can deliver spectacular shifts in your approach.

Search for behavioural change

Identify what your people need to think, feel, and do differently after the learning. In behaviour we find measurable actions over time. 

Identify what good looks like

Define your success in terms of ‘from and to’. This approach highlights simple metrics that can be collected and show value in a holistic way. Reduced errors, increased pace, lower leaver rates – the options are endless, and probably already measured in your business.

2. Are you measuring performance?

What is knowledge without action? Knowing where the spare paper is stored has its uses, but when you don’t know how to load it into the printer, your ability is somewhat diminished. It’s time to banish the words ‘understand’ and ‘know’ from your project lexicon. 

Test for skills

If you want to see how well I play the guitar, what is more useful: asking me to play a passage of music, or testing me on my memory of the notes it contains? While certain knowledge is required for deep expertise, this doesn’t affect the ability to practise and develop skills.

Try formative assessment before summative

Want to highlight a skills gap? Ask beforehand. And remember that you can personalise the outcome. User beware, this particular type of black magic should only be practised by the truly daring.

Involve your managers

These are your colleagues who have a daily insight into the performance of your audience. They also happen to have the ability to influence and align incentives that reward positive behaviour change.

3. Are you thinking like a scientist?

Copernicus, Galileo and Bacon isn’t just a main course at my local hipster café. These three chaps were crucial in formalising what is known as the scientific method, which is pretty handy to implement when measuring change.

Benchmarking is useful

If you don’t believe me, try this experiment: go outside and run 50 metres as fast as you can. Then go back and do it again, only now time yourself. How much faster did you do it the second time? Uh oh… Take a measurement before you start if you want to compare your results.

Control groups help show value

This can quickly turn into a complex area of statistical science – but do not fear. Simple A/B testing with your audience will quickly enable you to show the potential value of your solution by showing change versus business as usual. It is almost as valuable as benchmarking. Almost. 

Reflect, adjust and repeat your tests

It would be uncouth of me not to end without the current buzzword to end all buzzwords: iterate. Your results are not the end of the road. If you have taken the time to identify the root cause, tracked down the relevant numbers that identify a change in behaviour and benchmarked before launch, you have the perfect feedback loop to make adjustments before repeating the experiment to see if you can improve your results.

About Matt Ash

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