Factors that improve the transfer of learning

Imagine that – you have spent more than four months organizing a big learning event related to an important strategic initiative. Several thousands of dollars budget were spent on a venue, travel costs, contracting external keynote speakers and group activities. The seminar is a total success, everyone is excited.

In order to document the success of the intervention and to prove the ROI on the budget spent, the HR manager sent a simple survey to the participants containing three simple questions:

1) what did you remember
2) what would you apply
3) what benefits would you obtain (on a personal or professional level)

The only problem was that because of the holiday period that survey was delayed with 3 weeks. To a huge surprise for the HR manager, nobody answered the survey. When he approached some of the participants and asked them personally, the only common point they remembered and liked from that event was… the golf tournament during the last day.

Before you say “this never happens at our company” think honestly what is the percentage of knowledge and information that people retain and apply several weeks after a corporate training intervention? According to our recent survey, 52% of money invested in corporate training have no return whatsoever, or in other words, half or the training money are a total waste. The question is which half?

What factors contribute to a better creation and retention of knowledge?

For years training was considered to be a universal cure for company problems. Staff is not motivated? Do training.
The team is not aligned? Do training.

The process of building knowledge and skills is lengthy and requires constant coaching and supportive culture.

But driven by a desire for quick results, this is what a usual training investment looks like:

Figure 1. Typical training investment

But according to our recent global study, only one-third of new skills are built during the training intervention.

Figure 2. Where does the higher training ROI come from

This is what usually causes a conflict between management and HR. As in the mentioned case, after the survey management was not satisfied with the results from the learning event, so they concluded: “The seminar failed”.

The HR manager, on the other hand, blamed the management for not providing continuity afterward.

The truth is that the training didn’t fail, the transfer did.

What are the factors that contribute to poor training transfer and therefore to the wasted half of the knowledge?

The most common factor is the lack of accountability and a supportive environment. Participants are not encouraged to apply what they learned and don’t have ownership over the learning process. This sometimes is reinforced by the employee’s manager who might see the training as an obstacle to “real” job getting done.

Here are some examples from our experience:

Permission to go to training is not granted – managers refuse to let employees go to already scheduled training because of work overload. This was a case where employees had the desire to learn and improve, but environment limited them.

  • Contradictory messages. What is being taught in the training is in conflict with messages employees receive from managers, colleagues or organizational system. An example could be a company trying to reinforce teamwork on training while it is measuring and rewarding employees’ exclusively according to individual contribution.
  • Lack of perception of relevancy. Training department fails to “sell” the idea or learners do not identify themselves with the trainer. During an outdoor activity, two out of thirty team members got injured, and another employee left the company shortly after because she was obliged to do activities that her health condition did not allow. And the purpose of that event was to build a better team…In another example, the company had only an average of 20% of attendance in learning events because employees would sign up and wouldn’t show up.

Easy to apply action ideas that might increase learning transfer significantly:

  1. Immediate action planning – ask employees to immediately visualize situations where they could apply what they learned.
  2. Contract and commitment sheets – elaborate a kind of learning contract to which participants commit to specific improvements and share this information with their immediate manager.
  3. Job aids – those low-cost reminders can significantly increase the return on your investment. Desktop cards, posters, stickers, flip cards, screen savers are just some options.
  4. Newsletters – printed or electronic newsletter outlining key messages from training, success stories and practical ideas for application
  5. Podcasts and Audio CDs – if you have employees that spend long hours commuting this can be a great investment that might help them learn while on the go.
  6. Follow – up sessions – Meetings conducted two to four weeks after the training with the purpose of sharing application experiences and exchange ideas.
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