Why diagnosing learning transfer problems early saves time and money

I was comparing notes recently with a learning designer friend on typical challenging conversations we have with senior managers and clients.

We reflected on a common scenario, of a program review and the inevitable push to tweak the learning content to make the activities more engaging or the assessment more difficult to pass

In the case of my friend, what she got from a few questions was that the client wanted to adjust what was a ‘great learning program’ and make it more actionable. When she put it politely that what the program really needed was an analysis of why learning wasn’t getting transferred into workplace actions, she got the usual ‘quizzical looks’ and was instructed to tweak the content. 

We’ve all been there. We might lobby for some kind of analysis to be done only to be pushed back and asked to make the learning our priority.

Frustrating, because we all know that, even with the best training, learning doesn’t always get applied back on the job. 

What managers and clients focus on, and why it misses the mark

Management and clients tend to ask questions that they think get to the heart of why learning isn’t applied:

  • Do people lack the intelligence to apply the learning?
  • Is it a question of personal motivation?
  • Does the learning need to be redesigned?
  • Do we need to review the incentives to apply learning?

On the surface they seem like good questions, but they sadly don’t address the real issues. Moreover, these questions are all reactive. Little point slamming the barn door shut once the horse has bolted. So, what should we do?

Getting to the heart of the matter about why learning doesn’t get transferred

Moving to an investigative approach helps us expand our skill set and prepare learning to be a success for learners and companies. Let’s take a typical example of a training intervention where sales people need to learn a large chunk of new product information. The learners participate in a great training event, get access to a learning portal with lots of curated content, and then go back to work. Someway down the line we find out that our learners have trouble explaining the information to customers.  

Why? Well, it’s unlikely to be low intelligence, low motivation, bad learning design, or poor incentives, and more likely that they forgot the information or had trouble adapting it to their specific job scenarios.  

So, what can we do to really understand potential barriers to application? Even before designing the learning, we should investigate how people are going to apply learning to find out what the key application problems are. We could talk to prospective learners, get feedback from their managers, survey our cohort, or observe work being applied. 

For example, with information-based learning the learners probably need reminders and cues about how to adapt information to their job roles. So just doing some basic analysis can help us design learning transfer tactics, for a particular group of people, to overcome problems with application. 

In the case of our product knowledge training, it would have been worth knowing how, when, how much etc. product information people needed to recall to do their jobs well. It would also have been good to know if the adaptation of the information was different for face to face customer enquiries versus, telephone, email, messaging etc. 

How does early analysis save time and money?

Yes, the people holding the purse strings will say that budget doesn’t allow for investigation, and that doing early analysis is intrusive or time consuming. But, learning projects are no different from other projects. They need to be planned and the risks need to be assessed. Lack of learning application is a real risk and can cost companies money that could have been better invested in other ways. 

Of course, learning transfer isn’t the secret sauce that solves all application problems. But, without support, on average only 1 out of 6 people actually apply what they learned in training*, so knowing how to double or triple that result effectively doubles or triples learning ROI. 

That’s why we always advise that putting some money and time into investigating the barriers to learning application early and making plans to overcome them saves time making reactive adjustments and makes financial sense in the long run.

*Robert O. Brinkerhoff, The success case method, 2003

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  1. Hi Deborah
    Sorry to be tardy getting back to you. Thanks for liking our article, we hope that you got something useful out of it for your team. You’re right that at some stage the crossover will come where learning transfer supports digital solutions more than it currently does with face to face or virtual interventions. It’s something we’re looking at closely and will continue to develop over the next year or two.

  2. Great article! I have been encouraging our trainers to find a way to implement the practical application of what has been learned. I like the concept and terminology of Training Transfer. It is more difficult when a large part of training is done online and there isn’t an option to practice what has been learned and get feedback. I hope you continue to pursue this line in your work.

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