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Make Learning a Process, Not an Event, Through Proper Transfer

I think it’s safe to say that at one time or another, all of us have probably been in a situation where we’ve created a really “great” training program, and the training just doesn’t stick. We end up asking ourselves, “What could I have done differently to ensure my learners effectively applied their new skills and knowledge on their jobs?”

Companies spend a great deal of resources on training, and it’s important to ensure there’s a solid return on this investment. Training should never be done for training’s sake but rather to improve performance, and in in turn, achieve business results. This is where transfer of learning comes in.

What exactly is transfer of learning, and why is it so important?

In a nutshell, learning transfer is the process by which learning is transformed into desired on-the-job performance. Making sure this transfer occurs is important because typically only 10% to 20% of new skills and knowledge turn into desired on-the-job performance (Learning Alliance quoting Tannenbaum and Yuki 1992, Baldwin and Ford 1998, and Board and Newstrom, 1992). That definitely isn’t enough for companies that invest large sums of money in employee training. How happy would you be if you paid for a new roof and only one out of every five shingles “stuck”? Not happy at all. Same thing with training.

How do we make learning transfer happen?

We make learning transfer happen when we recognize there are specific organizational and individual factors that either enable or impede learning and its application on the job. It’s about the whole system in which the learner performs. A great tool we use at ILG to always keep these factors in mind is Gilbert’s Behavior Engineering Model. This model is foundational to any discussion of human performance and to understanding how to support transfer of new learning. I won’t go into Gilbert’s Model here, but ILG has an app that will walk you through it as well as a quick Performance Assessment Tool.

Applying Gilbert’s factors also means we approach learning as a process and not as a single event. Specifically, there are steps to take before, during, and after learning activities that directly affect whether new skills and knowledge become on-the-job performance. There are five steps we build into our training projects to maximize learning transfer. The steps are great guides to help you get to your end result — learners who can do what they were taught when actually performing their jobs.

Step 1: Create an impact map to identify desired performance and new skills/knowledge.

An impact map is a one-page tool that shows the linkage from organizational goals to desired performance, and from there to necessary skills and knowledge. The map helps you focus learning on those skills and knowledge that are business critical, and ensures your content and activities target the desired performance. To learn more about impact maps, you can download our white paper “Impact Mapping.”

Step 2: Develop or select an effective learning solution.

Whether you’re creating a new solution or buying one off the shelf, there are many tasks to complete to ensure the learning solution is designed to maximize transfer. They are:

  • Define learning objectives based on the impact map.
  • Develop or select learning solutions that include all learning objectives (and no extraneous content).
  • Ensure the delivery method is appropriate to the level of skill/knowledge required. To help facilitate this step, ILG uses theDelivery Method Selection Guidelines Tool.
  • Ensure learning strategies build the level of skill/knowledge desired.
  • ŸReplicate the performance environment as closely as possible.

Step 3: Focus participation in learning.

Managers play a key role at this step. They must understand why the training their employees are taking is important and what their role is in supporting the learning.

The manager role specifically includes meeting with learners before training. At this meeting, managers ensure learners understand the importance of the training to them, their department, and the company as a whole. Managers and employees together set learning goals and post-learning application goals. (If you can’t get managers to conduct these meetings, a good alternative is to embed the meeting’s activities into the training itself.)

Step 4: Provide post-learning support on the job.

After the formal learning activities, transfer (or lack thereof) really takes front stage. At this point, learners should be using what they’ve learned as they do their jobs. To facilitate effective transfer, ensure managers:

  • Conduct post-learning debriefs to discuss key learnings and how goals were met, and to plan application steps with deadlines and accountability.
  • Provide opportunities for employees to try what was learned in actual work situations and ensure the work environment supports transfer. Think Gilbert’s Model here. Managers must also understand that performance may dip before it improves.
  • Continue periodic coaching and provide feedback to refine and deepen employee expertise. Leveraging proficient performers to coach others can help the manager balance coaching with other responsibilities.

Step 5: Ensure the transfer is sustained.

When working with managers, you should continue providing coaching and feedback, and make sure all factors identified in Gilbert’s Model work as enablers, not barriers.

These five steps give you a basic understanding of what goes into achieving effective transfer of learning. If you want to explore these steps further, be sure to check out thewebinar I did on this topic. You can find it on ILG’s YouTube Channel and our website.

I hope you try this approach to increase your learning transfer. I’d love to hear how it worked for you.

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