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Will learning get you there?

It may not be enough argues Nikki Huyer. She believes that more attention needs to be paid to learning transfer.

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As the nature of work continues to change, the need for learning continues to grow. The business of organisational learning has increased so much that the annual spend is now estimated to be in the billions. With the learning space continuing to offer a plethora of learning options with new approaches regularly introduced, the positive image of learning is easily identifiable as the “learning mindset”, with learners enthusiastically sharing information about course attendance and the next learning event.

While learning as a subject is well developed, “learning transfer”, defined as the degree to which learners effectively apply the knowledge, skills and attitudes gained in a learning event to the workplace, continues to be neglected. This is despite its being studied for over a century, with a range of literature available in the public domain and the fact that learning transfer focuses on the application, use and effectiveness of learning.

Some organisations approach learning transfer from the perspective of “applied learning” or apprenticeship programmes to build skills, although most organisations continue to use short-term learning programmes. While there is an argument that learning for the sake of learning adds value in some form, learning does not always, in itself, translate to the application or use of learning and behavioural change.

While there is some debate on the numbers, most literature suggests the transition of learning to the workplace runs between 10% to 30%. In one study, Saks and Belcourt found that the transfer of learning dropped dramatically from 62% applying learning immediately after a learning event, to 44% after six months, down to 34% after a 12-month period.

This implies that organisations and individuals reap little ongoing benefit from the resources spent on learning interventions. Learning may not be as effective as intended and learning may not get us there. Other studies that include interventions to address low transfer rates have improved these numbers, suggesting that adding learning transfer practices to learning may get us further. Given these numbers what value would result from an increase in retention of even 10%? How would this impact your organisation?

To understand the framework of learning transfer, we begin with Baldwin and Ford’s 1988 study, which identified three key factors influencing learning transfer: the workplace; the training; and the learner.

Since then numerous researchers have examined an extensive range of sub-factors and also identified additional factors that impact and influence learning transfer. It is interesting to note that the factors influencing learning transfer extend beyond learning interventions. The short and by no means definitive list below provides an example of the range of topics found to influence learning transfer:

• Workplace sub-factors include workplace and transfer climate, organisational communications and the connection between learning and transfer as well as the need to support learners in identifying opportunities to transfer, time to transfer, supervisor support and post-training interventions
• Training sub-factors include the need for examples that are closely related to the learner’s work situation, the need for learning to be taught in a way that supports transfer, key time periods before, during and after training, training framing, course attendance decisions, course attributions, training instruction and content, perceived content validity as well as transfer design and post-training support
• Learner sub-factors include motivation, ability and personality – which all impact transfer — motivation to learn and motivation to transfer, learning and transfer mindsets, learner transfer skills, a high level of topic knowledge and ability to identify transfer opportunities, the construct of the “Transfer Ready Learner”, goal orientation, self-efficacy, specific characteristics learners use to effectively transfer learning as well as personal capacity to transfer
• Other factors include near and far transfer, which relates to the distance between the learning and the application as well as the transfer process itself

As practitioners we see learning transfer, while influenced by learning, as distinct, with its own requirements and benefits and that these requirements extend beyond just learning. However, this view seems to differ from that of Learning and Development specialists. For example, during a recent learning technology conference, when probed, learning specialists shared their belief that transfer is addressed within the focus on learning and that the material they provide and how they teach addresses learning transfer.

Perhaps it does. Yet with the current low rate of transfer and the range of factors and sub-factors shown to influence learning transfer this perspective may need to be re-evaluated. Looking at the topic of measurement; while many are familiar with the measurement of learning and the use of models such as Kirkpatrick’s to assess learning events, the measurement of learning transfer has different requirements.

This includes the need to understand what part of the learning is transferred, how it is transferred and the effectiveness of the transfer as well as the ability to measure that against the initial learning transfer needs analysis. In addition, there is the belief that, in the case of transfer, the individual involved in the transfer is best suited to provide a meaningful measurement of transfer. These measurements may also be extended beyond the learning event to other factors influencing transfer so that measurement reflects transfer and the entire system that supports or detracts from it.

With these requirements, learning transfer is measurable, has been measured and can provide a metric for those interested in understanding learning effectiveness. It also tangibly affects the ROI related to learning initiatives and the ability to grow and change.

As we continue to operate in marketplaces that are highly competitive and require rapid change, organisations will experience an increasing need for new approaches and individuals with abilities to adjust. This will require that organisations are able to change regularly and provide learning to individuals who are able to learn and consistently apply or use the new learning. Ultimately, this means that learning needs to be applied, in some form, and it will need to be applied at a fairly high rate.

The problem with this is that current practice results in low rates of transfer and transfer rates that decay quickly. To deal with this, learning transfer and the factors found to support transfer should be understood and addressed. While organisations may initially begin to address low transfer rates by assessing learning initiatives for transfer and then adding learning transfer supporting factors, this in itself may not be enough.

The factors that support learning transfer extend beyond learning events, to organisational practice and the capacity of people. In the future, to build an organisation’s capability to learn, adjust, take action and do things differently, the current low rate of transfer needs to increase and be sustained. This means efforts to support transfer are beyond those of a learning initiative. Efforts to engage and support learning transfer will need to extend to developing an organisation that is transfer friendly, transfer ready and transfer supportive as well as developing learners who are ready to transfer and skilled at transfer — all supported by appropriate measurement and systems.

Given that learning transfer requires a great deal of topic knowledge and learners need to be skilled at transfer and supported to transfer, those organisations and individuals capable of positively influencing transfer will gain true value and true advantage. How an organisation engages in learning transfer may well extend to competitive advantage and improved ROI. Adding learning transfer practices to organisational practice may just help us get there in the end.

Learning transfer research has indicated that providing examples of how a topic might be applied assists with application. With that in mind, you will find suggested actions you may take to begin to understand and work with learning transfer.
• Consider the constructs of the “Transfer Ready Learner”, and “Learner Transfer Readiness” and the benefits of introducing a programme to develop learner transfer understanding and skills. Transfer Ready learners will be key in the future to improving low transfer rates.
• Attending or giving a speech? Consider what part of the information might be transferred to the workplace. Providing information in a form that supports application improves learning transfer.
• In your daily activities, note how often the topic of learning stands on its own and how often learning it is associated with application. Note motivation to learn and motivation to transfer statements. This will help you understand the learning and transfer mindset, yours and your organisation’s. Mindsets are linked to behaviour.
• Consider what actions are taken in your organisation to support learning transfer. The workplace is one of the factors identified in influencing transfer.
• Review the measures used for learning initiatives, identify those associated with learning and those associated with transfer. What is the mix? Understanding how we measure learning transfer may provide an insight as to how transfer is managed.
• Determine what the average rate of transfer is in your organisation. Ask what a 10% increase in learning transfer would accomplish. Understanding the rate of transfer may assist decision making in the future.

Nikki Huyer

Dr Nikki Huyer has been studying and working with learning transfer for over a decade. She works as a consultant to lead organisations and individuals through change and transformation.
Nikki Huyer

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1 Comment

  1. Claudia Schmitz on August 9, 2019 at 1:54 pm

    Excellent – the old dilemma of learning and transfer. What if we give them wings to fly and they end up in a box? What if we train them to climb mountains and they need the skill to swim over the ocean tomorrow? It is the ability to think and act and this is best trained on the job as here it shows relevance. So we, the trainers and teachers, need to be the 10 % of inspiration, 20 % can be studied by reading and coaching and the 70 % the big part – needs to be done inside the company by reflection and new tasks from the existing management! That is much more transformation than HR and it is more philosophy than training. We need a positive culture for it. So we all are in a shift and have to adapt to the needs of tomorrow. Hope you started an interesting discussion! Thanks Claudia

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