In a Collaborative Learning environment, learners take charge of their own training needs, contribute subject-matter expertise to help others grow, and work together to solve common problems. This decentralized, democratic learning environment is every L&D leader’s dream.
But where should you begin, exactly? Starting with a strong foundation in theory is always useful, as it gives you the right insights into how people learn most effectively, and how they can put this learning to work. That’s why I’m so interested in the theory of learning transfer.
Recently, I had the chance to chat with Fergal Connolly, an L&D consultant with a history of working with big names in tech - including Amazon and Microsoft - about how learning transfer theory helps all types of organizations drive better employee training outcomes.
We got started by discussing the basics: what exactly is learning transfer?
“A basic definition of learning transfer is taking what you pick up in a learning environment and applying it to your role,” says Fergal. “It’s about using new skills and techniques to lift your performance, whether it’s being a better project manager, communicator, or critical thinker.”
“Learning transfer looks at how to apply the focus of employee training to improve learner effectiveness. There’s been a lot of research in this area - it’s actually one of the oldest topics within L&D, going back 120 years. This gives us a clear and strong grounding in the theory.”
As Fergal explains, learning transfer focuses on defining the expected impact of training, and following through to make sure it has the desired effect. “Learning transfer is the goal of all employee training. If you’re setting up a training, you want people to change their behavior and put what they’ve learned into practice. That’s why we focus on what happens after training.”
Learning transfer is the goal of all employee training. If you’re setting up a training, you want people to change their behavior and put what they’ve learned into practice. That’s why we focus on what happens after training.
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The learning transfer framework is a way to look at learning performance more holistically. It focuses our attention on the steps we need to take both before and after training to make our efforts are as effective as possible, rather than focusing just on delivering the right content.
According to Fergal, the main challenge with workplace learning is that people don’t take the time to actually apply the new skills they’ve learned. “In most cases, people don’t put their training into practice. Research suggests people only apply what they’ve learned about 10% of the time.”
For most L&D leaders, this is a sobering thought. “If you think about all the training you’ve run during this past year, a general guess would be only about 10% of that has been effective,” says Fergal. “These are broad numbers, but they tell us there’s a huge potential to boost our effectiveness by focusing on how people are applying new skills and capabilities over time.”
So, what are the factors influencing learning transfer? And how can we all boost our effectiveness beyond 10%?
In most cases, people don’t put their training into practice. Research suggests people only apply what they’ve learned about 10% of the time.
As Fergal explains, there are three factors influencing how well learners retain and apply new skills and information. “It all comes down to learner motivation, learning content, and the performance environment.”
“The first factor influencing learning transfer relates to the learner themselves, especially the learner’s motivation and their drive to improve. How do they want to grow their career? How committed are they to the learning experience? That’s hugely influential on learning transfer.”
“Next, we consider the learning program, the learning content, and the instructional strategies. What information is sent before the training? How are we delivering content during the training? And what are the follow-ups we conduct afterwards to reinforce key skills and ideas?”
“The third main area is the performance environment,” says Fergal. “This is where the learner lives and breathes, and where they perform their day-to-day work. It’s where they measure their own effectiveness, and recognize the things they need to improve on. It’s also a question of how they get the support they need from their manager and their network of peers.”
As Fergal explains, it’s one thing to understand the factors influencing learning transfer. L&D leaders also need to understand the main challenges that get in the way of effective learning. “If you think about the learning process as links in a chain, you can identify the weakest links by using examples. And that link nearly always comes down to a lack of post-learning support.”
“Let’s say I’m an L&D expert delivering training on learning transfer. I’d start by talking to you and your manager to find out what you already know about this topic and identify opportunities for improvement. Then, I’d shape some training material based on these discussions, making it visually appealing, building a good element of interaction, and tailoring it to suit your needs.”
“After the training, it’s up to you to seek out the right additional resources and apply what you’ve learned,” says Fergal. “That’s a simplified view of the learning process, but it tells us things usually fall down once learners are ‘back in the wild’ and putting new skills to work.”
Fortunately, there’s one person who can help overcome these challenges: the manager.
If you think about the learning process as links in a chain, you can identify the weakest links by using examples. And that link nearly always comes down to a lack of post-learning support.
As Fergal explains, managers have a key role to play in facilitating effective learning transfer. “Research shows that managers play the most critical role in learning transfer - especially in the post-training environment. Every learner needs a manager who understands them, and how they want to learn and grow. They need to have the right coaching style, and they need the right resources.”
In most organizations, instructional design focuses on the needs of the learner. But as Fergal explains, focusing on the needs of your managers can pay dividends. “Ideally, you’d have the manager attend the same training as the learner. The problem is, managers are always stretched. So, what you can do instead is develop specific guidance for your managers.”
“For each learning campaign, you can provide a script to managers to guide them in supporting their team,” says Fergal. “This adds consistency in the way managers support and encourage learning transfer. It’s a simple idea, and it isn’t a huge stretch for your instructional designers.”
When done right, learning transfer creates a proper Collaborative Learning environment. By giving managers the tools they need to facilitate effective employee training, you can help learners take charge of their own needs and apply new skills and capabilities in their daily tasks.
By now, you should have a pretty good understanding of learning transfer and may want to try it out at your organization. But before you do that, you need to make sure you have the right approach to measuring the outcomes of learning transfer. Here are three ways to do this:
Thanks again to Fergal for being so generous with his time, and for discussing the application of this valuable theory with us!
While you’re here, check out my expert interviews with Joe Wilmoth of Dermira on how he keeps teams engaged by telling real COVID-19 stories, and with Thane Bellomo of Exelon on how he uses technical frameworks to bring the right focus on people strategy.
Want more peer insights on transforming workplace learning? Check out #CLOConnect, our interview series with top L&D leaders on driving growth and scaling culture through Collaborative Learning. You can subscribe (below 👇) to our weekly newsletter to receive our latest posts directly in your inbox.