The Answer to Transfer

Learning leaders spend billions of dollars each year on training initiatives — $164.2 billion in 2012, according to the Association for Talent Development. Yet only a small proportion of that investment produces any real value.

Robert Brinkerhoff, professor emeritus at Western Michigan University, estimates on average only 15 percent of people make a sustained change to their behavior after going through a learning experience at work. That leaves us with a $139 billion problem of how to get more people to apply their learning and increase the return on investment for organizations.

First, we must change the way we think and talk about learning transfer. Traditionally, we use a transportation metaphor, talking about “transfer of learning” as if learning is collected in the classroom and carried back to one’s workstation. Not only is this incorrect, it’s damaging to the way we design learning.

Person-centric Learning
In his book “Transfer on Trial,” psychologist Douglas Detterman wrote we should abandon the term “transfer” altogether because it implies movement of knowledge. Participants are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge in the hope that some of it will spill out elsewhere. Instead, we should think about learning as person-centric, and focus interventions on activating the most effective thoughts or behaviors and promoting new habits.

This participant-centered approach forces us to move away from a “before, during and after the event” view, where the learning event is the hero. Instead we need to approach learning as a continuous cycle consisting of three phases: engage, participate and activate. Further, the cycle doesn’t end with the participant. Putting learning into action means engaging with colleagues, clients, managers and direct reports.

It’s all very well providing participants with a new sales approach, but the chances of them applying it if their manager has never heard of it are slim. Interventions that focus solely on learners miss important opportunities to maximize transfer. A participant-centered approach also targets the social and cultural context in which people apply what they learn.

Not only is this approach proven to produce greater transfer and deliver business results faster, but also it’s cheaper. There are practical changes we can make to program design to move closer to this participant-centered learning cycle, starting with the engagement phase.

In a typical training program, many participants don’t know why they’re there or what value the session will add. That needs to change. The more psychologically engaged learners are, the more likely they are to apply what they learn. Learning leaders can drive this by adopting a consumer marketing approach.

In the same way that PepsiCo Inc. and Nike Inc. focus huge amounts of effort on appealing to and leading their customers’ interests, learning professionals need to invest as much energy into marketing their offerings as they do creating the offering itself.

Research published in 2013 by clinical psychologist James Prochaska revealed smokers who successfully quit only do so when the perceived advantages of quitting outweigh the disadvantages. To change a habit, people really need to believe in the value of making the change.

Management consultancies such as McKinsey, BCG and Bain all have onboarding programs that include a challenging simulation prompting people to think differently about how they engage clients. New hires learn the importance of using the firm’s tools and techniques, and this provides powerful motivation to learn and change. This kind of burning platform is also an effective way to engage cynics and know-it-alls in any learning cohort, but it must be accompanied by a clear call to action so learners feel capable of solving the problem.

Learner Immersion
The second part of the individual’s journey is learning participation. It could be informal, on-the-job learning or contributing to forums or wikis. The important thing is that learners completely immerse themselves. Miniaturization can help — trimming content to its core, removing bloated theories and varying the pace of presentations to match the natural energy — to remove the boredom associated with training.

Contextualization, where content closely matches participants’ everyday reality, ensures that learning resonates with participants and solves their most pressing business challenges. Further, people are much more likely to remember stories than statistics, so pepper interventions with emotionally engaging, or “sticky,” stories to create intense experiences that capture attention and facilitate memory recall.

The third stage of the learning cycle is activation. Most training sessions end with action planning. This rarely works because participants develop vague, unconvincing goal intentions. Research in 2013 by psychologists Peter Gollwitzer and Gabriele Oettingen illustrates this. One experiment looked at the effect of training designed to improve employability and found only 20 percent of people who committed to résumé updating did so.

Implementation intentions, in which people consider where, when and how they will achieve the goal, were more effective. In the résuméstudy, 80 percent of people who made an implementation intention followed through. Better still are situational cues in the form of “if … then” statements. “If it is Wednesday at 9 a.m., I will spend 30 minutes reading industry news.” The context — Wednesday at 9 a.m. — provides a cue to trigger the behavior.

After experiencing a management development program, the No. 1 reason participants give for not applying their new skills is lack of time. But on deeper investigation CLOs will discover the participants don’t recognize the opportunities available to use tools they’ve learned.

We need to help managers reframe what they see as an opportunity — conversations by the water cooler, questions about client issues — so they are more inclined to practice their new skills. By peppering interventions with situational cues and real-life examples, we can help learners recognize opportunities. Then when they return to work, it’s not as much of a mental stretch to apply what they’ve learned. It’s almost automatic.

There are several things we can do at the individual level to prolong the learning journey and increase the likelihood employees will activate new habits. But because learning’s purpose is to help people solve problems in the real world, if we want to give them the best chance to use their new skills, it makes sense to target that world too. The participant-centered learning approach targets participants’ managers, who adopt a coaching role, helping individuals identify opportunities to use their new skills, as do peers and senior leaders.

“At MetLife, we’ve ensured that participants’ managers are not just aware of the team’s development, but are actively involved,” said Jane Clements, the company’s vice president of global learning and development. “To maximize chances of success, managers must be engaged in the value of the learning and understand how it will make their lives easier and boost results. Managers need to not only want to support their direct reports’ transfer, but have the coaching skills to do so.”

Link Learning to Organizational Strategy
In addition to managers, senior leader support is vital. Leaders ensure programs align with the organization’s strategic vision. “Making clear the link between organizational strategy and the learning intervention helped participants understand why the learning is relevant and demonstrates how all of MetLife’s programs are joined up and working in concert,” Clements said. “It also helps managers know that this isn’t an HR fad, and they are therefore more supportive.”

Peer support also affects how people put their learning into action. Research in 2013 conducted by global law firm Clifford Chance found when participants were given transfer tasks in between training sessions, participants who collaborated and held each other accountable achieved higher levels of transfer than those who applied lessons independently.

Finally, an organization’s cultural characteristics also can facilitate or inhibit learning transfer. Psychologists call this the transfer climate, and it includes cultural attitudes toward learning, systems and policies that support learning, technical tools and learning shared rituals.

Like any habit change, switching to a participant-centric learning approach is an incremental process; it won’t happen overnight. But the benefits are vast. Smaller sessions can result in greater performance improvement than traditional, all-at-once learning, and it’s cheaper.

A distributed, bite-size approach allows organizations to quickly and nimbly respond to business needs because development costs are greatly reduced. Once learning leaders factor in savings in participants’ time, travel and venue costs, a bite-size approach delivers a greater return on investment. It also balances choice and scale: By combining elements from a limited learning menu, participants can select the learning journey that best matches their particular needs. Employees want directly relevant, directly applicable learning. So allowing learners to choose their journey also means they’re more likely to arrive fired up and ready to learn.

The $139 billion of wasted learning investment in the United States should be enough to convince leaders that it’s time to rethink learning transfer as a goal. Grounded in science, a participant-centered approach can help solve the transfer problem and increase the return organizations get from developing their people.

This story originally appeared in Talent Management's sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.