Making training stick: Improving learning transfer

Enhancing performance by putting training to use on the job
By Brian Kreissl
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/09/2015

Question: Whenever we provide training to employees, we find they aren’t really putting what they learned to use and the training doesn’t actually result in improved performance. What can we do to ensure we aren’t wasting our time and resources?

Answer: There could potentially be several issues here but the primary problem appears to be one of poor learning transfer, meaning trainees aren’t able to recall what they learned or aren’t able to put it into practice on the job. There are several ways to improve learning transfer.

However, before training employees it is necessary to ensure they are being trained on the right skills and competencies — and that the issue or problem you are trying to resolve can actually be corrected through training.

Training may not be the answer

In many cases, training simply isn’t the answer and no amount of training is going to improve performance. For example, if the problem is attitudinal in nature, training is unlikely to make a difference.

That’s not to say other types of interventions won’t improve performance. But if someone already possesses the right knowledge and skills but just isn’t using them, the problem is unlikely to be corrected through further training. Unfortunately, many line managers and executives rush to diagnose the problem and assume further training will correct performance deficiencies.

It is, therefore, up to human resources practitioners and trainers to push back and insist on completing a proper training needs analysis (or training needs assessment) before recommending some type of learning intervention. While some people make a distinction between a training needs assessment and analysis, the two terms are more or less interchangeable. The idea is to identify training needs and determine how to effectively meet those needs.

Establishing relevance in the minds of trainees

We’ve probably all sat through corporate training sessions that seemed to have little to no relevance to our current roles — or even future roles, for that matter. One way of helping to improve learning transfer is to establish relevance in the minds of trainees.

Employees need to know the importance of the training, how it relates to their jobs and how to put it into practice. While theory is important, workplace training and development programs should have a practical component to them.

Adult learners in particular need to understand what’s in it for them and be provided with some type of motivation for learning (such as a higher salary or greater marketability). They should also be given an opportunity to relate what’s being taught to their previous experiences and have an opportunity to learn the way they want to.

The role of supervisors

Ideally, an employee’s supervisor should be involved in assessing training needs and helping to design and develop an appropriate training solution. However, it is particularly important that managers and supervisors allow employees an opportunity to practise on the job what they have learned in a classroom setting. In order to do that, supervisors need to buy in to the training and be supportive of their direct reports taking the time to acquire and practice new skills.

Above all, because most learning actually occurs on the job — and learning transfer is more effective if trainees are able to learn by doing — managers and supervisors need to facilitate on-the-job training.

In fact, the “70:20:10 framework” developed by Charles Jennings recommends that learning consist of 70 per cent experiential learning, 20 per cent feedback and coaching and only 10 per cent formal training.

Using this model, it is easy to see that a supervisor can have an impact on up to 90 per cent of an employee’s workplace learning. This can be accomplished through coaching, feedback, job shadowing, delegation, process documentation, demonstrations, role play, trial runs and simply providing an opportunity to practise newly acquired skills.

It is important to ensure that what was learned in class isn’t simply forgotten about or treated as “flavour of the month.” For that reason, employees need to be given a chance to practise what they learned on the job.

Other suggestions for improving learning transfer

Learning transfer can also be improved through repetition of material, testing, assignments and group discussions. Refresher or followup sessions can also be helpful.

A similar concept is interval reinforcement, where trainees are reminded about what they learned periodically through bite-sized chunks of content facilitated by reading assignments, email messages or e-learning tools.

It can also help to deliver training in a just-in-time basis, where employees are provided with relevant training immediately before they need it to help combat forgetfulness. Other suggestions include having employees train others on their newly acquired skills, conducting demonstrations and assigning reading based on the training.

Brian Kreissl is the Toronto-based product development manager for Carswell’s human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.

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