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Paul Matthews

People Alchemy Ltd


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Learning transfer: why L&D cannot beat the system and effect change through training alone


An unhelpful myth that high-performing organisations are simply made up of talented individuals is preventing L&D from better supporting their learners. Sustaining positive change post-training is a tricky feat if organisations aren't recognised to be systems embedded with deeply ingrained cultural nuances, processes, strategy and hierarchies that may need to be combated at times. 

Great, I thought, something is finally going to happen to make learning and development in this company work a bit better and have more impact. I patted myself on the back and the L&D Manager even said he would give my book on Learning Transfer to his boss, the HR Director, because she should read it too. I shouldn’t have been so smug.

Move forward two months. I saw the L&D Manager – let’s call him John to protect the guilty – at an event and asked what he had done about learning transfer. He looked a little sheepish and muttered something about “still working on it”. 

We stopped for a coffee and talked. I was curious as to why something that was the right thing to do, wasn’t being done, and especially when someone with his job title, L&D Manager, would seem to be the right person to do it.

He talked about the business not asking for anything different, about how busy he was and how his resources were already stretched. There were a lot of other excuses, some of them even sounded quite reasonable on the face of it; for example, extra work and extra cost with no immediately obvious ROI.

The system is far too powerful - unless we provide considerable support and incentive to our people, they will burn up and revert on re-entry.

I asked him how he would feel if he took his car to the garage for a new set of tyres and while it was there, the mechanic noticed that there were some dangerously worn suspension joints but didn’t fix them or even tell him about the problem. John said, “Suspension joints? But if one of them let go on the motorway it could kill me! I would be horrified with that level of service. In fact, that mechanic isn’t really fit to be a mechanic.”

Then he saw the parallel with his own situation and went quiet for a minute. “If I just do what they ask and don’t tell them about the deeper problems, then I’m no better than that mechanic.” He went quiet again and I let him think. 

“But what do I do when my boss and my senior team think training is the answer to their performance problems? They think that training is the way to bring about change?” I had heard this before, many times. I recommended he read a Harvard Business Review article “The Great Training Robbery” by Michael Beer at al and pass it on to his HR Director. 

Training is just not enough

The authors talk about the ‘fallacy of programmatic change’. This occurs because the system culture is far more powerful in shaping individual behaviour than the capacity of well-trained individuals to change the system.

The pattern of roles, responsibilities and relationships shaped by the organisation’s design and sustained by the prevailing leadership motivates and preserves the existing attitudes and behaviours.

This article, and so much research over decades, points to the fact that training on its own is simply not enough to trigger the kind of individual change, and from that cultural change, that people hope it will.

It has often been said that what gets measured gets done. So, start measuring the transfer effectiveness of your training programme.

“American companies spend enormous amounts of money on employee training and education—$160 billion in the United States and close to $356 billion globally in 2015 alone—but they are not getting a good return on their investment. For the most part, the learning doesn’t lead to better organizational performance, because people soon revert to their old ways of doing things”.

So why, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, does this predilection for training as the magic solution persist?

Individuals alone cannot beat the system

People seem to be locked into the false assumption that high-performing organisations are an aggregation of talented individuals rather than a system composed of strategy, processes, structure, culture, history and a plethora of other factors contributing to employee behaviour.

An employee competence framework perpetuates this myth because it focuses on the individual rather than the system. It suggests that improving the competence of an individual is all that is required rather than looking at developing the organisational system within which those individuals operate.

A moment’s thought makes it obvious that we must take change directly into the system rather than taking people out of the system, providing them with new knowledge and skills, then injecting them back into the system and expecting them to ‘overcome’ the system and change their behaviour.

The system is far too powerful - unless we provide considerable support and incentive to our people, they will burn up and revert on re-entry.

Bring in the skills and art of learning transfer

We must look at the system itself to make it more friendly for those returning from training and, like a good parent, make the returnees accountable for taking action. That means examining culture, processes and the expectations of all the different stakeholders in the change process.

What are the expectations of the delegates as they go into a training course? What are the expectations of their managers, their colleagues, and others?

For example, if a delegate is not held accountable for taking action with their new-found knowledge and skills after a training course, what message does this give to the delegate about the importance of the course? In some cases, will anybody even notice if they do something, or do nothing, as a result of their training course? If any measurement is done at all, does it have any relationship with how much learning has been transferred into new behaviours in the work stream?

It has often been said that what gets measured gets done. So, start measuring the transfer effectiveness of your training programme.

Send a clear signal into the culture about the purpose of the training and how its effectiveness will be measured. This is the first of many things that can be done to start altering the culture, so it provides a following wind for your training delegates rather than an impossible headwind.


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