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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Training efficacy: what L&D is getting wrong


Most training doesn't work because organisations are relying on outdated methods that have no connection to the reality of employees' everyday lives. For training to really take effect, it's time for L&D professionals to re-assess their approach.

Training doesn’t work. There I’ve said it. I feel a whole lot better now!

Of course I need to put some caveats around that.

I’m referring to the traditional training course – off the job one or two day events existing in a bubble of presentations and meaningless activity. They don’t work. I mean, that’s obvious isn’t it. Everyone agrees with that.

If you google 'training doesn’t work' one of the first links which appears says this:

“Most training doesn’t work. I don’t have figures for this but it’s my belief that the vast majority of training simply doesn’t deliver actual behavioural change.”

Yeah, of course. Hang on! You don’t have figures for this, but you’re prepared to make such a bold assertion? Oh, hang on. It’s OK. The rest of the website goes on to extol the virtues of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. 

Limitations of research

That got me thinking. If the old saying that ‘training doesn’t work’ is believed by those otherwise comfortable in the world of psycho-babble, then I am naturally suspicious.

We need more research into the impact of different L&D interventions.

So I did some digging. In their excellent meta-study (research into the available research) of 2003, Arthur, Bennett, Edens and Bell said: “Wexley and Latham (2002) highlighted the need to consider skill and task characteristics in determining the most effective training method. However, there has been very little, if any, primary research directly assessing these effects".


I dug some more and since 2003 when the four US academics made this assessment of over 40 years of workplace learning research, their call for additional research into the comparative efficacy of different kinds of learning intervention seems to have been made again and again.

There is a lot of research about training or learning effectiveness but mostly it talks about overall impact. The components of any intervention – the individual methods, the mix of media, the combination of off the job and on the job learning, the contribution of coaching, job rotation, work shadowing or mentoring – was absent from the analysis.

There were a number of studies of the effectiveness of ‘blended learning’ but mostly in educational settings – from schools to university students. These showed a general uplift in the performance of students given multiple inputs versus those in more traditional lecture heavy environments.

Success was defined as performance in post course examinations. Despite the multiplicity of methods and learning modes employed, there was little here about skill development or on the job application of new behaviours.

Remembering versus performing

The focus in those studies is about knowledge and ‘remembering’ rather than on ‘performing’.

The excellent Dr Will Thalheimer has written extensively on ‘remembering’ and carried out his own meta-research on the subject which comes up with the rather fabulous conclusion that the rate of forgetting depends.

The culture of the organisation in which the work is undertaken will probably have the biggest impact.

There is no definitive figure and no specific relationship between the way the information was delivered and how much people remember (or forget).

Dr Thalheimer’s assessment of what helps with remembering, focuses on the beneficial effects of using what you have learned after the intervention. If you use what you learned, you’re less likely to forget it, but this is independent of the kind of learning intervention.

Regardless of whether a person was engaged in self-directed learning, participation in a collaborative experience with peers, attendance of a course, completion of e-learning or a mix of all of these, they were less likely to forget what they learned if support for remembering was built in (the need to retrieve information regularly) and that learners used it in a work-context during or shortly after the intervention.

This theme also features in Professor Robert Brinkerhoff’s studies. Brinkerhoff is one of the major researchers in what makes training and development work (i.e. what enables training activities to have a positive impact on workplace performance) and he has identified a number of variables which he calls the ‘conditions of impact’.

Simply put, if a learner is clear on what they are going to learn, and why, and that they are expected to implement what they have learned when they return to work, there is a greaer likelihood that change will happen. 

Furthermore, if the learner is encouraged to make a clear action plan, is accountable for executing that action plan and is given support back in the workplace to make it happen, then change happens.

So far, so good but notice anything missing here?

The delivery methods employed - training course, e-learning, coaching, collaboration, projects, on the job, off the job, formal or informal – is not part of the differentiation.

Like Thalheimer’s focus on remembering – the best mix of inputs depends on a few things. 

Whether training works relies on a number of variables – what skills and knowledge have already been mastered, what is to be learned, what performance is desired, what will good performance look like, what support is available for implementation of new skills, knowledge and approaches and how will individuals who have been trained be held to account for making best use of the organisation’s investment in them.

The delivery methods applied to address a skill gap or a development opportunity are similarly varied and dependent on the work context.

On the basis of the available research it would be wrong to say one method is automatically better than another. It depends.

In some respects, a review of the available literature would suggest that how new concepts, skills, behaviours or processes are introduced is pretty unimportant so long as:

  • The reason for the change and the associated need to learn is clear.
  • The individual learner knows they will be required to do things differently and understand the standards to be achieved.
  • There are opportunities to use these new concepts, skills etc. within a short space of time after first encountering them.
  • There will be support as the new skills, behaviours and processes are mastered and become business as usual.

Not all training is created equal

Is there good training and less good training? Of course, but the available research would not seem to point to one way of training being automatically better than another.

Used in the wrong way, any training method can be disastrous. Ill-thought out interventions which serve to confuse and create a lack of clarity about what people are supposed to be doing, reduce the ability of those individuals to improve their performance. 

A belief that all training has to happen in a training room ignores the reality of modern work places.

A belief that 80% or 90% of learning happens on the job without any kind of guidance or strategic input reinforces the status quo. Far from freeing people to be creative, the non-interventionist approach may actually make change and innovation less likely to happen.

So, training doesn’t work? It depends...

What has become clear as I have read through study after study in search of L&D’s silver bullet, is that there is an awful lot of opinion masquerading as fact and an awful lot of self-reported benefits of different learning methods which don’t go an awful lot further than the ‘happy sheet’.

A belief that all training has to happen in a training room ignores the reality of modern work places.

Whether someone enjoyed the experience is probably important to all of us.  No one enters the world of L&D to make people miserable, but neither is showing people a good time the gold standard of achievement.

We need more research into the impact of different L&D interventions

We need research which shows that the purpose of whatever L&D intervention we are examining was achieved. 

Ideally, we need control groups trained in different ways to achieve similar results which show the circumstances in which different learning methods effectively enabling change.

Most importantly, before we start on designing a programme, we need to know what change we are setting out to achieve and what it will look like when it’s happened. 

One overwhelming feature of the research that has been done is that the culture of the organisation in which the work is undertaken will probably have the biggest impact.

This underpins both Thalheimer’s work and the investigations undertaken by Brinkerhoff. Whatever activities we engage in in L&D, our work will stand or fall by the ability and will of those we work with to make the change that is needed. 

If we don’t attend to addressing that culture then we may as well develop training courses based on a series of unscientific, evidence free principles.

Interested in this topic? You may also enjoy reading Performance management: should we stop trying to measure the ROI of training and development?

15 Responses

  1. good appraise of an
    good appraise of an overwhelming phenomena ….and I can only agree. However, I feel the real issue or root cause is the “buyer”. The seller exist because there is a market…no other reason. Until the buyer becomes more discerning and in fact change their own and their organisations beliefs change……long live curricula!!

  2. Interesting article – thanks
    Interesting article – thanks for sharing.

    One observation – where are your facts/data that prove your assertion that NLP is a world of psycho-babble and charlatanism? In asserting this aren’t you in danger meeting the same standards of those you criticise; making a sweeping statement without any supporting evidence.

  3. Robin, if you wnat more…
    Robin, if you wnat more… dig a little deeper towards 1992 and check out Broad and Newstom’s Transfer of Training. It has essentially the same message as Brinkerhoff but couches it as “the role of the participant’s manager before the training” is the best way to get “better results.”

  4. Charlatan – a person who
    Charlatan – a person who falsely pretends to know or be something in order to deceive people.
    A bit harsh.

    Different trainings for different people; some prefer online, others classroom and others on the job. That would seem to be logical.

    Taking that to NLP. A psychiatrist friend, who is also an NLP Master Practitioner, uses a range of different therapies/interventions depending on her client. I doubt she is deceiving any of them.

    1. A bit harsh perhaps but I
      A bit harsh perhaps but I recently heard Paul McKenna describe NLP as ‘built on sound science’ which given the findings of successive research which is summarised by Witkowski and others (see earlier comment responses) I think a reasonable description. Plus, have you ever read about NLP’s originator Bandler and his, shall we say, chequered past? I think the cap fits pretty well.

      If your psychiatrist friend is using NLP within her clinical practice she will be working contrary to most clinicians.

      In 2012 King’s College London described NLP as follows: “A new review of the use of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) in healthcare has concluded that there is little evidence of its success in improving outcomes for patients”

      This was based on a 2012 study by Professor Jackie Sturt et al which can be found here:

      Thanks for joining the debate.

  5. Great summary – following 15
    Great summary – following 15 years research on learning transfer Prof. Ed Holton drew similar conclusions. For all the reasons you suggested plus more he came to the conclusion that there are 16 enablers individuals and companies can focus on to ensure that their training both has impact and adds value. The 16 enablers have been validated in 22 countries and the instrument he developed, the Learning Transfer Systems Inventory (LTSI), has been developed with over 15000 users. The LTSI diagnoses whether the 16 enablers are switched on and his second system the TransferLogix TLX) process then goes through the learning process to ensure that at each stage of the learning cycle each of the 16 enablers are fully charged. The total system, the LTSI and the TLX makes sure that training has both impact and adds value. For more information go to

  6. Mary Broad in her research on
    Mary Broad in her research on training programmes suggests that only 10-30% of any training programme has impact. For all the reasons you suggest above. So your basic premise is correct.

    However, the criticism I read on NLP was more to do with learning styles and the link to visual, audial, and kinesthetic. Her point was that we don’t use one predominant channel when learning. A little misplaced because the recall of a learning experience can often involve all three. How often have you recalled a smell that rekindles a memory. How often have you had a vision of something which rekindles an event and placed yourself back into that event as if re experiencing. etc etc.

    You are right to assume that training programmes don’t have the impact but one of the most significant factors in the human dimension is self efficacy. The ability of the learner to manage their own learning.
    There is a lot of work on self efficacy and Prof Holton links it with five key behaviours; the openness to learn, conscientiousness in learning, the degree of control someone can exert, self efficacy and resilience.
    The motivation to apply learning has significant impact along with the capability to apply, as you point out.
    The third factor is the work environment and without the support to apply the learning all the other factors leave us with individual “pioneers” trying to battle away to make sure their learning has impact. HR has a significant role in managing the impact of learning rather than relying on individual pioneers who start enthusiastically but often end up disillusioned if not dead in the gutter with arrows in their backs.
    Creating empowered achievers is where HR should be focusing to ensure that training does have impact and add value.

    1. Thanks for this additional
      Thanks for this additional information which I’ll look into. I read Mary Broad’s stuff some years ago and the round numbers put me off, but I’ll revisit – it’s good to check out one’s perspectives form time to time.

      I couldn’t agree more about the role of HR in creating the conditions for learning.

      I’m pretty clear that learning styles is another distraction (see Daniel Willingham and Eric Coffield for detailed research in their impact) but I do think that the way training is delivered could and should have impact on how eager people are to implement what has been covered on a course or what they have been presented with by their organisation. The problem is that the research about training impact seems to gloss over the manner of initial delivery.

      I agree that learning transfer requires work and needs to be higher up L&D’s agenda, but I think the idea that training doesn’t work lacks nuance.

      Overall, I guess I’m asking for more study about each individual stage, mode and medium used by L&D folks in trying to effect change and improve performance.

      Thanks for your contributions – really useful.

  7. Robin, Thanks for raising an
    Robin, Thanks for raising an important issue. The perception that “training doesn’t work” is certainly common among business leaders; to cite just one example, in a study by McKinsey, only 25% of business leaders said that training and development
    contributed measurably to business performance ( The lack of training’s efficacy is the “elephant in the room” that no one wants to talk about.
    The problem is, in part, definition. When L&D types think about training effectiveness, they tend to think in terms of whether people liked the experience and how much they learned. When business leaders think about training effectiveness, they think about whether the investment produced an uptick in performance.
    The latter, or course, depends not only on the quality of the training itself, but the whole learning ecosystem (transfer climate), which, as you point out, includes expectations, accountability, manager support, and so forth. There is no silver bullet; the search for the one “best” training method is a fool’s quest. We need to approach the challenge much more in terms of process management and process improvement if we really want to see an uptick in training effectiveness and respect.
    You might want to have a look at The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning in which we explore these ideas more fully, with a lot more references that space here permits.

    1. I think you’re right that
      I think you’re right that there can be a disconnect between L&D’s measures of success and the measures applied by the rest of the business. Only yesterday I was involved in long discussion about how to present happy sheet data, as though it mattered!

      However, the tendency of the business to expect transformational change without offering even minimal levels of support for people to implement what they have learned or been introduced to is staggering. I especially like those meetings where the L&D team are blamed for things like line manager coaching not having happened, when those same line managers report to the person doing the blaming!

      I don’t suppose L&D will ever stop being the whipping boy when things don’t work quite as expected, nor overlooked when performance does improve and everyone else claims the credit, but we also have to help ourselves by using proper evidence for impact.
      Thanks for joining the debate and for your steer towards further reading. I’ll check it out.

  8. I think the issue is that we
    I think the issue is that we assume the “training” (knowledge transfer) is the only piece required to create skill. There is a lot of research on applying the methodology of Deliberate Practice, which several other professions (music, theatre, sports, firefighting, police, doctors, etc) do but for some we reason businesses do not. Imagine reading a book about golf and expecting to be a great golfer afterwards. Workshop based training is reading a book.

  9. If I am correct, what you are
    If I am correct, what you are suggesting is that L&D needs to focus more on Kirkpatrick’s 3rd and 4th levels of evaluation (if we had to put it into a theory). I feel like the most important thing L&D professionals can do is to build out a comprehensive and detailed follow up after a training is given to measure behavioral implementation of the training and coach trainees on implementing the content from the training 3 to 6 months out. It can be difficult to measure sometimes, because there may be other factors influencing the behaviors of employees and that’s why think there is not much detailed research on the impact of training specifically. There may be a myriad of confounds, but we have to start somewhere.

    Thank you for a great article!

  10. Thank you for your thought
    Thank you for your thought provoking article.
    There is a lot of research to suggest that only 10% – 30% of training is implemented. Naquin and Baldwin (2003), Grossman and Salas (2011), Cowman and McCarthy (2016), suggest the rate of training/learning transfer is a mere 10 percent. This would mean that over $107 billion and 90 billion euros is wasted in 2012 terms.
    Most of the evaluation of training uses a quantitative model which views training and learning as a commodity. It follows most of the current practice in industry and dissects a process, analyses each part, defines the key determinants and assesses and evaluates whether they are working efficiently and effectively. If you want best practice in this go to Holton’s work on the Learning Transfer Systems Inventory. We can do this for formal processes such as training and education. The problem is as an input output model cannot guarantee that what you observe going in – comes out. The process is not like the penny slot in an amusement arcade. Ultimately what it cant guarantee is that the learner will actually apply the training – unless compliance is the agenda. The assumption in both training and learning is, is the learner capable and willing to transfer their learning, and whether their learning is generalisable? There lies the problem with Kirkpatrick. Once again using the dissection of a formal training process it assumes transferring learning into performance and measuring the change in behaviour is an observable entity and it creates value which is extrinsically expressed. There is very little evidence that learning is applied within a formalised process where the learner is simple a component in the system. This route begs the question whether we are indoctrinating (see E. Schein), educating so that people conform, or liberating by enabling people to become empowered achievers? This also raises questions as to the alignment of the business strategy, with SHRD practices and Human development. If this one is answered we could ensure that the HR department has an executive seat which shows its added value and that people are our greatest asset.
    The formal work placed learning process is changing as individuals take more and more responsibility for their learning with the support of coaches. We will continue to throw money at training, development and education because in examining the process we forget the purpose – to help people learn and apply their learning.
    The second issue I have with your article is to focus on ‘remembering’. Sixty per cent of training in the UK is based on ‘procedural’ learning ie. on people conforming to a particular processes – where rote learning is being applied. It is fine as a process so long as things do not change. In a world of rapid change, simply performing by rote, will not enable you to understand why you are doing something, and apply it if conditions change.

    My own research work focuses on the formal training/educational process and identifies 16 enablers which accelerate learning transfer. These are taken from Holton’s work. In the formal situation there are enablers which focus on the individual, the support they receive and the organisational culture and accelerate the application of learning. I have taken this work and researched further on self regulated learning to establish 9 personal characteristics which enable someone to transfer their learning. The purpose is to create a dialogue between the provider of the learning and the learner to establish how they learn and empower. Understanding how we learn and having the capability to apply learning is at the heart of education and training
    As more MOOCs appear on the market the issue is not the quality of the content but the ability of the learner to manage their learning. 63% of MOOCs fail, not because of the quality of the content, but because people do not manage their learning.
    My aim is to create a dialogue between the provider of learning, and the learner, to enable to people to understand how they learn, not just what they learn, and to become empowered achievers. Only when we have can both identify the extrinsic, and intrinsic values from learning can we begin to say LEARNING WORKS

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Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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