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Sammy Johnson

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Who matters in the workplace learning space?


In this our second blog in Awbery's 'Leadership Development' series, we explore whether we really fully understand who matters in the workplace learning space?

Or, hooray! At last something for which we shouldn't automatically blame the line manager.

In our last blog we referenced the widely cited (although abused, misquoted and inaccurate) ‘statistic’ of a rate of transfer from training programmes of 10%, suggesting that this should be a beacon for action within the learning and development community. 

Despite decades of research by psychologists, educationalists and leadership specialists, the rates of transfer from training programmes appears not to have improved for nearly half a century.  So, just why is the rate so low and why hasn’t it improved?

Perhaps it is because we are focusing on the training content and delivery rather than on the process of learning?  If we consider leadership learning – an area where ‘classroom learning’ is still the more widely used than coaching or on-line learning for talent development – theoretical leadership knowledge gained in the ‘class room’, despite its relevance and potential, can still only produce a novice leadership practitioner who then embarks on leadership knowing in practice.  Paraphrasing a recent review of advances in leadership research and theory, it is highly unlikely that anyone would be able to develop as a leader through participation in a series of programmes, workshops or seminars.  Rather, the actual development takes place in the 'white spaces' between such development events.  In this way, the knowledge gained in a leadership development programme becomes preparation for future learning in the workplace, where leadership learning is then both implicated in practice and is an outcome of it.

So what do we know about the workplace learning space and learning transfer following a leadership development programme?  Generic learning transfer research has focused largely on the role of the trainee’s line manager in providing opportunity to practise new learning and ‘support’. This focus has crossed the researcher/practitioner divide, with associated training for line managers becoming standard practice to support leadership development initiatives.   However, what has failed to cross the research/practice gap is that a number of studies in the last decade have found no link between line manager support and successful learning transfer.  One explanation is that the impact of peers is growing in relative importance because of their more proximal influence. Another is that there is insufficient understanding of what we mean by ‘support’ and that our understanding lags far behind its belier in its importance.

These contradictory results concerning line manager importance has prompted Awbery to sponsor doctoral level research into the process of learning transfer following a leadership development programme.  Our aim to understand more about the workplace learning space and how new knowledge is translated into improved leadership practice.  By understanding the leadership learning process we can work with our clients to put workplace learning strategies in place that will improve their rate of return on investment in leadership development.

The results

Our results show that we need to think far wider than the line manager influence.  Senior managers, peers and subordinates are equally as important.  So too are people outside of the leader’s organisation.  Professional networks, the family and the leadership programme cohort itself, all influence what happens to the leader’s learning in the workplace learning space.  As is the ‘novice’ leader him or herself.  Crucially, the evidence shows that the network of people who influence leadership learning are unique to each leader.  At last, leadership learning transfer is one thing for which the line manager should not be held solely accountable!

Jane Brockliss is co-creator and Director at Awbery, and has designed and run the research study entitled ‘Learning translation – A Network Social Capital Perspective’, as part of her Doctor of Education studies with the University of Derby. The full findings of the research will be published later in 2016.

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