It’s time we talked about the Elephant in the room: Learning transfer | Mantle

20 Jun 2023

It’s time we talked about the Elephant in the room: Learning transfer

Disappointed with leadership training results? You’re not alone. This blog post explains why knowledge often stays in the classroom. By following the steps below, you can bridge the gap between training and impactful behaviour change.

It’s time we talked about the Elephant in the room: Learning transfer.

Imagine buying a shiny bright new (EV of course) car for $50,000 only to be told that one of its quirks was that it would only function 1 in 6 attempts or 16% of the time.

Or imagine engaging a learning provider to implement a leadership development programme and picking up a six-sided dice and trying to roll a six to determine any change or impact.

Learning transfer refers to the process of applying acquired knowledge and skills from a learning environment to real-world work situations. It encompasses the ability of learners to effectively integrate new learning into their existing knowledge base and subsequently translate it into improved job performance.

If the research is anything to go by you might as well be rolling some dice.

One of the larger meta-studies in the field conducted by Arthur, Bennett, Edens, and Bell (2003) analysed 214 studies and reported an average transfer rate of approximately 10%. This indicates that, on average, only 10% of the knowledge and skills acquired in training programs are effectively transferred to the workplace.

This is somewhat similar to Dr Robert Brinkerhoff’s research, traditional training only creates 15 % learning transfer, meaning that only 15 % of the people we train actually apply something when they come back to the workplace.

Other studies range unhelpfully between 10 and 70% learning transfer.

To be blunt if we are doing leadership development, we are in the behaviour change business!!!

No changes to behaviour means no learning transfer and no positive impact!

However, the traditional approach to evaluating learning often prioritizes measuring learning outcomes rather than performance outcomes.

One widely recognized model for evaluating learning, the Kirkpatrick Model, emphasizes three levels of measurement for learning outcomes, while performance outcomes receive limited attention with just one level of measurement.

This focus on learning outcomes has influenced the design and delivery of learning programs for a considerable period. The imbalance in measurement approaches underscores the need to shift our focus towards measuring and improving performance outcomes.

So how can we do that? In our view the academic research is often overly complex however if you review the papers, it is possible to distil down much of the thinking into three domains of interest.

The first one is about recognizing that complex learning is voluntary and takes effort.

Getting the Learner Ready:

These activities concentrate on preparing the learner for the core learning experience. They encompass various strategies aimed at addressing the WHY question, defining desired leadership, setting expectations, enhancing motivation, setting learner goals, building self-efficacy, and assessing prerequisite skills. By addressing these factors, learners are better equipped to engage with the learning material and effectively transfer their newly acquired knowledge and skills to the workplace.

Tip: Think about how to influence the MINDSET of the learners coming into a new leadership programme. Sometimes a leadership programme is not timely or the right answer for every learner.

The second one isn’t really about the learning content at all its about leveraging the organisational system. Most learners are busy and could do with some support.

Supportive Organisational Alignment Activities:

These activities focus on ensuring that the organisation as a whole supports the application of learned skills. They involve initiatives such as manager coaching, peer support systems like buddies and action learning groups, , connecting the acquired knowledge and skills to job requirements, and fostering a culture of psychological safety and continuous learning. By aligning the organization’s practices, policies, and support structures with the learning objectives, learners are more likely to encounter an environment that encourages and facilitates the effective application of their newly acquired skills.

Tip: Do not underestimate the importance of getting the learners line manager involved. It is so important it ought to be mandatory.

The last area is about grouping a number of strategies and tactics to increase the likelihood of purposeful action taking.

Learning Transfer Design Activities:

These activities are integrated into the instructional design process with the specific intention of facilitating learning transfer. Examples of such activities include setting clear expectations, work on real work, teach learning skills and encourage useful habits formation, practice exercises, role modelling, setting clear learning goals, coaching support, and providing review and support for the application of learned skills. By incorporating these elements into the design of the learning experience, learners are provided with opportunities to practice and reinforce their understanding, which enhances the transfer of learning to real-world contexts.

Tip: Empower learners by helping them learn about their brains mindsets and habits and learning and why they do what they do. Build confidence and safety to experiment to try things.

Rolling a six-sided dice is simply not good enough.

Mantle is on its own measurement journey, and we are confident as practitioners that by thinking a little more broadly in your leadership development design and adopting as many of these strategies as possible, you will significantly increase the likelihood of successful learning transfer.

And remember learning transfer is about behaviour change and impact!

If you are interested in learning how to be a more purposeful leader we invite to check out our Leadership Connect programme here.