Knowledge transfer. Business knowledge management. Building wood blocks on table.
ATD Blog

Adaptable Transfer Tools: Key to Amplifying Effectiveness

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

It’s an open secret in the realm of personnel and organization development: only 20 percent of what employees learn in training programs is actually applied in practice—the elephant in the room, as industry expert Paul Matthews aptly puts it. But with the right tools, we can increase that knowledge retention and application to make employee training more valuable.

For more than 120 years, scientists have studied the function of effective learning and, more importantly, the practical application of acquired knowledge. An established transfer model, for example, consists of 12 levers of transfer effectiveness. These levers are categorized into three critical areas for transfer success: the participants (for example, trainee motivation and volition), the training design (including active practice or transfer planning), and the organization (encompassing transfer-critical levers such as support from supervisors and peers). For each lever, numerous research-based tools exist to address these transfer-relevant aspects. For example, to improve how supervisors support training, ask participants, “How well does your supervisor help you use what you’ve learned?” This simple question can make a big difference, and you can even include it in your evaluation form.

Adaptability Over Perfection

However, not every transfer tool is suitable for every company, and that is one of the biggest barriers to transfer success. Rather than installing a fixed set of transfer tools by default in every training, we should select from a set of tools the ones that fit this specific company and the target audience.

For example, one crucial lever is the transfer expectation within the company. In other words, is the learned content being noticeably implemented in day-to-day work—and, if so, is it having desirable results? To address this lever, some companies no longer award certificates for physical attendance in training, but only for successful implementation. Each participant holds a presentation on their implementation successes, and a convincing pitch leads to the certificate.

While this change in certificate criteria may be warmly welcomed in one company, it might not work in others. The certificate procedure is deeply ingrained in corporate culture, and employees take pride in their walls adorned with certificates. This scenario requires a company-specific sensitivity. Transfer is not just about effective standard tools for each lever but about choosing those that are adaptable to the respective company.

Broad or Deep Approach

How can you best start improving transfer effectiveness with the 12 levers? And how many transfer tools do you need?


It’s crucial to stay adaptable and start small! Avoid initiating a “grand annual project” to increase transfer effectiveness. Although there’s no single right way or perfect process, you can draw inspiration from various proven approaches. Let’s explore two approaches to working with the levers of transfer effectiveness: (1) the broad approach and (2) the deep approach.

From One Transfer-Effective Flagship Program to the Next

The deep approach focuses on a single, high-priority training program to maximize impact. In this program, you plan your transfer tools so that as many of the 12 levers as possible are covered and set to “transfer-effective.” This approach often comes with more budget availability and more willingness from stakeholders to engage with new transfer tools.

If the program has been conducted several times, it’s worthwhile to assess in advance which levers promote transfer and which are still potential barriers. Ask graduates from the last cohort, for example, how well they felt supported by their supervisors (lever: support from supervisors) or how clearly they had already planned their next steps in the program itself (lever: transfer planning). With such a preliminary survey, you can focus even more on those levers that should be set to “transfer-effective,” with appropriate tools.

When you serve all levers with suitable transfer tools, you have a scientifically grounded basis for significantly increasing transfer success. This special transfer success of the program often leads to you, as L&D or trainer, hearing from the client, “I’m not sure exactly what you did differently in this program, but I want this magic dust again in the next program!”—and so you continue working program by program with a lot of momentum.


One Tool at a Time for More Transfer Effectiveness

With the broad approach, you don’t start with a single training program but with a lever or a transfer tool that will be used universally in all trainings in your company in the future.

For example, introduce the transfer tool in every future training by dispatching conversations between participant and supervisor, perhaps as a preparatory task—for example, “Discuss these 4 questions with your supervisor.” Research shows that just 15 minutes of conversation significantly increases the effectiveness of training. Alternatively, make it a rule that every training ends with a transfer plan; no one leaves the training without concrete next steps. According to transfer research, this practice doubles implementation probability. You can easily track such things in the evaluation form or, if possible in the company, discuss them right away in a short follow-up conversation with the supervisor or transfer partner.

It’s crucial that you start with non-threatening transfer tools that bring quick results and can be implemented easily and without resistance. The tone should be, “Wow, this is so easy!” Introduce each tool one by one as an experiment, and gradually make them the standard. This way, you can preserve the joy and enthusiasm for transfer design.

Transfer as a Unique Selling Point for Trainers and Consultants

If you’re an external trainer or consultant, ask yourself how you can tailor the 12 levers to your client’s needs. Having a versatile toolset is crucial, because it should be part of every clarification conversation to address the elephant in the room. Ask your client how their company handles transfer: “Are there already established standard transfer tools, or would you like my input?” Briefly check the 12 levers. Questions like “What’s the management’s stance on the planned training—can we count on them?” or “Do you have established tools to involve colleagues, who are crucial for transfer success?” show that you’re not only an expert in your field but also knowledgeable about transfer—a unique selling point that impresses and pays off.

Tackling the elephant in the room in L&D doesn’t require rocket science. Start small, experiment with different tools and levers, and enjoy the journey to more effective training. You’ll be surprised at how easily transfer can be controlled.

About the Author

Melanie Martinelli combines her entrepreneurial spirit with her 15+ years of experience in L&D to help build memorable & results-based learning experiences. Being a Certified KP Facilitator and Transfer Enabler, she applies strong business acumen & a deep understanding of what makes learning stick to support clients in being more strategic in their L&D initiatives. Melanie is the co-owner of the Learning Gym, where the focus is on upskilling learning professionals in the field of training design, delivery, and evaluation.

About the Author

Ina Weinbauer-Heidel has been dedicating her career to understanding and improving the interface between transfer research and transfer practice. In her roles as a scientist, author, university lecturer, and consultant, as well as head of the Institute for Transfer Effectiveness, she is passionate about making scientific findings applicable in practice.

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A readable overview of two approaches of applying levers for transfer effectiveness. However, there is a mention of a model that consists of 12 levers of transfer effectiveness but no detail on the 12 levers or any references for readers interested in learning more about specific methods for enhancing transfer effectiveness. An opportunity for the authors to share their deeper insight and knowledge is missed.
Hi Kevin - thanks for your feedback. If you are still interested to find out more about the 12 levers have a look here:
There is a fairly good library of various articles exploring all and/or specific transfer levers in more detail.
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A quick google brought me to an article by(?) Ina, one of the authors here: which has a fairly detailed breakdown of all 12 levers and how to make use of them. Useful stuff!
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also see:
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Hello. It seems that the article is referencing: 12 Levers of Transfer Effectiveness:
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Agreed! I even went to Paul's website to locate a list of the 12 levers and could not find it. They were not readily visible, even when I looked at his three books.
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