Ensuring learning transfer is the greatest and most important challenge facing workplace learning professionals today. But this challenge is nothing new. More than 50 years ago, James N. Mosel (1957) pointed to “mounting evidence that shows that very often the training makes little or no difference in job behavior.” This is a real problem, because it is only on-the-job behavior that matters; the business benefits only when learning is transferred and applied to the trainee’s work in a way that positively impacts performance.
The impact of learning transfer on an organization can be demonstrated with a simple equation: The results of training are the product of learning times transfer, or Results = Learning x Transfer. This means that even when the actual learning scores a ten, if the transfer is zero, then the benefit to the business is zero.
We coined the term “learning scrap” to describe learning that never gets applied. The term is derived from the manufacturing industry, where “scrap” is parts or products that are manufactured but which fail to meet customer requirements and, as a result, must be scrapped or re-worked.
Scrap is costly because it consumes time, materials, labor, and opportunity without producing any value. In today’s competitive environment, no company can afford to invest in processes that produce significant amounts of scrap. Yet the evidence is that typical corporate training programs often produce more scrap than value.
Years ago, companies considered manufacturing scrap an inevitable “cost of doing business.” Then came the quality revolution in which Japanese firms, in particular, showed that driving down the cost of scrap through process improvement resulted in significant competitive advantage. Companies now strive for—and many achieve—six sigma quality in which scrap is reduced to less than 0.001 percent.
Achieving consistently high quality output requires managing the entire process, continuously identifying and strengthening the weak links. Today, learning transfer represents the weak link in training. And it is costing companies—and learning professionals—dearly. Indeed, in a recent study by the Executive Board’s Corporate Leadership Council, 56 percent of business managers felt that performance would not suffer or would be improved if the learning and development function were completely eliminated!
How can managers possibly feel that way when our understanding of how to deliver great learning—and our tools for doing so—have never been better?
Managers feel that way because while they can clearly see the cost of training, they are not seeing the result they were looking for: improved performance. It’s also because business managers don’t distinguish between learning and learning transfer. To a business manager, the analysis is simple: “If I invest in training, but performance does not improve, then the training was a waste of time and money.”
It doesn’t matter if the training event itself was excellent. It doesn’t matter if the real problem is in the post-training environment that we, as learning professionals, don’t control. When performance doesn’t improve, the business still views it as training’s failure. As learning professionals, we have to figure out how to ensure learning transfer if we want to be considered strategic and effective contributors to the business.
The Current State of Learning Transfer
Precise measures of learning transfer rates are hard to find. This is partly because level three and four results are rarely measured after training, and partly because definitions of transfer vary. In an ESI International study of learning transfer, nearly 60 percent of over 3,000 respondents admitted that the primary method for evaluating transfer is either collecting anecdotal feedback or “simply a guess,” according to a Training Magazine article by Raed S.Haddad.
Nevertheless, both learning leaders and business managers have a “gut feel” for the rate of transfer—and it is almost universally low. We have asked over 1,000 learning leaders around the globe to estimate the percentage of their trainees who use what they have learned long enough and well enough to improve their performance; their estimates routinely average 15 percent. In a survey by McKinsey & Company, only 25 percent of business managers said that training and development contributed measurably to business performance, according to McKinsey Quarterly article by Aaron DeSmet,Monica McGurk, and Elizabeth Schwartz. Jeffrey A. Berk (2008), using self-reports from thousands of learners across a range of companies, estimated the transfer rate at 40 percent.
In general, the transfer rate is higher for technical courses, in which learners typically must apply what they learned immediately upon returning to work, than for soft skills classes, for which there is usually no post-program plan to ensure transfer. One group we worked with reported a more than 90 percent transfer rate. When we asked how they achieved such extraordinary results, they explained, “We are in compliance training; if they don’t do it the way we taught them, they are fired.” That seems to encapsulate what is known about the importance of consequences and motivation: People respect what you inspect.
Whether the actual rates are as low as Georgenson’s oft-quoted 10 percent estimate (1982), or as high as the 50 percent reported by Saks (2002), that still means that half or more of all training is going to waste for lack of transfer. Given the cost of training and the customer dissatisfaction that results when performance fails to improve, learning transfer needs to move to the front of the learning professional’s agenda.
This is an excerpt from the August 2012 Infoline, "Ensuring Learning Transfer." To purchase the Infoline, click here.