Learning transfer is important

People attend a training course, and then somehow, without any effort at all, they are expected to activate the information they were given in the training room when they return to their place of work.  Somehow, far too often, we expect something for nothing. We expect sustainable behaviour change without doing anything like enough to generate that change, but learning transfer is important.

In the parable of the emperor’s clothes, the embarrassed ruler came to his senses and realised that he had been deceived. He had been living within an illusion where everybody was pretending something was real when even a child could see that it was not. Somehow, so many people are living within the illusion that training is working well when even a cursory examination shows that it is in most cases not delivering on its promise.

If learning transfer is important and therefore should be done, if it is possible to do this, and if people are avoiding it, we end up in the murky waters of responsibility and accountability. Who is responsible for making it happen, and who should be held accountable if it doesn’t happen?

When and where does the buck stop?

Stop and think for a moment about the last training course you were involved with. Who was accountable for making sure learning transfer happened? When asked that question, very few people have an answer. In other important organisational activities someone is accountable, so what’s different about learning transfer?

One reason is that the activities required for successful learning transfer come from many people across different departments, and it is most unlikely that each person will do their bit and all the parts will magically coalesce into a successful programme. Somebody needs to be the conductor of the orchestra. The conductor, in turn, requires each member of the orchestra to play their part in the symphony. And then somebody else, perhaps whoever booked and paid for the orchestra to perform, holds the conductor accountable for the quality of the performance. So, who holds the event organiser accountable? Perhaps the people who paid for tickets to attend the concert. There is inevitably a chain of accountability.

Now, think back again to the last training course you were involved with. What was, or should have been, the chain of accountability, perhaps even starting with the company shareholders or owner? Where did the chain break? If you fix that link in the chain, are there more weak links further down the chain that will then break? Take a step back and consider how accountability plays out in your organisation. Accountability is a facet of organisational culture, often driven from the top. Does the senior team take ownership? Do they accept accountability or are they full of excuses?

It is easy to say that you should be accountable

For delegated accountability to be effective, it must also be accepted. No-one wants to be held accountable for something that is likely to fail; that is a poisoned chalice. Alongside delegating accountability, you must also ask people if they have everything they need to be successful. If they say ‘yes’, then they are well on the way to accepting ownership and accountability. If they say ‘no’, then they will not take ownership and if/when things go wrong they will drop into spectator mode and watch as things fail. You might even get ‘I told you so’ comments. On the other hand, if they feel a sense of ownership because they have accepted accountability, they will step in to solve the problem when things go wrong.

Accountability is not a set-and-forget state of affairs. Each person in the accountability chain must do some ‘counting’. That’s the origin of the word! They should be holding regular reviews. They should be checking the results being achieved by the person that they are holding accountable for those results. And of course, to do any of this, there must be measures in place. If you are going to hold somebody accountable for producing a specific set of results, you need to be able to measure those results to understand the level of success. In addition to defining the accountability chain, there must also be an understanding of the specifics of what each person in the chain is accountable for.

Now think again… who is accountable for learning transfer and therefore the success of a training course?

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Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, learning transfer, performance consultancy, and how Learning & Development can help achieve business targets. He is the author of the Learning at Work Trilogy: “Learning Transfer at Work: How to Ensure Training >> Performance”, “Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times” and “Capability at Work: How to Solve the Performance Puzzle”.