Date: 08/03/2022 | Duration: 00:27:39

Organisations often invest large sums of money in learning and development opportunities for their people, but CIPD research finds that only a small minority are evaluating the wider impact on business or society (8%). Learning transfer – applying newly acquired knowledge and skills to real-life situations in the workplace – should be an integral part of the L&D process. So how can organisations measure whether their L&D programmes are having the desired impact?

Join Nigel Cassidy and this month’s guests – Robert Brinkerhoff, Senior Research Adviser at Promote International, and David Hayden, Digital Learning Portfolio Manager at the CIPD – as we explore the benefits of measuring and evaluating learning transfer in your organisation.

Nigel Cassidy:  Gaining from training, how an understanding of learning transfer helps skills actually sink in and benefit the business. I’m Nigel Cassidy and this is the CIPD podcast. 

Now, here’s an all too familiar scenario, you or your people spend hours on end online or in a classroom doing essential training, yet when it’s done, you’re so weighed down by your day to day duties, hardly anybody has the time, the motivation, or gets the necessary encouragement to actually apply their newly acquired skills, so they’re soon forgotten. This may be why I’m still rubbish at spreadsheets. So, this podcast is all about learning transfer, I mean, could it just be the missing link in ensuring that money spent on training isn’t wasted, but benefits the business? With us, a man who’s something of a guru in the field of evaluating the impact of learning and development, his methods are well known to many professionals in the field, he’s Senior Research Advisor for Promote International, it’s Robert Brinkerhoff, hello.

Robert Brinkerhoff:  Hello there.

NC:  And from the home team, the CIPD’s own Portfolio Manager for digital learning, he’s pretty hot on linking learning and development with organisational performance, so a welcome return to the podcast for David Hayden, hello.

David Hayden:  Hello Nigel, hello Robert, it’s really good to be in this forum with you today.

RB:  Thank you.

NC:  OK, well David, I’ll start with you. I mean, learning transfer seems a pretty obvious goal for any training whatsoever, I mean, there wouldn’t be any point in the training otherwise, would there? So, I’m slightly perplexed as to why it’s so poor in the first place.

DH:  I think there’s a number of reasons which, which we’ll unpick as we, as we go through this podcast. For me there’s the busyness of learning and development teams, so learning and development teams are very often on a treadmill of design, deliver, design, deliver, and, and there’s a lot of history around effectiveness of learning and development teams being, having to be in the classroom in front of people for something like 60%, 70%, 80% of time, so it’s, it’s, it’s not seen as a, as a core priority of a trainer or a learning and development manager’s role I think in the past. And we’ve got some kind of really interesting stats that are emerging from a, a number of our research in terms of what we’re starting to see is a thirst for people wanting to do more of this, but really kind of struggling with how to actually apply this.

NC:  But I mean, do people care? I mean, this didn’t even crop up much in the CIPD’s most recent skills surveys.

DH:  That’s a really good question, do people care? I think yes, I think people do care, it’s around how we help them to, to be able to free up some time and the utilise some tools to, to actually undertake measurements around transfer of learning.

NC:  Now, Robert Brinkerhoff, everywhere online you can find well, quite similar charts, often they’re a cone showing the percentage of knowledge that people typically retain from learning, what they see, what they hear and so on, and the success rate is often quoted as low as just 10%. I mean, can that be right, I mean really, do they forget 90% of what they’ve learnt?

RB:  Well, I don’t think it’s a matter so much of forgetting what they’ve learned. I think when we look at the historically low rates of transfer in training in learning and development organisations, it’s useful to think of, of process management and what we’ve learned about quality control, and that is that when you’re getting a consistent result over and over again, it means that you’ve got processes in place that are reliably producing those results. So, we’ve got to think about what, what are we doing and not doing that is keeping those transfer rates low? 

And it’s quite interesting, if you look historically, training transfer was never an issue 100 years ago when people were training via the apprenticeship models, where everything was taking place on the job, you know, and the learning and development profession has grown dramatically in the last 30, 40 years, and it took us a lot of time to get professional and get our name on the door, the learning centre. But getting our name on the door came with a cost, and that cost is now that people think, oh, well that’s, that’s where they do the training and learning, and we do the work and the business over here. So, we’ve separated the function, and once we separated it, transfer became an issue. So, we’ve got to think about why is it such a problem? And like David says, you know, most training departments have been designed from the start to just deliver content at the lowest per unit cost, which means get as many people in the classroom as you can and get one single trainer working with them, and when it’s over, you’re done. And I think the expectation for a lot of participants is not at all that, you mean you want me to actually use this stuff? I thought I was just supposed to show up today and learn it.

NC:  So, if people see the training as a nice day out of the office or a quiet afternoon ticking some multiple choice boxes, you’ve kind of not got them on board from the start have you --

RB:  Sure.

NC:  So, that, that sounds --

RB:  Sure.

NC:  Pretty, pretty depressing really. But David, let’s look at a typical situation, some training or whatever has been designed, it’s been delivered, the evaluation forms have been collected and they’re pretty positive about the trainers, participants say they’ve learnt a lot. So, tell us what happens next which raises alarm bells, that learning hasn’t transferred, and why is that ignored?

DH:  Well, I, I think there’s, there’s a few steps in terms of collecting that data at the end of the traditional session in, in the first place what, what helps with those alarm bells. Because was the trainer any good, did you like the trainer? You know, no other department does that in, in the organisation, you don’t go to finance and say, oh, can you sort my expenses out? And, and finance goes, oh, before you disappear, rate me on the job that I’m paid to do by this organisation and performance managed by my manager. So, we’re kind of really weirdly unique in, in that sense in, in most of the organisation. So, the time, effort, and energy of collecting that data is just wasted opportunity, there’s much better questions to, to ask on that form if you’re still going to use a form, there’s much better questions to ask that we can use to exert our energy in terms of collecting data. 

I think there’s also the thing around, as, as Robert said, that kind of whole process around target driven for the trainer is, is kind of misguided, so you know, let’s, let’s free up some of that time for, so people can go and find out for instance what happened next. So, I was working closely with one learning and development manager who worked in a, a processing plant where you needed steel toe capped footwear to, to go into the processing plant. I was working with this learning and development manager, and I said to her, come on, let’s, let’s, let’s go and have a look around, see what’s happening on the shop floor. And she said, oh, I can’t go on because I haven’t got my steel capped footwear. I said, well, where are they? She said, oh, they’re at home because I only bring them when I really, really have to. That was kind of like typical of, does learning and development really understand what’s going on, on the job, in the real working environment? And I think what we need to do is start understanding that a lot more, and being able to articulate that a, a lot more, as a first step really in terms of moving forward, rather than just spending lots of time, energy, and effort on this whole churning of useless data that doesn’t tell us anything really, other than there’s a sycophant love of the trainer.

NC:  OK. If we could move this Robert, a bit more onto what happens a bit further down the track. We’ve already heard there’s fault lines in what people are asked about the training and so on, but then when things don’t pan out, when people have potential new skills that they don’t deploy, when they feel they don’t have time or encouragement to try new things, tell us a bit more about why training pans out badly?

RB:  Well, it, you know, it’s interesting, like you when you started out, you said that well, training gets historically low rates of transfer. So, let’s say just for example, we put 100 people through training and the expected transfer rate is 20 of those 100 will actually end up using it. Let’s think for a minute about, what about the other 80, why didn’t they? I mean, one explanation is that only 20% of them could have benefitted from the training, and the other 80% are too ignorant or incompetent to have gotten anything from it, that’s one explanation. The second explanation is that more people could have used it, but something got in the way. If you believe the first explanation, you’d no longer be in this learning and development profession, the second one is clearly the truth. So, what we know is there’s a lot of stuff that gets in the way, and one of the fundamental underlying issues comes down to what I would call expectation and accountability, are people expected to use it, and are they accountable for using it, and are their managers accountable for making sure that they do use it? Now, that condition is rarely met, but when it is met, then we find that training transfer is more like 80%, 90%, close to 100%, so expectation and accountability really says it all. I did an evaluation study of a large organisation a couple of years ago where 300 managers or senior leaders were, were put through the training, it cost about $4 million almost per cohort to do it because they were sent to India, they went to the London School of Economics for a week, very expensive training programme, and we found that hardly anybody was using it. So, when we interviewed folks afterwards who didn’t use it, I asked them this one question, and in fact I’d like David and Nigel, for you to answer the question, so the question I said was, OK, now that you’ve finished this year long effort and you’re back at work, what would happen to you, what would be the consequence if you never used any of what you learned in the last year in your job, what would the consequence, or what would happen to you, be? And what the answer I heard back?

NC:  Nothing?

DH:  Nothing, yeah, yeah.

RB:  Nothing, exactly, nothing. Now look, let’s pose that question to 500 people in a presentation, all learning and development people, and they all say, nothing. And so, when we talked to those folks about, about that lack of expectation and accountability, their view of the training was that it was provided to them as sort of a reward for having worked hard, in other words it was a staff benefit. I earned the right to be here, I’ve worked hard, I deserve to have this training, it goes in my resume, it's a wonderful entry for my CV, and maybe I’ll use it here to get promoted or in my next job somewhere else. So, their expectation was completely it was a staff benefit, yet when I talked to the people who sponsored the training, who were spending the millions of dollars to do it, they said, absolutely we need to change our managerial behaviours, we’re boxed in silos, we’re not collaborating across the organisation, and we need to change that. That expectation was never communicated to the people in the training, and it was never, no one was held accountable for ever having used it.

DH:  To add to that, I would encourage everyone to have a look at their, their reward policies within their organisation and see is training and learning and development an integral part of that reward policy? Because that sets a tone, that, sets a, a series of kind of missed expectations around it. Oh, you know, I’ve, I’ve got, I’ve got a, a right to the reward of, of, of this learning, for all the reasons kind of Robert, Robert said there. So, yeah, have, have a look at, you know, listeners, have a, have a look at your reward policy and, and are you happy learning is in that reward policy?

NC:  Let’s try and break down some of the steps involved in doing what Robert was saying, to actually try and ensure that good learning transfer is sort of built in from the get-go of any learning and development activity, and then sort of measured for effectiveness as well. Presumably Robert, you have to start with the desired outcomes, I mean, defining exactly what you hope people will be able to achieve? It sounds obvious, but I guess --

RB:  Yeah, no, absolutely --

NC:  Maybe it isn’t being in practice?

RB:  Absolutely, you’re right. And, and even there’s a step before that, if you look at, if you look at in a modern organisation the learning and development portfolio, the programmes that, that are existing in that, not all of them even have to transfer. So, let me just give you an example, here’s a company that spends $10 million a year training employees in a skill, and at the end of the year we found out that nobody is using the training. Now, was that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it depends, the company I’m talking about happens to be an airline company and the training happens to be titled, how to land a fully loaded 747 aircraft if the landing gear are jammed, how to land it safely and not kill everybody on board. Now, if that training was transferring and getting used on a regular basis, that company’s got problems way beyond learning and development. So, my point is, there are different value propositions for training. Some value propositions go through a transfer route, and that’s the sort of training where we’re training people to execute new strategy or new change that’s vital to the mission, but emergency training, we don’t want people using that all the time. There’s career development training, it’s where people are, we’re training people so they’re ready for a promotion, that doesn’t have to transfer immediately. Mandatory or regulatory training, where the purpose is to just tick the box that everybody’s participated, otherwise we’re likely to get sued. 

So, the first step is, prioritise the training programmes and identify those that, that have a value proposition that requires transfer and behaviour change, and then for those, then Nigel, that’s where we want to begin to think about how can we design and deliver this in a way that’s likely to get 80%, 90% transfer rates? And that means typically, changing our paradigm to be not one of learning and delivery of content, but rather the paradigm of performance improvement, looking at, if these people are to change their behaviour, what’s likely to get in their way, and how do we get rid of those obstacles, as well as how do we get them the skills they need to execute these new behaviours?

NC:  Sure. And that example of the safety training was clearly pretty outrageous, but David, a lot of it tends to be more subtle, this is about things organisations don’t achieve because people haven’t used initiative, they haven’t drawn on those skills, and maybe that is hard to measure?

DH:  Yeah, and I, I, I agree with what Robert said there, and, and that is, you know, I think every organisation can do its own kind of variation of the how to land a, a jet plane safely, and so that, you, you could argue first aid training is, is pretty similar. I’d take issue with, with the mandatory training a, a, a little bit because for me, that’s not, it, it, it shouldn’t be about ticking boxes, it should be about what is it we need to do to keep our people safe, and what are the current issues? So, rather than churning everyone through the same type of thing, you know, oh just do a quick 20 minutes, it’s only 20 minutes of your life to do this piece of training, make it as real as possible to the risks that are exposed to the organisation, and, and, and what do people currently know and what do they want to know? So, I think there’s a lot more opportunity to explore with compliance training, in terms of being able to transfer that, rather than just me being able to repeat verbatim because I’ve done it every year for the past 20 years, you cannot take data out of the UK and the EU, what does that mean? I can say it all verbatim, that line has transferred, but the practical application of that has not.

RB:  And look at the sorts of training that’s done for diversity, and equity, and inclusion, or sexual harassment, you know, so often, again, it’s expectation and accountability, but if the expectation is that, oh look at, look at David, you haven’t been to that, you haven’t filled your, completed your course yet, make sure you get that done because they’re auditing at the end of the month, got to make sure you took the course. But if the, if the expectation is, look it, you need to identify the behaviours that you’re doing now that are getting in the way of inclusion and diversity in our workplace, and we’ve got to change those, that’s a very different paradigm. So, let’s be clear about what we need and expect, and then, then we can design it to make a difference. 

And I don’t buy for a minute that we’re not measuring transfer because it’s too hard to measure, human beings are natural transfer measurers, look at when you’re raising your children, if your ten year old child is not picking up their room and you do some training on how to clean your room, how difficult is it to see if it’s working or not? It’s a piece of cake. And it’s the same rule applies in take a look around and see what’s happening, and it’s easy to do. It’s a question of will, not it’s too hard to measure.

NC:  Well, you say it’s easy to do, David Hayden, have you any thoughts about how you improve the real life workplace support from managers after the training, so they’re less focused on what we’ve heard about --

DH:  Yeah.

NC:  The sort of ticking --

DH:  Yeah.

NC:  The boxes, and that actually managers are getting more involved in what they hope people can start achieving, what skills and techniques have been learnt and can benefit the business?

DH:  Yeah, so I, I, for me there, there are two clear strands, two clear practical strands with this. First of all, it’s look at what we’ve got in our leadership and our management development programmes, and are we actually putting things in there that actually help us to achieve this goal, or are we filling them with things that are out of date and, and, and people cannot apply? So, if we develop our managers to help us with this, then we’re on, on a, a, a good starting block. The second is, is something that is a variation of, of something I know Robert has been around for nearly 20 years, you devised a success case study method, my variation of, of that is, is just pure and simple, finding out what happened next. So, every so often, getting a group of people together, both either formally or informally, and just saying, oh, this happened, what happened next? And just listening and, and just getting all that rich data from, from those conversations, it really can be that simple.

RB:  You know, the perennial issue has been, how do we get managers to support training, you know? And we, we, we should not be approaching managers as supplicants, so if, if David is a manager and I’m the learning and development person, I shouldn’t be going to him saying, David look, we’ve got some training coming up, I really could use your help because it kind of looks bad if we don’t get people using it, so can you give me a, give me a break here and support it, I’ll do you a favour next time? Rather I should approach him and say, David, we’ve got some training coming up, I know you’re accountable for driving market share in your unit, we’ve got some training coming up that’s supposed to help with that, so I want to talk to you about how can we make sure this isn’t a waste of time and money, how can we make sure it, it helps you get done what you need to get done? So, we’ve got to show managers what’s in it for them to support the training. Managers will do what makes a difference to the things they’re accountable for, so if we can show them how it’s going to help their, their unit performance, and then give them evidence as whether it’s working or not, we can get their buy in and support. But we, we don’t want to appeal to them and say, look it, be a good guy, one of your, you got to support training, we’ve got to show them, how is it going to make a difference to your organisation and the things you’re accountable for, when we do that, they’re ready to support us.

NC:  And there is a pattern here, isn’t there, that learning is commissioned, it’s devised, it’s delivered, the business doesn’t see benefits, so managers blame the training or the trainers?

DH:  Yeah, absolutely. And, and it is a, a vicious circle, and, and until something can stop to break that very efficient malfunctioning process, until something can break that, then, then you’re going to be in that for, for quite a while.

RB:  The manager says, I really don’t expect much from this training, and then they don’t support it, and low and behold they were right, they didn’t support it and they didn’t get much from it, their people didn’t get much from it, and now they say, see, I was right not to support it. So, they’re --

NC:  Yeah.

RB:  We’ve got to spin that cycle the other way and show them. So, when we evaluate training, we find, we find those pockets where the training did work and did make a difference, and tell that story, and find out when it worked, why did it work, and what good did it do for those managers who are the owners of the results. If we can show them and say, look, look, this unit over here happened to increase their market share, or they increased their sales, or reduced their scrap rate, and you know how they did that? Their manager supported the training and gave feedback to the people, if you want to see results like that, we can help you get them. Any time training works, it’s because it was a partnership between the L&D department, the learning department, and the customers of that training, they got together and agreed to make it work.

DH:  And to, to add to that, I think as well, it’s about, about making sure there’s time, whenever we’re together with people, making sure there’s time to, to say, look, where are the barriers, where are the blockages? And being able to feed that back. As well as Robert kind of written quite a few things around learning transfer, so has someone called Doctor Ina Weinbauer-Heidel, she talks about net transfer rates, so she actually asks people, what’s the likelihood of you being able to transfer this back into your workplace? So, right in, in the middle of when you’re in a virtual classroom or a face to face environment, asking that question explicitly. And the confidence of the, the facilitator to be able to ask that, has, has got to be really high, but we, we, we’ve got to ask those sorts of questions, you know, you’ve just spent this amount of time with us, we’ve been talking around this, what is the likelihood of you going away and applying it? If we get everyone saying yes and nothing happens, there’s some data there for us to act on, if everyone says, no, I’m not going to be able to do it because, there’s some data for us to act on, and we’ve got to be really prepared to say, right, if we’re serious about performance, we’ve got to do something with this data.

NC:  Well, clearly, you’re comfortable with looking back at some of those theories and the questions people need to be asked as a result. I just wondered, Robert, I mean, you, you read about Kirkpatrick’s four levels, Phillips return on investment, there’s all kinds of things people can study, in your experience, do many practitioners either really understand those, or find them useful?

RB:  Many claim to find them useful but then don’t use them, you know. And what I think we, we really need to change the expectation on the part of our clients and our customers, instead of promised them that we’re going to deliver the training, let’s start making promises that we’re going to deliver results from the training. Now, that’s going out on a limb to do that, but if our customers, if we help them expect results from us, we can begin to get them. And so, it’s a matter of willing to be held accountable for that, creating that partnership with our internal customers, that’s going to make a difference. But you know, too often training and development people, I, like David started out saying, they’re in this design, deliver, they’re stuck in that hamster wheel of design and deliver, they don’t have time to, and nobody is asking them to do it. So, I think again it’s, the training is not being expected to deliver results, so nobody, why should we worry about our training department and spending time seeing if we’re getting any?

NC:  OK, well we’ve covered a lot of ground bringing this to something of a conclusion. David, do you think we’ve shown that this is a problem worth solving?

DH:  Oh, absolutely it is absolutely a problem worth solving. And you know, if, if, if L&D people are finding it hard to do, then, and you’re finding something new, and you’re learning something that’s hard to do, just think about all your delegates, your learners, your employees that are going through some stuff with you, and they’re finding it hard to do, you know, come on. Role model the fact that you’re learning something new and you’re finding it a bit of a challenge, don’t be afraid to share that with, with your organisation because who knows, someone might be able to say, actually I can help you see some of this data.

NC:  So, a quick tip from each of you to end. Robert, where do you start if you really could do a lot better with this?

RB:  When transfer is needed, look, very often if you can get one more person using the training, as well as a person who used it well, that one person’s, the consequences to the organisation will more than pay for the training for everybody. So, it’s well worth, if the training is worth using and when using it makes a difference, we’ve got to show the difference that it’s making, and then we can get more people driving toward that target. So, and very often it’s not a question of training them more, it’s about helping them get rid of some of the obstacles that are in front of them, if they don’t have time to use it, helping managers support them, if they’re not getting coaching and feedback, making sure they’re getting that. But it’s a problem when transfer is needed because we’re trying to execute strategic initiatives of change, then it’s by gosh a problem well worth solving because it will make a difference, often the difference in success or failure of an organisation.

NC:  CIPD has got I know a lot of resources on this, some of which of course David has produced. Final tip from you then?

DH:  So, just kind of a couple of things from me. One, read what people are saying around transfer and you know, make some time to, to absorb some of that information every week so you can transfer that. And the second, the second thing around it is you know, don’t overfill your sessions with content, make some room for what people know, so don’t assume you know what the answers are. So, if there’s an issue with customer services in your organisation, find out what that issue really is, don’t just willy nilly just put together how to deliver a great customer service, because your people might already know how to deliver it, what they need is help with overcoming some of those barriers we’ve talked about.

RB:  Well, David’s suggestion of a, a five minute spent talking about what will get in your way of your using this, to what extent do you think you can use it? Having and gendering that conversation, that’s well worth the time versus taking those five minutes to drive more content to them.

NC:  Wise words from Robert Brinkerhoff and David Hayden. And that’s our canter through learning transfer, let’s hope we all retain more than 10% of that. In fact, it’s all been about learning concepts lately because last month we were discussing the value of nurturing growth mindsets, combatting fixed opinions that hold us back, and we’ve had some feedback from Stacey Pollock, an HR learning specialist at Shopify. She said she likes to challenge people’s core assumptions with open ended questions around why they think they can or can’t do something. She says this helps show them when they’ve got a fixed mindset, and she feels managers really aren’t trained to pick up on all this, or indeed might be of a fixed mindset themselves. Well thanks for that Stacey. Until next time, from all of us here at the CIPD, it’s goodbye.