Every two years, the UK Learning Transfer Survey seeks to look beyond the academic research on learning transfer to identify the actual practices of learning and development professionals and their organisations. The results of the 2012 UK survey – a full copy of which you can request from our website – provide compelling evidence that, although learning transfer has become established as a mainstream activity in most organisations, the dash to technology-enabled training observable in the organisational learnscape may threaten that progress as trainers seek to re-define their role for the digital era.
Reported usage of 66 surveyed practices, all shown in empirical research to have a positive impact on learning transfer, was up by an average of almost 6% since the previous survey in 2010, although some practices increased in usage while others fell – and individual practices show wide patterns of variability in application.
As in 2010, L&D practitioners are still investing their greatest transfer efforts in delivering the learning experience: eight of the ten most frequently used learning transfer practices reported in the 2012 survey appear in the ‘Event Delivery’ category. When it comes to the design and delivery of learning events, responses strongly suggest that the majority of trainers strive consistently to ensure that not only do participants learn, but they do so in a manner that supports subsequent transfer and application of new capabilities in the workplace. The most marked improvement revealed in 2012 was in the selection of people for training who are likely to transfer and apply what they have learned. Practices in the ‘Learner Selection’ category experienced an average 26% increase in usage, with several reported to be used 40% more frequently. Although this strong improvement, albeit from a very low base, is welcome it still leaves ‘Learner Selection’ as only the fifth most frequently used of the six categories of transfer practices – and may be motivated as much by budgetary concerns as adoption of best learning transfer practise.
A significant increase in frequency of usage of 8% was found in the transfer practices categorised as ‘Participant Pre-work’ practices (including such items as Review personal development needs and Learners meet with their line manager to discuss training needs) increased average reported usage by 8%, although this average conceals considerable volatility. Complete on-line or other learning exercises saw a 28% jump in frequency of usage of, most probably indicating the pace with which digital delivery is replacing traditional ‘chalk and talk’. Yet these practices, which are on the whole cheap to implement and are known to deliver strong learning transfer effects, are still far from widely used.
Although the least frequently used category of practices – ‘Workplace Environment’ – also saw an average 8% increase, very different conclusions might be drawn. Only two transfer practices here, both of which dealt with accountability, experienced a drop in frequency of usage. While trainers have long understood that holding learners to account is crucial, doing so is mostly beyond their remit; to see a parallel fall in use of accountability among line managers raises broader concerns about the alignment of L&D strategies with other HR priorities, such as performance management and reward and remuneration. It also speaks of a gap between trainers and their organisations that we shall return to shortly.
Only one category of learning transfer practices experienced an overall decline in frequency of usage (averaging 10%): ‘Research’. Uniquely in the 2012 survey, all of the practices in this category declined in usage. Individual practices, such as Consult with stakeholders and Identify learning objectives, fell by as much as 20%. While any explanation for such a significant shift away from what have historically been considered essential good practices is likely to be complex, the overall impression created by the 2012 Survey findings is that the gap between trainers and the businesses they serve, noted in 2010, has widened considerably in the last two years. While this may simply reflect average training budget cuts of 12% and a training department headcount fall of 5% (UK Learning Factbook 2013: Bersin by Deloitte), the accelerating pace of the organisational move towards digital distribution of learning content may also be a significant factor.
But it could also suggest that trainers either still need to find ways to make their mark in the workplace (where the overwhelming majority of people development and performance improvement takes place), or – given indications of decreasing use of accountability practices and of a lack of alignment with other HR practices – that they are retreating from what they may perceive to be a losing battle. The role of technologies also needs to be highlighted: a ‘retreat’ into the curating of learning content – albeit on new platforms – is an ironic choice of direction for a cadre of practitioners committed to learning transfer, given that technology-based delivery can increase rather than diminish the need for effective learning transfer practices.
Alternatively, this may be a symptom of optimism that is detectable in the concluding section of the UK Learning Transfer Survey, which invited respondents to estimate the proportion of training content that they believe is transferred and applied in their organisations. In 2012, this rose from 47% to 51% -. in line with the 6% increase in frequency of usage of learning transfer practices but out of step with published empirical evidence that suggests that 15 – 20% would be a more likely figure. While respondents may of course be not only self-selecting but particularly diligent, it might be the case that as an industry we are routinely over-optimistic about just how much of the learning that we offer during formal training is actually put to work.
Yet ‘mind the gap!’ is a warning that belongs on the underground platform, not in relation to something as central to organisational success and sustainability as learning transfer. A growing gap between learning practitioners (often without the influence or authority to improve matters outside their own arena), and line managers (best placed to dramatically improve not just learning transfer practise but organisational performance, yet often too over-stretched or simply reluctant to accept the baton) undermines the efforts of both groups and ultimately serves no-one.