By Michael Leimbach, Ph.D. and Carl Eidson, Ph.D.,Wilson Learning
If you ask a busy learning professional about learning transfer, you’ll likely hear two things: First, it’s very important; second, it’s very hard. So what is it about the process that makes learning transfer so challenging? The issue that comes up the most is the vexing problem of finding enough time. Busy managers find it difficult to allocate resources to critical reinforcement and support activities, and training professionals also find it takes a great deal of time to design and administer a learning transfer effort.
A related issue is complexity. Today, a training initiative may involve a global audience and multiple modes of delivery, including Webcasts, virtual learning, mobile devices, and social media—and, yes, even classroom components. These activities may be taking place at different times, in different time zones, with different levels of participation and diverse audiences. Managing delivery of all these moving parts can be a logistical nightmare. It’s not surprising that many training groups with limited resources find it nearly impossible to carry out the kind of learning transfer needed to ensure lasting results.
In fact, there is a way to deliver well-designed and effective reinforcement and follow-up without an undue burden on participants, managers, training professionals, or other stakeholders. We have found that there are four keys to making learning transfer easy:
Let’s dig deeper into each of these and see how they add up to an approach to learning transfer that really works.
Focus on Tactics Rather than Strategy
Too often, we seem to believe that “more is better,” and end up devising big strategic initiatives that become too time-consuming. Such an approach might involve a large investment in systems and processes, with multiple skill sets, the development of a competency model, and building big pieces such as a new learning portal. While such longer-term thinking serves a purpose, it also can get in the way of immediate payoffs. Making sure training has impact requires a focus on ensuring specific learning transfer to the job rather than on creating, say, a “transfer culture.” If a particular group has taken part in a sales course, for example, they need timely feedback, reinforcement, coaching, and follow-up to improve performance. Waiting for longer-term strategies to take hold often means learning will be diluted or even lost for good.
The bottom line is that a “less is more” approach can help zero in on actions that are quick, specific, and easy to execute. When it comes to learning transfer, timing matters. Activities aimed at learner readiness need to be activated close to the time of the learning session, and the follow-up also should be immediate. Messages need to cut through the clutter with a clear connection to the learning objectives and with usage always top of mind.
Automate the Process
Learning transfer often involves managing a complex agenda with multiple groups of participants and multiple modes and locations for delivering training. The challenge for training professionals is finding sufficient time and other resources to achieve learning transfer in an efficient and timely manner. A typical effort might involve everything from scheduling a series of e-mails (often managed with several different spreadsheets) and setting up meetings, to persuading managers to take responsibility for planning and carrying out coaching activities. Then there are follow-up meetings to make sure planned activities actually have occurred and achieved their objectives. These are the kinds of requirements that can make the implementation of effective learning difficult and create barriers to learning transfer.
How can learning transfer be improved and streamlined to limit the stress and increase effectiveness? By leveraging current technology, it is possible to set up a system of messages and activities that are automatically deliveredat specific times for specific individuals and groups. This helps simplify complexity and avoid the time-consuming effort of manually creating all the communication and resources needed for a complete learning transfer initiative.
How does it work? A global agriculture products company was implementing sales training over a two-year time period for some 2,000 salespeople scattered around the world. Many of them were located in remote rural areas. Their 150 sales managers typically were located far from their people in the field. The solution was in the process we used to ensure the right messages went to the right people at the right time. Rather than specifying particular dates for each message and activity, we keyed everything off of a “core” learning event. For example, an e-mail message was not coded to a specific date, but to so many days plus/minus the core event. Thus a -10 meant that the message went out 10 days before the core event; +15 meant 15 days after the core event. All that needed to be managed was the date of participation for each salesperson in the core event. The system adjusted every message from that point. Thus, if a salesperson changed the date of the seminar he or she attended at the last minute, we didn’t need to go in and change the date of all of the activities; we just changed the date of the core event and everything adjusted from there. In addition, we could track when each e-mail was opened and each link in the e-mail selected, so managers and T&D administrators could know who was engaged in the learning process, and who was not.
This greatly simplified the administrative requirements and also ensured that key tools, quizzes, reminders, and follow-up activities occurred at the right time for each learner and each manager.
This approach helps manage different learning agendas that may be going on at the same time. Over two decades of experimentation and refinement, we have developed a learning platform that handles almost all pre- and post-learning activities. Communications are managed to ensure every individual learner and manager receives timely, targeted learning preparation, reinforcement, and enhancement. The efficiencies gained not only save time, but promote a consistent learning experience that helps learners stay on track and engaged rather than drifting away from the learning agenda.
Use Both Push and Pull
It’s clear that a passive approach to learning transfer doesn’t work. In one study of a learning transfer initiative, materials for further learning and reinforcement were made available through a learning portal and participants were invited to access and use them. We found that only about 5 percent went to the site, and as few as 1 percent returned more than once. The lesson learned is that materials need to be “pushed” out to the participants and opportunities need to be created to “pull” them back into the learning environment.
For example, on the “push” side, participants might be provided with an e-mail that includes an exercise, a short quiz, or other material that grabs their attention and engages them in some active way.
A “pull” strategy enhances learning by giving participants a link back to the learning environment, where they can learn more about applying a skill in a particular situation. For example, a participant might get a message reinforcing one skill that also includes a link back to a learning portal. The portal might offer tips and suggestions for addressing a different skill that might be more urgent to the participant.
For the learning transfer to be fully effective, it’s essential to integrate both push and pull tactics and ensure they are coordinated and working together.
Engage Managers Just as Much as Necessary (But Not More)
When people talk about the challenges of learning transfer, the most common complaint is that managers simply won’t take the time to become involved. But this problem is typically not a function of a lack of interest or motivation; rather, it’s a simple problem of the time crunch faced by overloaded managers. They say they would like to coach and be involved, but there just isn’t enough time to spend on it. Too often, training professionals mistakenly believe the task is to convince managers of the importance of learning transfer, and the need to make it a priority. From the manager’s point of view, the amount of time required just isn’t available. They want to be involved, but at a level that fits in with other responsibilities and priorities.
To achieve this balance, and give managers the opportunity to use their expertise and experience, they need tools and guidelines they can use without spending a lot of time creating messages, following up to make sure things are being done on time, and so forth.
To see how easy and effective it can be for managers to implement learning transfer, let’s look at a couple of examples.
In one case, managers needed to take part in an effort to build trust with their direct reports in a multicultural environment. The learning transfer effort could have been burdensome, as a number of reinforcement learning activities were planned to ensure high impact. To simplify the process, automatic messages were used to manage a variety of activities involving both managers and participants. Participant messages included links to videos, application planners, knowledge quizzes, and interactive learning games. Managers received messages that helped them simplify coaching on the targeted skills. One message included a “Meeting in a Box,” available to both managers and participants, that included an agenda, slides, handouts, and activities to be used in a group Best Practices meeting.
In this example, 96 percent of participants reported a significant increase in work productivity as a direct result of skills and tools used to enhance the learning. All of this was accomplished without additional effort on the part of managers, who simply could leverage the tools already being provided.
In another case, managers used tools and materials delivered by an automated system to enhance learning for a global high-tech company. In this case, the tools were used to help with the application of Action Planning and Goal Setting along with Best Practices for meetings.
Examples like this illustrate the difference it makes when managers are relieved of time-consuming administrative tasks often associated with learning transfer activities. Instead, they can concentrate their efforts on the important activities that have a real impact on results. The automated system delivers tools on a just-in-time basis, making the manager’s engagement easy.
When we look back on the years of trial and error with learning transfer, what stands out the most is that participants, managers, and stakeholders all want their investment of time and effort to pay off—everyone wants to see real results. And everyone understands that there is no payoff without the critical step of bringing the learning into the workplace. To make sure that happens, we’ve learned the value of making learning transfer practical and tactical, easy through automation, accessible and actionable through using both push and pull strategies, and carefully planned to minimize unnecessary burdens on managers’ time.
Michael Leimbach, Ph.D., is vice president of Global Research and Design for Wilson Learning Worldwide. With more than 25 years in the field, Dr. Leimbach provides leadership for researching and designing Wilson Learning’s diagnostic, learning, and performance improvement capabilities. Dr. Leimbach has managed major research studies in sales, leadership, and organizational effectiveness, and has developed Wilson Learning’s impact evaluation capability and return on investment models. The co-author of four books, Dr. Leimbach has served as a research consultant for a wide variety of global client organizations, is on the editorial board for the ADHR professional journal, and serves in a leadership role for the ISO technical committee TC232: Standards for Learning Service Providers.
Carl Eidson, Ph.D., is vice president ofBusiness Development for Wilson Learning Corporation. Dr. Eidson leads and coaches a virtual team of more than 100 independent distributors stretching from Toronto to Bogotá. To influence and impact results remotely, he leverages innovative communication technologies and virtual leadership skills to create systems for salesforce development, marketing campaigns, and client-centered promotional events. With a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology, he has co-authored articles on selecting top talent published in scholarly journals.
To learn more about the concepts shared in this article, contact Wilson Learning at 1.800.328.7937 or visit www.wilsonlearning-americas.com.