Maximizing Learning Transfer

Top 10 best practices for learning transfer.

By Raed S. Haddad, Senior Vice President, Global Delivery Services, ESI International

It’s not just what you know; it’s how you use what you know. Attending a training class without proper post-course knowledge application and integration is a futile, yet common practice. In fact, a recent study shows that organizations estimate a high level of learning transfer to the workplace, but the reality does not bear that estimate out.

To identify breakdowns in the transfer of learning and develop best practices for addressing these gaps, ESI International, an international provider of project management-centric learning, conducted a survey in March 2011. Titled Applying Training and Transferring Learning to the Workplace: How to Turn Hope into Reality, the global study highlights the shortfalls in applying training and opportunities for improvement.

Identifying Areas for Improvement

More than 3,000 government and commercial training-related managers assessed three key phases in the application and transfer of learning: pre-training strategies, post-training reinforcement, and rewards or incentives used to motivate employees.

Overall, the study highlights several weak areas in the on-the-job application of learning, including manager support, trainee preparation, incentives, and an overall formal design and measurement process. Findings show that:

  • 60 percent of those surveyed do not have a systematic approach to preparing a trainee to transfer, or apply, learning on the job.
  • When asked what specific rewards motivate trainees, almost 60 percent say the “possibility of more responsibility,” followed closely by an impact on their HR/performance review. Only 20 percent indicate there is any financial reward or other incentives.
  • 63 percent say managers formally endorse the program, while only 23 percent of managers hold more formal pre- and post-training discussions.
  • To motivate trainees to apply what they have learned, the majority of respondents (75.1 percent) say they make sure training supports the goals of the organization, followed by 57.3 percent who make sure the trainee has the necessary time, tools, and investment for the application of learning.
  • The top three strategies indicated as the most important for the transfer of learning are:
  • Trainees have the time, resources, and responsibility to apply learning (30 percent).
  • Manager support (23.8 percent).
  • The instruction approach simulates the actual work environment (21.8 percent).

It is interesting to note that pre-training preparation and post instruction reinforcement receive much lower marks.

But most surprising, the study suggests that organizations start out optimistic and hopeful that they are fully committed and engaged in the transfer of learning, but upon further questioning, one finds that hope and reality are two very different things when it comes to the transfer of learning in the workplace.

For example, while two-thirds of respondents estimate they apply more than 25 percent of training knowledge back on the job, they have little concrete proof. Almost 60 percent say the primary method for proving or measuring this estimate is either informal/anecdotal feedback or “simply a guess.”

The study points out some striking contradictions in how well organizations think they transfer learning and the lack of proof to back up their estimate of learning transfer or on-the-job application. Client experience at ESI shows us that organizations often fail to establish success criteria or identify expectations for learning engagements. This is a key pre-training strategy in order to measure trainee performance against agreed-upon standards.

More encouraging is that when it comes to post-learning tools and programs, survey responses showemployees leveraging an ever-expanding array of tactics to recall information learned during training, including post-course discussions with the manager or team leader, on-the-job tools, informal support such as social networks or online forums, and communities of practice such as peer groups and coaching.

Ways to Increase the Application of Learning

ESI International took feedback from the survey and added its own client experience to develop a list of the Top 10 best practices for learning transfer.

  1. Define the value the training program is bringing to employees and the business: Executives will expect that learning maximizes returns, increases agility, minimizes risk, and/or improves performance.
  2. Establish success criteria: This is a key pre-training strategy so that one can measure trainee performance against agreed-upon standards.
  3. Design with on-the-job application in mind: Make sure to align training with company strategy and overall company core competencies.
  4. Consider more training, or market what you have: Make training mandatory and tie it to certification.
  5. Establish a systematic process to prepare individuals to apply what they have learned: Involve managers and trainees in the design and follow-on application.
  6. Establish an incentive “program” that really motivates: If monetary rewards are out of the question for most organizations, then consider offering “moments” that instill pride and serve as an incentive for an employee, such as a lunch with the CEO.
  7. Address the manager problem: Managers must do more than simply endorse a training program. They should have clear responsibilities and provide tactical support every step of the way, including developing a plan for learning transfer, holding formal pre- and post-training discussions, and ensuring post-instruction reinforcement.
  8. Measure learning transfer or business impact: Trainees should understand that the organization or sponsor expects them to apply what is learned and that there will be an assessment of training impact by collecting data from them and other stakeholders, such as clients.
  9. Treat learning transfer as a project: Post-training reports and performance data should be transparent and shared within the organization.
  10. Focus on change management: Communicate the vision and reasons why a change in knowledge/skills/competencies is needed to support the company’s growth/future strategy.

Learning can and should be a critical business process. With proper planning, training can “stick” and result in learning transfer that affects not only individual or team performance, but also has a significant impact on the strategic and financial goals of an organization.

For a free copy of the full ESI study, “Applying Training and Transferring Learning to the Workplace: How to Turn Hope into Reality,” visit

Raed Haddad, senior vice president, Global Delivery Services, ESI International, has more than 25 years of multicultural, project management expertise across a range of industries, including health care, technology, government, telecom, and financial services. He brings his insights to executive audiences worldwide in the areas of project management, talent management and performance improvement program measurement. For more information, visit

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.