Creating Learning That Transfers

Trainers must focus on what they want learners to do at each stage of a learning cycle: engage in the content, participate in the learning, and then activate new behaviors.

According to psychologist Robert Brinkerkoff, data tells us that fewer than 15 percent of participants of training successfully use what they learn. And research into how we learn explains why: As Learning professionals, we’re thinking about workplace training the wrong way.

Traditionally, training focuses on the event: We plan it, make sure people attend, and hope they learn something while they’re there. But our job isn’t to help people learn; it’s to help them solve problems in the real world. Transfer—not the event—should be the hero. Actually, the word, “transfer,” is misleading as it implies that knowledge is collected in the classroom and carried back to our desks. That is not true.

We need to put the learners—not the event—at the center of our thinking and design experiences that maximize the chances of them putting new skills into action. Rather than thinking about before, during, and after an event, we should focus on what we want the learners to do at each stage of a learning cycle: engage in the content, participate in the learning, and then activate new behaviors.

Not only has this participant-centered approach proven to produce greater transfer and reach business outcomes faster, it’s also cheaper than traditional training. Christopher Leady, head of Learning and Development at Campbell Soup Company, partnered with Mind Gym to implement a distributed journey of bite-size learning sessions (workouts) based on the engage-participate-activate cycle. Several instructional and programmatic design principles made the program a success.

To drive engagement and capture attention, Campbell launched a dynamic and colorful marketing campaign to promote “WOW” or “Workout Wednesdays.” This series of bi-weekly 90-minute workouts uses scientifically grounded principles of learning to create an environment where people actively take part. The short, sharp sessions offer attendees one or two practical tools to try immediately, rather than reams of theory. For Leady, bite-size sessions and immediate applicability are fundamental to successful transfer. “At Campbell, we don’t subscribe to a scholarly approach, wrapped in theory,” he says. “It’s a matter of being pragmatic. people walk away with something they can do differently tomorrow.”

Workouts combine bursts of high-energy practice with reflection time, maintaining learners’ attention so they take in and remember more. In an employee survey, Leady discovered a demand for bite-size learning. “Almost unanimously, people said, ‘Eighthour sessions are too much,’” he explains. “Most prefer between 90 minutes and four hours, depending on the topic. Given that everyone has busy lives and short attention spans, we err toward shorter sessions. I love the approach of getting people moving every seven minutes to make sure they’re engaged— it’s adult learning theory at its best.”

A study from the American Psychological Association focusing on a meta-analytic review of the distribution of practice effect showed that bi-weekly workouts add a distributed aspect to the learning, which results in better, longer-lasting learning. Evidence in an article by Lila Davachi, Ph.D., and Leib Litman, Ph.D., suggests that a distributed approach delivers a 17 percent greater performance improvement than traditional massed practice.

But attention alone is not enough. Perceived relevance most strongly correlates with engagement and transfer, so in addition to a quirky engagement campaign, Campbell’s program had to be relevant to employees’ everyday jobs. “If learning is not immediately applicable, chances are employees will not do anything with it,” says Leady. “Learning needs to be applicable in real time.”

Additionally, Campbell offers “a la carte learning”—a menu of several bite-size sessions so participants can select the ones best suited to their individual needs. As well as balancing choice and scale, this approach means learners are psychologically invested in the sessions from the get-go.

Of the engage-participate-activate cycle, Leady believes the engage part is paramount to realize the most from a learning investment. “If you take an outside-in approach to learning by engaging people with resources that are relevant to their success, support the business outcomes they are working to achieve, and are easy to apply, the benefits themselves become a key motivational driver,” he notes.

Nevertheless, Campbell invests just as much in triggering activation, because “that’s where true application is put to the test,” Leady adds.

Each Campbell workout is followed immediately by a Pledge to put the learning into practice. Far from vague action planning—which rarely translates into action doing—a Pledge is a specific and public commitment in which participants use “if… then…” implementation intentions to specify how and when they’ll use their new skills. Cementing the promise by sharing it with peers increases accountability and the likelihood of it happening.

To further trigger activation, each workout is accompanied by a Mission: a practical task built into participants’ workflow. The biggest obstacle to transfer, according to participants, is not having the opportunity to use new skills, as noted by training researchers D.H. Lim and S.D. Johnson. The Mission removes this obstacle by making transfer opportunities obvious. As Missions are part of people’s routines—they’re about approaching something differently, rather than doing something “extra”—they’re far more likely to be completed.

An added incentive to complete the Mission is the Booster session, where participants regroup to share successes and challenges and learn from their peers. Research in the Journal of Applied Psychology showed that during a leadership program, after action reviews in which participants reflect on what’s working and what’s not led to a significant increase in leadership ability.

After the Booster? Back to the beginning of the cycle, with another bite-size session exploring another skill. It could be a workout, or it could be a live action—a “flipped classroom” approach in which the content is introduced in pre-work, followed by learners spending 90 minutes practicing their skills in real-life scenarios. It equally could be informal learning or online learning via a social network. Whatever the next experience, the cyclical nature of the program builds momentum and maintains engagement.

Manager support is vital in sustaining the learning. At Campbell, employees add learning to their formal development plan and meet their managers before and after a workout to discuss what they want to get out of it and how they’ll apply the techniques. Coaching and feedback play an important role.

“Being able to get feedback from peers, managers, and leaders on how you’re performing is critical to success,” explains Leady. Feedback also helps build the whole team’s capability; “a continuous feedback loop is like a flow of energy, making us collectively stronger and able to achieve greater contributions.”

Indeed, a principle of the engage-participate-activate approach is targeting not just learners but the social and cultural context in which they learn. Such a team-wide approach plays out in the demand for learning at Campbell. “Initially, the program was open enrollment; however, we now have several areas within the company requesting to “work out” as a team,” Leady says. “Collective skill building has a more powerful impact on learning transfer and application as participants have a network of people to engage with and support their learning journey. Correspondingly, there is also a shift in network performance as capabilities of the entire team expand.”

It’s not just individuals and teams who benefit from this cycle. Ultimately, the program is designed to boost business performance. Each workout was selected to drive a high-performance culture—a strategic priority for Campbell. By distilling business needs into practical behaviors and delivering a program that encourages these behaviors to become habits, the intervention caters to individual learning needs and delivers business results. In Campbell’s case, the proof is in the soup.

Dr. Sebastian Bailey is a thought leader, best-selling author, and co-founder and president of the U.S. branch of Mind Gym, a people consultancy that effectively transforms the way people think, act, and behave at work and at home. Co-authored with Mind Gym co-founder Octavious Black, Dr. Bailey’s latest book is “Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently” (September 2014). Dr. Bailey writes an online column for Forbes at


Training magazine is the industry standard for professional development and news for training, human resources and business management professionals in all industries.