Transfer of learning to the workplace continues to be a vexing problem for organizations. Twenty-two years ago Mary Broad and John Newstrom published their landmark book, Transfer of Training, in which they argued that not much training gets applied in the workplace.
Sadly, not much has changed since then. This is confirmed by a Linkedin discussion started by Charles Henderson in summer of 2013 that shows that transfer of learning (e.g., classroom, elearning) is still a huge challenge for trainers and other learning professionals.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Henderson asked members of the Linkedin “Learning, Education and Training Professionals Group” to answer this question:
IN 10 WORDS or LESS...Why do you think learners forget what they've learned so quickly?
It's probably safe to say that we've all experienced the letdown of discovering that one of our learners has forgotten some or most of what we helped them learn during training. IN 10 WORDS OR LESS...what's your take on the MAIN reason why this happens?
To date, Henderson has received over 900 comments to that question which he has catagorized into two types: 1) comments about the timing of the problem (intra-training, post-training, not related to training, or pre-training); and 2) comments about what or who is responsible for fixing the problem (curriculum, leadership/accountability, learners, facilitators). An analysis of these comments suggests that a large percentage of learning professionals believe that low retention of learning is primarily due to the relevance of course content and how that content is delivered.
A couple of things fascinate me about that Linkedin discussion. One is that nobody questioned the assertion that “…learners forget what they’ve learned so quickly.” Apparently, this is widely experienced by trainers, even with all that has been written and said over the past 22 years about how to ensure the transfer of learning.
Another thing that fascinates me about the responses to Henderson’s question is the lack of a systems view of learning and change. I think the answer to Henderson’s question has to be “all of the above”. Retention of learning is affected by what happens before, during, and after training and everyone is responsible for learners learning. Every employee has a stake in whether another employee remembers what they learned and applies that learning to help the organization be successful. Managers of learners, in particular, have an important role to play in helping employees remember and apply learning.
Call me naïve, but I’m always surprised at how little progress we've made in ensuring the transfer of learning. While the quality of instructional technology and the quality of instruction has improved tremendously in the past two decades, application of that learning in the workplace still does not happen often enough.