The vexed question of learning transfer and why you might need to rethink your training programs
A Deloitte study I came across recently suggested that global expenditure on corporate training was well in excess of $130Billion. These are old figures now, so let’s just assume that we collectively spend an awful lot on training. Is it worth it? To what extent does training stick?
I was interested in this Deloitte article because it was describing a shift from ‘push’ to ‘pull’ training: a shift from ‘attend this training day and go back to doing what you were before’ to a self-directed model of ‘learning and development as a continuous process, with training pulled seamlessly through computers or mobile devices anywhere, anytime.’ (Deloitte, 2014)
While I think this push-pull change addresses part of the problem of making training stick, I don't think it’s the whole solution by a long shot.
Why doesn't training stick?
Elsewhere I have described the problem of learning transfer in corporate settings. Gahan et al (2016) note frontline management training issues such as: inadequate budgets ; lack of connection to strategy; too few learning modalities; to little connection to leadership competencies; and a failure to address the gradual nature of learning and consequently, behavioural change. Other commentators talk about lack of senior leadership support, lack of relevance and lack of followup. There’s an extensive list of deficits here!
What makes training stick?
The same commentators describe some bright spots in the training landscape. They say that moves towards multi-faceted, multi-layered development programs, as opposed to the ‘sheep dip’ or ‘one and done’ approach, are promising in increasing learning transfer and behavioural change.
These multiple approaches could include training, 360 feedback, stretch and rotation assignments, recalls, varied learning objects (podcasts, videos, online learning communities) as well as the ‘pull’ approach described by Deloitte. Others note that relevance of the content to real-life issues, follow-up through coaching, and an affective commitment to the process are all extremely helpful.
Do adults learn differently?
A friend of mine has done a lot of work in adult learning, both in community and corporate contexts. She tells me there’s some debate about whether adult learning is really a ‘thing’. A lot of people have critiqued the idea of ‘andragogy’ (adult learning) as opposed to ‘pedagogy’ (children’s learning), saying that essentially they are no different.
However in discussing our corporate experience, we agreed that a lot of the principles of andragogy (most notably promoted by Malcolm Knowles) are very relevant to the workplace context. Indeed they cross over a lot of those multi-faceted approaches identified above.
What helps adults learn?
Adults learn well if they can bring their extensive experience to the table, if they can apply the learning immediately to real life problems, and if they can be relatively self-directed or independent in taking charge of their own learning. There’s also a recognition that learning is a gradual thing, requiring support, follow-up and encouragement along the way.
I’m not saying kids don't benefit from all these conditions, but let’s face it, with the competing pressures in the corporate world, a manager is not going to be invested in a program that is not highly relevant and immediately applicable. Another thing about adults is that they have to feel that it’s OK to fail or make a fool of themselves. In my parenting experience, kids are more willing to jump in and ‘have a go’, so we need to make it OK for adults to do so as well.
Another learning attribute I think is important for maximising corporate development effectiveness is a ‘lifelong learning’ orientation. I’m not talking about being a serial workshop junkie! I’m talking about developing a spirit of inquiry in which you maintain an open mind, and a willingness to learn new things and make changes. Easy for children, harder for adults.
Grab teachable moments
This kind of learning readiness lends itself to ‘teachable moments’. In the world of coaching these moments are gold. These are the real time incidents that we can grab and learn from. For example, you suddenly find yourself in an interpersonal or power conflict that has arisen from some ambiguous wording on an email. This is a silly slip of the pen but it can spiral out of control (Think Trump and North Korea right now). You need to understand how it happened, and take steps to repair relationships and email practices. There’s always something to learn in the moment.
Teachable moments might be repeats of experiences you’ve had many times. Doesn't matter. We grab what is happening right now, and learn from it. Coaching is ideal for this learning.
Rethinking our programs
For all these reasons listed above, we are spending a lot of time developing coaching –based learning interventions that are multi-faceted and relevant to both strategy and manager needs. We want to utilise the best in learning principles and harness the power of immediacy – teachable moments. It’s a complex puzzle but very exciting for us!
Are you rethinking your training programs?
What are the positives and negatives of your manager development programs? Let’s start a conversation! We also welcome contributors to our Executive Central Blog, if you would like to share ideas on leadership development.