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Transfer of Training: A Case Study

by AIMM MAITD

Training Transfer Reviews

Following the rollout of strategically and operationally significant training programs, I conduct post-implementation reviews. During these reviews, I survey training participants and their managers using questionnaires, focus groups and interviews. My aim here is to find out those factors that helped training participants apply the skills they learned to their job and those that hindered them from doing so.

This process of applying newly learned skills from a training program to the participant's work on the job is called transfer of training. The problem of training transfer is well recognized within the training industry, with some estimates putting the level of application of skills on the job at around a meager 20%. We all have an interest then in ascertaining just how successful training transfer was after our last big-budget training program.

The organization that is the subject of the case study below is a leading financial services business in the Asia-Pacific region. The multi-faceted training program trained some 80 Business Analysts in basic business analysis tools and techniques using classroom theory sessions, workshops and online modules.

I conducted surveys and interviews four months after participants completed the last of the online modules. This allowed participants sufficient time to apply the skills and knowledge learned back on the job.

The questionnaire part of the study elicited observations of on-the-job behaviors from participants using self-reports. The completion rate for this questionnaire was 79%. Following completion of the surveys, I conducted three Focus Group meetings with the survey respondents.

In order to minimize perceptual bias, I also conducted patterned interviews with participants' Team Leaders and Project Managers who had first-hand experience of the Business Analysts' activities and work products.

I have summarized the results of this study using a Force Field diagram in Figure 1 below. By way of explanation, a Force Field diagram illustrates the forces for and against achieving a particular goal. The goal is positioned in the centre of the diagram, with the forces helping achievement placed on the left and the forces against placed on the right. The goal of training transfer in this case is for the Business Analysts to apply each of their new business analysis skills on existing and new projects.

Figure 1 – Force Field diagram indicating forces for and against workplace skills application

Force Field diagram indicating forces for and against workplace skills application

As the Force Field diagram illustrates, the most significant factors enabling transfer of training to the job were:

  1. there was ample opportunity to apply the learned knowledge and skills back in the workplace
  2. the learnings were relevant to the Business Analyst's role and could be applied practically
  3. the Business Analyst received support from their managers

Regarding manager support, participants' perception of the importance of this aspect is reflected in the following comment from a survey participant:

I am able to apply what I learn from the course to my current role, with support from my manager and colleagues.

I want to look now at the most significant factors that inhibited the transfer of training to the job. In this study, the most cited reason for not applying the training was the lack of opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills learned once the participants returned to the workplace. The lack of opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills learned was an oft repeated theme in the participants' survey comments. Below are typical examples:

As I have not had the opportunity to apply the skills and knowledge, my recollection of the course content is now rather vague.

It's not that the new skills I learnt weren't of benefit. It's just that in my current job the opportunity has been limited in terms of developing Business Analysis skills.

Without the opportunity to apply the learning, skills will quickly extinguish. The reality of skill extinction from lack of use was recognized by participants with survey comments such as the following:

As time elapses and I do not use these new skills, I am sure they will eventually be forgotten.

A less significant reason cited was that the learnings were not practical for the participant's work situation. All of these reasons indicate either a mismatch between the participant's role and responsibilities and the training objectives or a poor linkage between the Business Analyst's participation in the training and their manager's performance expectations back on the job.

In order to ascertain the level of role congruity between training participants, Team Leaders and Project Managers, I asked all three groups which skills were relevant to the Business Analyst role in their area/project. The results clearly demonstrated that in one particular department, there was at least some form of task disagreement around seven of the ten skills taught in the program.

The Force Field diagram above summarizes the key factors inhibiting the participants' transfer of learning to the job post-training. The main factors uncovered by this study were:

  1. the lack of job rotation of staff between the two departments
  2. the lack of role agreement with Team Leaders and Project Managers
  3. the lack of mentoring resources available on projects
  4. the minimal number of pre-course and post-course manager/staff briefings
  5. the minimal amount of learning goal setting and goal review activities
  6. the low attendance of Managers, Project Managers and Team Leaders at courses
  7. the minimal amount of performance feedback to training participants

Looking at both the enhancing and inhibiting factors illustrated on the Force Field diagram, we can also conclude that:

  1. the factors inhibiting workplace application far outnumber those assisting, and
  2. the inhibiting factors all relate to the workplace environment

This result is typical of what I have found in other organizations and emphasizes the critical role that workplace systems and culture play in moving from simply conducting training activities to focusing on improved employee and organizational performance.

Training Transfer and Workplace Environment

In the past few years, workplace environment factors have received more attention from researchers investigating the "problem of training transfer". Current research indicates that the extent to which training is transferred back in the workplace is dependent on three variables:

  1. individual participant attributes
  2. training design and delivery
  3. workplace climate

If you are a manager or trainer, you cannot do much about the first variable, except work to ensure that the people who genuinely need training are the only ones who attend. In addition, where appropriate, you could pre-qualify training program attendees. For example, you could bar people with low motivation or poor literacy skills.

However, if you do this you will need to proceed with great caution, as you may fall foul of anti-discrimination laws and in the end subvert the very goals you are trying to achieve. Consider the impact that preventing otherwise eligible participants from attending will have on other participants. Will they treat such actions as "unfair" or "harsh"? And if so, how will their desire to complete the program be affected and what will they tell others?

The second variable is about the quality of the training design and delivery. For training transfer to occur, the training methods need to be matched to the learning content, the training objectives and training participant preferences. Training also needs to progress from simple concepts and activities to the more complex, or from an overview to progressively more detailed treatment of the subject matter.

Training content must also be "chunked" appropriately to allow trainees to assimilate new material and to practice. Participants' preferred learning styles and modes of delivery also need to be taken into account. Without doubt, the quality of training design and delivery is critically important for achieving organizational outcomes.

However, it is the third factor, workplace climate, which accounts for a greater variation in training transfer than either of the other two factors. What is meant by workplace climate is the way in which members of an organization view and use the organization's structures, relationships, rules and history. Workplace climate has an observable dimension in the visible symbols and artifacts of the organization and behaviors of its members. Ceremonies, awards and managerial directives are examples of these. Workplace climate also has a non-observable dimension. Included here are the beliefs, desires and values of its members.

Workplace Climate and Behavior Change

It is this workplace climate that provides the organizational context for training undertaken by employees. It is from where the training participant comes and to where they will return at the conclusion of the training. The upshot here is that what happens before and after the training event has a significant impact on the effectiveness of any training programs you implement.

How can workplace climate be so important for the success of your training program? I want to direct your attention for a moment to what it is you want as a result of the training that you conduct. We are all agreed that you want improved organizational outcomes. You may want more sales from your salespeople; you may want higher levels of innovation from your engineers; you may want less customer returns; or you may want faster time to market for new products.

How any of these improvements come about is by your people behaving differently back on the job. It is of no use having your training participants' heads filled with information if they can't remember it or can't apply it. And it's of no use being able to apply it if they don't want to apply it or are prevented from applying it by others in the organization.

The salient point from my studies of training transfer and workplace performance is that training participant attitudes and abilities are important, along with good training design and delivery. However, it's what happens in the participant's workplace before and after training that most influences whether they will apply the learning on the job. And isn't changing workplace behavior through skill application what workplace training is all about?

The above is a condensed adaptation from Leslie Allan's book, From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance.

© Copyright Leslie Allan

About the Author
Leslie Allan

Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd; a management consulting firm specializing in people and process capability. He has been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as project manager, consultant and trainer for organizations large and small.

He is also the author of five books on training and change management and is the creator of various training tools and templates. Leslie is a member of the Australian Institute of Management and the Quality Society of Australasia. He is also a member of the Divisional Council of the Victorian Division of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD). Leslie may be contacted by email at office@businessperform.com

Leslie Recommends
From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance

Find out more about how to improve transfer of training and affect real behavior change in the workplace. Check out Leslie Allan's comprehensive guide and workbook on improving workplace performance through training. Visit the From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance information portal to find out how to download the free Introductory Chapter and start using Leslie's comprehensive employee performance guide and toolkit today.

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