Magazine excerpt: The weakest link

Paul Matthews argues that to deliver performance improvement we must focus on learning transfer.

I am getting over my surprise at the wide variety of meanings that L&D people ascribe to the term ‘learning transfer’ and also my surprise that many don’t seem to know what the term means, or they have heard of it, but never given it any thought. What does the term mean to you?

Think about it. The goal of training is to make the learning gained from the training experience portable, so that the learner takes it to new places where it is used.

Learning transfer underpins the whole notion of training, and yet too often we focus on the transmission of information from the trainer to the delegate, and then the retention of the information by the delegate. We often overlook the primary purpose of organisational training, which is to achieve performance improvement.

Every definition I have seen talks about the application of learning so the term ‘learning transfer’, or ‘training transfer’, means much more than just transfer, or movement, of learning from one place to another. It also means the translation of that learning into effective action that improves job performance that is beneficial within the context of the workflow.

A very commonly used definition comes from a 1988 paper by Baldwin and Ford. “Training transfer is the extent to which trainees effectively use the knowledge, skills and attitudes they have acquired through training in the work context.”[1]

Transfer rates vary but studies consistently show that only 10-30% of learning from a training course is transferred into the workflow.

The corporate training market is currently more than $200bn annually around the world [2] and studies have shown that failure of transfer from the training setting to the job is common. 

Transfer rates vary but studies consistently show that only 10-30% of learning from a training course is transferred into the workflow. If over 70% of the training spend is wasted that means around $140bn or more is wasted on training events around the world. How much is your organisation contributing to that waste each year?

It is little wonder that employers are increasingly demanding that training yields a measurable and meaningful return on their investment. If a training programme does not achieve significant transfer and deployment of the learning, followed by specific improvements in employee performance and results, it’s not worth much. In fact, maybe it’s not worth doing at all! 

Knowledge acquisition

We should be aware that the term ‘learning transfer’ can have other meanings in other contexts. For example, in the education sector, it usually means the transfer of ‘learning’ from teacher to student, so perhaps a better term in education would be ‘knowledge acquisition’.

This acquisition of knowledge lends itself to being tested later by exams for its retention, and in education, exam results, rather than future performance, are a measure of success.

Learning transfer in a work rather than educational context, therefore, is a process that takes place to a lesser or greater degree following a training course, or other formal learning intervention, and the degree to which it occurs has a direct impact on the value the organisation will harvest from its investment in those formal learning interventions.

It has been said that to avoid a learning transfer problem, don’t do any training. Instead do other things that bring learning, and tasks that embed behaviour change, directly into the workflow. 


This is an abridged version of an article from July’s magazine. To read the full article subscribe to TJ magazine here

However, I cannot see training disappearing any time soon. It is still the mainstay intervention of most learning and development departments and, of course, there are some circumstances where learning in the workflow is simply too risky.

Having said that, there is considerable pressure to reduce the amount of face-to-face training because it is seen as costly, and because on its own it generally does not produce the results that are needed for business success.

It’s interesting that people are seeking to reduce training rather than fix the major issue with it which, in my opinion, is lack of learning transfer. Is this quest to reduce traditional training time a result of disillusionment with training as a tool? Is it because people feel there must be something better? Or is it simply a way to reduce costs? 

If we get learning transfer right, training is a viable tool to use in the quest for improving organisational performance. This in no way means that all training currently taking place should be taking place with some learning transfer activities bolted on to it.

[1] Baldwin, T T and Ford, J K, 1988, ‘Transfer of Training: A Review andDirecti ons for Future Research’, Personnel Psychology, 41(1): pp.63-105.
[2] Proprietary Bersin by Deloitte research,


About the author

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy. Paul will be one of three speakers on the 10 July #TJwow webinar asking: How do you ensure learning transfer from your training? To register for your free place click here.


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