Setting up learning for success

In the second of two articles on establishing successful learning, Paul Matthews examines collective responsibility

In the first article in this series we looked at getting clarity on the wants and expectations of the various stakeholders involved in a staff development programme.

If those wants and expectations involve employees changing the way they do their jobs, and that will usually be the case, a ‘team’ effort is needed for those objectives to be realised. This is one of the reasons that far too often the results of training programmes don’t meet expectations. The team does not coalesce around the programme to make it successful.

The learner is central, but without support from others, they are unlikely to fully operationalise the new information they learned on a training programme. That is, the learners seldom succeed on their own in converting their learning into the desired new behaviours and sustaining that new way of working.

All systems that require human interaction to function correctly are complex, and so require ongoing input to apply course corrections to keep them on track

This conversion of learning into useful action is at the heart of what is usually termed learning transfer. There are many reasons that the team does not swing into action to support a learner to operationalise their learning:

  • No one asked them to help
  • They don’t know how to help effectively
  • No one holds them accountable for helping
  • There is no ‘conductor’ to orchestrate the many strands of help required
  • The programme designers don’t design the required help into the programme
  • And more.

It’s very easy to blame the learner if the training is not transferred into action, but that ignores the shared responsibility for making that happen and getting value from the training spend.

If you need others to help make your programme a success, and you do, then how do you enrol them? Many will be stakeholders with a vested interest in the success of the programme, and you need to use that vested interest as a lever to elicit their contribution. If they want to get their outcome from the programme, they cannot sit on the side-lines. On the other hand, some of those who need to contribute will not benefit directly from the programme and so you need to appeal to their willingness to assist people grow and develop, and to support the greater good of the organisation.

Before you ask people to contribute, you need some idea of what you expect them to do, and this will come from your programme design. The design arises from what you are setting out to achieve, and this, the programme outcome, by now should have been agreed with the stakeholders. Given your programme outcomes, what activities do the learners need to engage in to convert their learning into sustained and beneficial action?

Turning learning into action will require experimentation, reflection, practise, feedback, discussion, research, study, persistence, and more. It will require a sequence of activities over time to start and embed the new behaviours into the learners’ day-to-day work. This sequence of activities is called a learning workflow. Given the behavioural outcome, what are the activities required to make up a learning workflow that will result in the desired outcome, and what support is needed by the learner for each activity? Who needs to provide that support and what form should it take?

Unfortunately, there is no formula for this. Delivering a successful learning initiative is complex rather than complicated. Complicated means that it is not simple, but it is ultimately knowable. Given enough time and expertise, complicated stuff can be figured out. On the other hand, complex means it is also not simple, but due to the many variables that interact, it is never fully knowable, and is hard to predict or control.

All systems that require human interaction to function correctly are complex, and so require ongoing input to apply course corrections to keep them on track. You cannot ‘set and forget’ and expect them to run without ongoing input. Experts in this field often talk about abandoning the idea of controlling complex systems and instead focusing on intelligently influencing them.

When you apply this to your training initiative this means you need to be involved throughout the whole cycle of the learning workflow so you can intelligently influence the programme and all those collaborating to support the programme and the success of the learners.

Another way to approach the need for shared responsibility as a prerequisite for programme success is to use the 12 levers of transfer effectiveness model developed by Dr Ina Weinbauer-Heidel. Through her research she identified over a hundred factors affecting learning transfer which she organised into 12 practical levers. The 12 levers relate to the mindset of the learner, the design of the programme, and the environment/culture within which the programme takes place.

Consider each lever in turn and who needs to be involved to pull that lever and enhance learning transfer. It is not possible for one person to pull all the levers – it needs to be a collaborative effort. Talk through each of the 12 levers with your stakeholders to agree which levers they need to help pull and how they will contribute. A significant advantage of using this model is its solid grounding in research. This makes it very difficult for the stakeholders to refute the need for their input, although of course they could still withhold their support.

Garnering and perhaps even mandating support is where you need suitable levels of senior executive sponsorship to hold people accountable for their necessary participation in the programme. If people sit on the sidelines of the programme, the programme will fail to meet the expectations of the stakeholders.

Setting up a training programme for success requires clarity of outcomes and expectations as outlined in part 1, followed by clarity on who needs to contribute to the programme to achieve those outcomes.

Setting up learning for success – part 1

Paul Matthews is founder of People Alchemy

Paul Matthews

Learn More →