The gap widens

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Written by Robert Terry on 1 July 2013 in Features
Features

A new survey reveals a widening gap between trainers and the workplace, says Robert Terry

Every two years, the UK Learning Transfer Survey, which we carry out at ASK Europe, seeks to go beyond the academic research on learning transfer to understand what L&D practitioners actually do toensure that their training courses produce real business benefits.

The results of the 2012 survey were published in April 20131 and provide compelling evidence that, although learning transfer has become established as a mainstream activity in the majority of organisations, the dash to technology-enabled training observable in the organisational learnscape may threaten that progress as trainers seek to redefine their role for the digital era.

Trainers work harder to ensure learning transfer

Reported usage of the 66 surveyed practices, all of which have been shown in empirical research to have a positive impact on learning transfer, was up by an average of almost 6 per cent since the previous survey in 2010. Although respondents reported widely differing rates of usage of individual practices and some practices increased in usage while others fell, relative frequency of usage by category was remarkably stable over time.

The four categories of learning transfer practices that were reported to be most frequently used in 2010 remained so in 2012, with only the two least frequently used categories swapping places.

As was the case in the 2010 survey, L&D practitioners are still investing their greatest transfer efforts in the delivery of the learning experience. 'Event delivery' practices such as opportunities to practise new capabilities and use of real workplace examples are enshrined in training best-practice and are essential elements in any systematic approach to learning transfer.

Eight of the ten most frequently used learning transfer practices reported in the 2012 survey appear in the 'event delivery' category. This follows the pattern established in the 2010 survey and is consistent with the axiom that transfer cannot take place without good learning practice.

Survey results confirm that, when it comes to the design and delivery of learning events, the majority of trainers strive consistently to ensure that not only do participants learn, but they do so in a manner that supports subsequent transfer and application of new capabilities in the workplace. The 2.35 per cent increase in frequency of usage of practices in the 'event delivery' category reported by respondents from the already high base established in the 2010 survey is modest but welcome evidence of continuous improvement.

Prepare for success

The most marked improvement revealed in the 2012 survey was in the selection of people for training who are likely to transfer and apply what they have learned. Practices in the 'learner selection' category, which include select those with a known gap in their performance and select learners who are motivated to improve their workplace performance, experienced an average increase in usage of 26 per cent, with several reported to be used 40 per cent more frequently.

It is tempting to speculate that the challenging economic environment has encouraged L&D practitioners to view training as a 'reward' for people with potential rather than an entitlement for all. This strong improvement, albeit from a very low base in 2010, is very welcome but it still leaves 'learner selection' as only the fifth most frequently used of the six categories of transfer practices - and with plenty of room for improvement.

A significant increase in frequency of usage of 8 per cent was found in the transfer practices categorised as 'participant pre-work' (including such items as review personal development needs and learners meet with their line manager to discuss training needs). Within the category, there was, however, considerable volatility in the usage of individual practices. A particularly eye-catching result was the 28 per cent jump in the frequency of usage of complete online or other learning exercises, which could be interpreted as indicative of the pace with which digital delivery is replacing traditional 'chalk and talk' methodologies.

Although this improvement in overall usage is to be welcomed, it is still a cause for concern that these practices, which are on the whole cheap to implement and are known to deliver strong learning transfer effects, are not even more widely used.

A similar point could be made about usage of learning transfer practices in the 'pre-event communication' category (including items such as explain the significance of the training for learners' future progression and brief participants' line managers on their responsibilities). Although an average increase in usage of almost 4 per cent was reported for the category as a whole, once again there was considerable volatility.

Respondents reported a fall in the usage of such staples of the trainer's craft as state the learning objectives of the event and explain the relevance of the training. Conversely, they also reported a strong increase in the use of incentives designed to increase learners' motivation to put new capabilities to work. Learner motivation is a key factor in learning transfer and trainers who actively promote the explicit and implicit benefits of their courses, rather than merely their features will surely deliver better results for their learners and their organisations.

The practices in the 'pre-event communication' category are another fertile ground for improvement at little financial cost.

Is the workplace becoming a 'no-go' zone for trainers?

Although an increase in frequency of usage of almost 8 per cent was reported for the 'workplace environment' category, as in the 'participant pre-work', very different conclusions might be drawn from the findings. All but two of the practices in this category experienced an increase in the frequency of usage.

It is intriguing to note that the only two transfer practices in the 'workplace environment' category that experienced a drop in frequency of usage between 2010 and 2012 were those that dealt with 'accountability'. Trainers have long understood that holding learners to account if they fail to put new capabilities to work is beyond their remit. The same is true, if not more so, when it comes to learners' managers. It is, nonetheless, hugely disappointing to learn that accountability for training outcomes continues to decline as it raises broader concerns about the alignment of L&D strategies with other HR priorities, such as performance management and reward and remuneration.

Although the increase in frequency of usage of practices in this category is to be welcomed, practitioners might pause to reflect that, in 2010, transfer practices in the 'workplace environment' category (including items such as learners' use of learned content is assessed, learners are held accountable if they fail to transfer and apply new learning and line managers actively support learners in learning transfer) were the fifth most frequently used of the six categories. In 2012, 'workplace environment' fell to sixth.

The practices in the 'workplace environment' category have been proven to be among the most powerful sources of learning transfer. They are, therefore, the key to training effectiveness. Until such time as L&D practitioners have created the structures, processes and tools that will enable them to routinely achieve high frequency of usage of these practices, there is a danger that training will be viewed in some quarters as a necessary evil rather than as a source of competitive advantage.

Only one category of learning transfer practices experienced an overall decline in frequency of usage. As was the case in 2010, the second most frequently used category of transfer practices reported in the 2012 survey was 'research'. Uniquely among the six categories featured in the 2012 survey, all of the practices in this category declined in usage. Average frequency of usage in the category fell by 10 per cent, with individual practices such as consult with stakeholders and identify learning objectives falling by as much as 20 per cent.

The explanation for such a significant shift in practitioner behaviour away from practices that have historically been considered as essential good practice is likely to be complex and beyond the scope of the survey. However, when taken in conjunction with other findings drawn from this report, the impression created is that the gap between trainers and the businesses they serve, noted in 2010, has widened considerably in the last two years.

This may be a reflection of the economic realities that have seen training budgets slashed by 12 per cent and training department headcount fall by 5 per cent2. On the other hand, it may be an impression created by an acceleration (perhaps triggered by the recession) in the pace at which organisations are moving to digital distribution of learning content. Equally, it may be that trainers have still not found a way to break out of the classroom, virtual or otherwise, and make their mark in the workplace where the overwhelming majority of people development and performance improvement takes place.

Who are we fooling?

The concluding section of the UK Learning Transfer Survey invited respondents to estimate the proportion of training content that they believe is transferred and applied in their organisations. In 2010, respondents' estimate was 47 per cent. In 2012, it rose to 51 per cent. This improvement is in line with the 6 per cent increase in frequency of usage of the practices that lead to learning transfer but it is out of step with the published empirical evidence that suggests a figure between 15 and 20 per cent would be more likely.

Of course, it is possible that respondents to the survey were a self-selecting sample of particularly diligent L&D practitioners who really do achieve more than twice the proven average amount of transfer. On the other hand, it might be the case that, as an industry, we are routinely over-optimistic about just how much of the learning that we offer during formal training is actually put to work.

Do you want to be a curator or an activator?

The increase in frequency of usage of learning transfer practices reported in the 2012 UK Learning Transfer Survey should be applauded. At a time when training budgets and resources have been under extreme pressure, practitioners have not only embraced new learning methodologies to maintain the flow of learning opportunities, but have also worked harder than ever to make sure that those learning opportunities are converted into improved workplace performance.

Though there are still many low-cost opportunities for improvement, particularly in the way learners are selected, informed and prepared for learning events, practitioners have demonstrated a growing awareness of the world beyond the classroom door.

That said, it is also possible to detect in the results of the survey an intriguing sub-text. Historically, trainers have struggled to exert influence in the workplace, particularly after the learning experience. They frequently find themselves powerless to create the conditions in which learners will practise, master and apply new capabilities, even when so many managers show themselves to be unwilling or unable to take up that responsibility.

The headline survey finding was the sharp decline in the frequency of usage of transfer practices in the 'research' category, including such staples of the training canon as consult with other stakeholders, undertake a training needs analysis and identify new behaviours/improvements in performance/business outcomes. When taken together with the decline in accountability for training outcomes and the lack of alignment between L&D and other HR strategies, the impression is created that trainers might have accepted the relative weakness of their situation and are turning their focus elsewhere.

But to where? Well you might look no further than the dash to technology. In 2012, large organisations invested 15 per cent of their L&D budget in learning tools and technologies. Compared with 2009, twice as many organisations used learning management systems and learning content management systems and three times as many used rapid e-learning tools3.

Given the economic appeal of technology-based learning, could it be that practitioners are withdrawing from aspects of the frustrating and frequently thankless task of activating the improvements in performance that should flow from training and, instead, are focusing their energies on curating learning content? Let's hope not, because learning transfer becomes more, not less, important as the reliance on technology increases.

References

1 www.askeurope.com/learning-transfer-survey

2 Bersin by Deloitte UK Learning Factbook 2013 http://www.bersin.com/Practice/Detail.aspx?docid=16231&mode=search&p=Learning-@-Development

3 ibid

About the author

Robert Terry is chairman of organisation development specialist ASK Europe. He can be contacted via www.askeurope.com

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