Accountability in learning transfer

Share this page

Written by Paul Matthews on 21 May 2018

Learning transfer is rather important isn’t it?

By learning transfer I mean the implementation of ‘learning’ that has happened in a prior formal event such as a training course. Every definition I have seen talks about the application of learning, so the term ‘Learning 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 and is beneficial within the context of that workflow.

If the training programme does not achieve significant learning transfer, and therefore business impact, it’s not worth much! Training without catering sufficiently for learning transfer is a waste of time and money, so learning transfer is important and should be done.

It is also possible to do. This is not a new concept. The research goes back nearly 120 years! And yet people avoid rolling up their sleeves and getting on with it. Who is responsible for making it happen, and who should be held accountable if it doesn’t happen? In other words, 'when and where does the buck stop?'

Stop and think for a moment about the last training course you were involved with. Who was accountable for making sure learning transfer happened? When I ask that question, very few people have an answer. In other important organisational activities someone is accountable, so what’s different about learning transfer?

If you are going to hold somebody accountable for producing a specific set of results, you need to be able to measure those results to understand the level of success.

One of the reasons is that the activities required for successful learning transfer come from many people across different departments, and it is most unlikely that each person will do their bit and the parts will magically coalesce into a successful programme.

Somebody needs to be the conductor of the orchestra.

The conductor in turn requires each of the members of the orchestra to contribute the part they need to play to perform the symphony. And then somebody else, perhaps whoever booked and paid for the orchestra to perform, is holding the conductor accountable for the quality of the performance.

And who holds the event organiser accountable? Perhaps the people who paid for tickets to attend the concert. There is inevitably a chain of accountability.

Now, think back again to the last training course you were involved with. What was, or should have been, the chain of accountability, perhaps even starting with the shareholders? Where did the chain break? If you fix that link in the chain, are there more weak links further down the chain that will then break?

Then take a step back and consider how accountability plays out in the organisation. Accountability is a facet of organisational culture, often driven from the top. Does the senior team take ownership? Do they accept accountability or are they full of excuses?


It is easy to say that a person should be accountable, but for delegated accountability to be effective, it must also be accepted. No-one wants to be held accountable for something that is likely to fail; that is a poisoned chalice. Alongside delegating accountability, you must also ask people if they have everything they need to be successful.

If they say ‘yes’ then they are well on the way to accepting ownership and the fact that they are accountable. If they say ‘no’ then they will not take ownership and if/when things go wrong they will drop into spectator mode and watch as things fail. You might even get ‘I told you so’ comments.

On the other hand, if they feel a sense of ownership because they have accepted accountability, they will step in when things go wrong to solve the problem.

Accountability is not a set and forget status. Each person in the accountability chain does need to do some ‘counting’. That’s the origin of the word! They should be holding regular reviews and checking the results being achieved by the person that they are holding accountable for those results.

And of course, to do any of this, there must be measures in place. If you are going to hold somebody accountable for producing a specific set of results, you need to be able to measure those results to understand the level of success. In addition to defining the accountability chain, there must also be an understanding of the specifics of what each person in the chain is accountable for.

This is an extract from Paul's upcoming book Learning Transfer at Work: How to Ensure Training >> Performance


About the author

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, learning transfer, performance consultancy, and how Learning & Development can help achieve business targets.

Related Articles