Who is responsible for learning transfer?

Written by Paul Matthews on 2 February 2018

Is it L&D, or the line managers?

I have heard many people in L&D say something like this: 'You asked for training; you got it. Job done. Our responsibility finishes at the end of the course. Learning transfer is not our responsibility.'

This attitude arises when L&D set themselves up as an order taker, as a shopkeeper. One tool which is commonly used by these shopkeepers is a traditional learning management system with its list of courses and events that people can book to attend.

It’s like ordering something off an online shopping site where the seller is not involved in any way with how the product will be used. Some even have a background algorithm that says, 'Other learners who attended this course also attended these other courses.'

A common lament I hear among L&D people is the lack of access to the top table and a lack of involvement in top-level decision making. I often find that the people with this lament are the very same people who have the shopkeeper attitude. Think about it. Would you as a senior decision maker in an organisation want to have the head shopkeeper from a small peripheral department at your board table? Not likely.

Employees look to their manager for a lead to understand what is rewarded and what is frowned upon.

So, start getting interested in how people are using your training courses, and why they order them in the first place. Assume that at least part of the process of learning transfer is your responsibility and notice how that shifts your thinking about your role as a trainer and as a course/programme designer. 

People want a training course to solve a problem they have. What is that problem? Become someone who solves problems for people rather than someone who just sells stuff that might be a solution? If we are buying anything other than a commodity, we really appreciate the expertise of a salesperson who takes the time and effort to find out what problem we are trying to solve and then guides us to a viable solution.

And often management says it’s not their responsibility either. They say that their job is operational excellence, not staff development. “L&D should be doing staff development.”

There are two aspects to this. One is that most management role job descriptions include a section that states their responsibility for developing the members of their team. If the job description does not include this responsibility, it should.

The second aspect, which they also cannot run away from, is that most of the learning that happens at work, happens on their watch in the general day to day workflow. The 70:20:10 learning model tells us this, and even a moment’s reflection also tells us this from our own experience of where we learned to do what we do at work.


What most managers don’t understand is that unbeknownst to them, they have superpowers. These powers manifest themselves every time the manager answers a question, delegates a task, has a conversation or has any other interaction with a team member.

They also manifest when a team member observes how their manager interacts with anybody else either directly or in any other way. By their actions, the manager sets the mini-culture within the team to be accountable or not, to learn or not, to blame or not, to help or not, to experiment or not, to seek excellence or not, to serve customers or not, to go the extra mile or not.

Employees look to their manager for a lead to understand what is rewarded and what is frowned upon.

Every manager has an immense effect on how their team functions and performs, and most of them don’t begin to comprehend the magnitude of their power. They are already ‘developing’ their team members to behave a certain way by being the manager they are, and they have far more power over developing/moulding team behaviour than L&D ever will.

A manager cannot abdicate their input into staff development because it is already baked into their role. The question is whether they become aware of their power and use it consciously, or whether they remain unaware and use it haphazardly.

Extract from upcoming book Learning Transfer at Work


About the author

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy. He is the author of “Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times” and “Capability at Work: How to Solve the Performance Puzzle”. 

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