Maximizing Transfer of Training - Transfer of Learning

Harold D. Stolovitch

Why do we train? Simple question. Complex response. The obvious answer is so that people can perform well in their jobs. However, the reality of training is often quite different. Mixed in are such factors as career enhancement, competitive edge, reward/punishment for past deeds and myriad other reasons.

From a human performance technology perspective, training is appropriate for overcoming skill or knowledge (S/K) gaps. These gaps can occur because of new job requirements - hence new skills or knowledge are needed - or because current performance is insufficient due to missing S/K.

CLICK to see full scaleAssuming that there is a S/K gap, we target suitable populations, develop programs and send people to training. Figure 1 shows anticipated results of these efforts. Since training is a costly venture that consumes resources and removes workers from productive tasks, we expect the anticipated improved performance to significantly exceed costs. Reality, however, is usually very different, as illustrated in Figure 2. Most studies on transfer of training to the job, where the participants are supposed to apply new learning, reveal disappointing results.

Here are two typical quotes from the literature:

"American industries annually spend more than $100 billion on training…not more than 10% of the expenditures actually result in transfer to the job." (Baldwin & Ford, 1988.) (This finding was reconfirmed by Ford & Weissbein, 1997.)

"Most of the investment in organizational wasted because most of the knowledge and skills gained...(well over 80 percent by some estimates) is not fully applied by those employees on the job. (Broad & Newstrom, 1992.)

Why these dismal results?

Stolovitch and Maurice (1998) examined the transfer of training literature and conducted studies in the work environment. They found that causes of wasted training expenditures included: poor selection of persons to attend training (they will never have the opportunity to apply the training); lack of clear expectations from supervisors; lack of on-job support; lack of post-training monitoring; lack of resources to implement new skills; lack of incentives to apply new S/K. These are similar to what Newstrom (1985) also uncovered: lack of reinforcement on the job; interference from the immediate work environment; non-supportive organizational culture; trainees' discomfort with change; separation from trainer "inspiration"; trainees' perception of poorly designed training; peer pressure to resist applying new S/K.

So what can we do about this?

Is the cause hopeless? Should organizations abandon training? The answer to both these questions is a resounding "No"! With continuous - even mounting - pressure to improve performance, organizations must evolve beyond the notion that an injection of training will achieve performance results. As with vitamins, workers rapidly eliminate from their systems most of the injected material.

Here are some actions organizations can take to enhance transfer of training:

  • Only provide training when a systematic front-end analysis has identified a performance gap whose cause is essentially a lack of S/K. Most training programs are ill conceived at the start. When training is the inappropriate solution, transfer is unlikely to occur.
  • Never provide training as a single solution. In the workplace, application of new S/K requires both workers and environment to be prepared. Resources, incentives and support mechanisms must be in place for transfer to succeed.
  • Only send to training those who will be able to apply the new S/K. It is common to have 30% of training participants totally unsuitable for what is being taught. The reasons: the manager thought it might be useful; it certainly can't hurt; nothing else is available; a colleague liked it… Many programs include persons who lack the prerequisites to understand what is going on in the training.
  • Prepare trainees for both the training and post-training transfer. Prior to going on a course (live or self-study), prospective trainees must meet with supervisors concerning expectations about post-training application.
  • Create effective training. Subject-matter experts cannot build great training in their spare time. Invest in making the training a quality experience, developed by professional instructional developers who know how to convert the language of the expert into the language of learning. Engineer the learning system rather than amateurishly craft live or (even worse) on-line "info dumps".
  • Ensure post-training support. This is crucial. The fall-off in Figure 2, post-training, is largely due to lack of encouragement, support and reward for transfer efforts. Without the support system which fosters growth during training, trainees attempting to apply their new S/K to the job soon stumble, perform even more poorly than before training, become discouraged and abandon their transfer efforts.

To Conclude

Training when properly selected, developed, delivered and supported can be a powerful means for achieving desired performance goals. The sad fact is that most training is poorly conceived and implemented. In the push for quick fixes, the waste from lack of transfer is enormous. By taking appropriate actions such as the ones suggested in this article, we can achieve astounding transfer success.

2000 Harold D. Stolovitch & Erica J. Keeps


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