Organisations invest billions of dollars in training every year in the hope that these investments will provide benefits in the form of improved employee and organisational performance. The problem is training literature cites that only 10% of what is learned in training is actually applied to the workplace. Whilst it’s important for employees to gain new skills and knowledge, it’s not much good if the workplace doesn’t achieve a return on that investment (ROI) in the form of tangible improvements in individual and organisational performance.
Too often organisations assess their ROI from training on employee feedback forms collected at the end of the training program. These feedback forms are a flawed measure of ROI for two reasons. Firstly, many training participants are already disposed to report beneficial skill gains as a way of justifying their participation. Their claims of skills acquired can be exaggerated. Secondly, the purpose of training is not the mere acquisition of skills but their application in the workplace over time which means much of the feedback provided by participants at the conclusion of training is premature. Organisations would be better placed to look deeper at the Kirkpatrick model of training evaluation, in particular starting with level 4 in mind – Results – and planning all training interventions to generate outcomes at each level as a true ROI measure.
Researchers and HRD practitioners are aware that the knowledge and skills gained in training are often neglected once participants walk out the ‘training door’ and little is transferred into the workplace. They have spent the last three decades trying to understand this ‘transfer’ problem.
Trainee characteristics concern an individual’s ability and motivation to apply what they learn in training to their job. Some argue that such characteristics account for the bulk of variability in training outcomes. Individuals higher in cognitive ability have been shown to have more success in processing and applying trained skills. The design and delivery of training programs also has a significant impact on learning transfer. Employees provided with the opportunity to observe and practice targeted behaviours in training have an increased ability to learn and retain new information. Finally, the work environment within an organisation – management support, organisational climate and structure - can have a significant impact on learning transfer. If opportunities to apply the skills and knowledge are not available and accessible, learning transfer will not happen.
It may not be possible for organisations to significantly influence all three factors when implementing a training program. For example, it is very difficult for an organisation to increase the cognitive ability of their employees. However, they can influence motivation. Organisations can influence the design and delivery of programs but these programs are usually just an introduction to the concepts and provide limited time for practice. If organisations really want to impact learning transfer they are best to direct their resources towards shaping their work environments to facilitate multiple opportunities over an extended period for employees to continue their learning and apply knowledge and skills gained. Work environments can be directly managed and influenced by organisations and the smallest change in the work environment can generate a significant impact on learning transfer outcomes.
The following are some of the things that organisations can implement to build a work environment that increases learning transfer:
Unfortunately many managers tend to think their job is done once their employees are enrolled in a training program. They perceive the job of learning lies in the hands of the instructor and the participant. However, managers are often in a great position to help their employees apply and maintain what they’ve learnt in training back at their workplace. Research has shown that trainees who receive high levels of managerial support transfer more knowledge and skills to the workplace. Managers can support employees by providing encouragement and feedback, modelling trained behaviours, structuring opportunities for practice and identifying tasks and roles where the skills can be applied in real situations. Managers can also help the employee to establish and achieve learning goals, create meaning for the learning, observe progress of applied skill development and help them to prevent relapse by offering coaching, all of which can help learning transfer.
I recall a story I heard recently where an employee participated in a training program on how to have difficult conversations. The employee did not manage staff. In the program the employee learnt how to prepare, plan and participate in a difficult conversation, how to communicate effectively, apply active listening skills, and respond rationally whilst managing emotions. The employee participated in group activities, practical exercises, discussions and role plays. At the end of the training the facilitator and the employee agreed that the employee had acquired the knowledge and skills to have difficult conversations with colleagues. However six months after the training the employee felt she was back to square one. Upon returning back to the workplace, the employee didn’t get the opportunity to utilise her new skills. No real situations came up to enable her to put the skills into practice. Her manager didn't discuss the content of the training program with her, she didn’t have access to a coach to role play and work through examples of challenging conversations, and processes weren’t put in place to help her reflect and apply the skills. Several months on, training ROI was effectively zero.
Unfortunately, the scenario above commonly occurs in the workplace and illustrates the consequences of not giving employees the opportunities to practice and apply their new skills. Adults learn best through problem solving and doing and in order for training to be effective, employees need plenty of opportunities to apply their new skills to the workplace. Ideally this would occur through real scenarios, however if this is not possible, a manager can create hypothetical scenarios for role playing in a coaching setting.
The conclusion of a formal training program is not the end of an employee’s learning experience. In fact, the period immediately after the formal training program is where most of the learning typically happens, as long as the structures, resources and culture are in place to facilitate it.
A culture of ongoing learning is one with organisational values, systems and practices that support and encourage individuals to increase their knowledge, competence and performance levels on an ongoing basis. Having an ongoing learning culture has impacts beyond learning and performance. It also enhances the organisation’s ability to embrace and adapt to change, decreases employee turnover and increases employee satisfaction levels.
There are a number of ways to build an ongoing learning culture and many of them start with leadership. Leaders can create an environment that shapes and supports desired training results that in turn get measured and rewarded in the workplace. Learning is a dynamic ongoing daily process, not a one-off event. It must be integrated with, and run parallel to work. Once an organisation sets up such a culture, managers and staff will naturally think “What can I do today to learn and put my skills into practice?
Training is a powerful tool for increasing employee and organisational performance but many organisations fail to reap the benefits. This is an opportunity going begging and can easily be rectified through management attention and the discipline of planning. Next time you send an employee to a training program, ask yourself whether you want real ROI, and if so consider how ready your work environment is to support the new skills he or she brings back.