I spend a lot of time thinking about Learning Transfer, and it’s not often you’ll hear me saying it won’t add value! But I have been thinking recently – when doesn’t it work? When is a learning transfer solution not beneficial?
At the very beginning of the instructional design process, you’ll look to clarify a solution to a business problem. You’ll want to decide first if learning is the best solution to the problem.
Use diagnostic questions (summarised neatly in JD Dillions’ blog post) to decide if learning is the best solution and if so then ask yourself the question:
Do I need to supplement the learning with a learning transfer solution?
In most cases, the answer will be yes but understanding the concept of near and far learning transfer can be useful to get to grips with here to help you assess.
Patti Shank in her article for Learning Solutions Magazine, ‘Can They Do It in the Real World? Designing for Transfer of Learning’ captures it beautifully:
“…..Near and far transfer. That’s a bit of a misnomer because it’s a continuum from near(er) to far(ther) transfer, with potentially higher degrees of transfer along the way. Near(er) transfer is transfer between very similar contexts… Near(er) transfer is generally what is needed for tasks that are routine and consistent…..Far(ther) transfer refers to learning applied in real life situations that are somewhat too greatly different than the learning contexts. This is most needed for tasks that are executed differently depending on the situation. The hallmark of far(ther) transfer is the need to adapt actions based on judgment.” (Which in my book pretty much means anything that involves people or situations that change!)
So let’s clarify 5 situations where Learning Transfer won’t add value. If you find that these situations are applicable to your learning, then hold fire on the learning transfer big guns, and fix the learning issue first.
Irrelevant to the learner
If the learner is saying to you, “This isn’t relevant to my role,” then listen. This isn’t looking good for transfer!
It can be more frustrating for a learner to be engaged in learning that they can’t apply than not to have the learning in the first place. For emerging leaders who perhaps aren’t yet managing, find a way that the learnings can be relevant to life outside of work, or find a way that managing others could be applied to managing up. Often skills are transferable and applicable, but the learner might next extra coaching to help them see how it could be relevant to them.
I don’t intend to apply it
One of the things I learnt early on working with Jack and Patti Phillips at the ROI Institute is some of the feedback required about INTENTION to transfer. While this isn’t the same as ACHIEVING learning transfer, if people leave the course actively NOT intending to transfer the learning then that could be a red flag.
(Side note – did you see my LinkedIn post about Jack and Patti running a virtual ROI Methodology Training? Don’t miss it!)
Of course, if people aren’t ready to commit to applying the learning, you could inspire them to experiment; to try it and see what happens. Committing to an experiment rather than a life-long behavioural change can be a good alternative for some people, and can shift the momentum from nothing to something.
The learning will only be applied occasionally
Additionally, if it’s a behaviour that will only be used by the individual once every few months rather than on a weekly or daily basis, it is much harder to create transfer, and a different strategy could be required. An example of this would be focusing on presentation skills training for someone who rarely presents as part of their role.
Learning transfer can also be difficult for something like a ‘Preparing for Tough Communications’ program. I was recently speaking with a client about a program they were creating to help upskill leaders in having ‘Tough Communications’. The transfer challenge was that in attendees’ minds, this was a skill they would need once a quarter or less. I suggested they switch the program title to ‘Meaningful Conversations’ and include conversations that can happen all the time at different levels. Think of it this way: the tough conversation or “high stakes” conversation can be compared to lifting 100kg of weight. You can’t walk straight into a gym and begin lifting 100kg. You need to work your way up over time and with repetition using smaller weights. With time, practice, and experience, you’ll eventually reach your goal of lifting 100kg. And comparatively speaking, if you haven’t been practicing with 25kg or 50kg “situations”, lifting the 100kg situations straight away would be extremely challenging. If you have identified what a 25kg situation looks like and that attendees are often managing those on a daily or weekly basis, then the 100kg situations aren’t such a challenge when they arise.
And how do we set up people to decide on a 25kg conversation for them? We ask them! They need to identify this themselves. This promotes accountability and ownership. Throughout the transfer period, they would then track how they are doing with these different “weights” of conversations.
I can’t apply this for another 6 months
This is also difficult for learning transfer – it means you need to have recall in the moment before you apply. For clients that are in this position, I encourage either moving the timing of the program itself or certainly moving the transfer phase back for the individual if it’s an isolated situation. If you have a behavioural pause like this, plan for it upfront – what can be done in the meantime to build muscle, to extend on the analogy above.
The best learning solution is a performance support tool
Is the learning in the form of performance a support tool? Imagine the learning is a piece of content that the individual has sought out to solve a particular issue at a moment of need. In that case, it is less likely that a transfer strategy would be required as it’s highly likely that they would apply the learning as they have an immediate need for it at that time.
Some may think, “Perhaps all learning should be like this: We should always learn in the moment of need.” I would argue that for some skills, particularly technical skills, then that is ideal. Still, often with learning, we are talking more about developing softer skills (or human skills as I now like to call them) – things like listening, leadership, communication. These skills are ingrained within us as part of who we are daily. Judgement is required. They go beyond an immediate, specific need, like having a performance conversation, to helping individuals grow in who they are.
The success of a good learning transfer rests on a good learning design that is designed for transfer. Ask yourself:
Have I designed the learning to a point that it can be applied?
Do people know how to apply this learning?
Have I given time for reflection in the training and given people the opportunity to work out how it is relevant to them?
Are they at the stage where they can apply it?
If the answer to these questions is ‘Yes’, then transfer is the next step. If your training has helped learners to the point that they can do, then with your learning transfer strategy, you can work on what they actually do.
For more help with your learning transfer strategy, reach out to me, Emma Weber from Lever- Transfer of Learning. I could talk learning transfer strategy underwater – and it’s my favourite pastime
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