Since the 1950s there’s been a perception that most of the money spent on training is wasted, because it either fails to transfer back into the workplace, or fades away over time. Most studies of training transfer suggest a transfer rate as low as 10-20%.
So what factors actually make a difference in training transfer? If you’re commissioning leadership training, what can you do to make it more likely to translate into behavioural change?
Professor Gervase Bushe (developer of the Clear Leadership model, which I am currently training in) and Yabome Gilpin-Jackson undertook a study of leadership development training transfer and the post-training factors that enable it back in 2006. Unfortunately, like so much other valuable research findings, it’s hidden behind an academic publishing paywall. I’ve been lucky enough to see a copy though, and here are the main findings so you can make use of them.
The authors scoured the existing literature to come up with five factors that were thought to make a difference to training utilisation. These were:
- Social support – from managers and peers
- The adoption environment, including:
- Complexity – are the new methods perceived as being difficult to use and understand?
- Trialability – how supportive is the workplace of trying new skills out?
- Observability – can trainees see others using the skills and knowledge from the course at work?
- Compatibility – how compatible are the new skills and models with existing norms and procedures?
- Relative advantage – what benefits does the trainee get from using the training at work? These could include time and effort savings, immediacy of rewards, and decrease in discomfort.
- Continuity and Maintenance – what post-training strategies are in place that support long-term maintenance of the new skills. These could include goal-setting, feedback mechanisms, accountability, and coaching.
- Situational context – are there opportunities to apply the learning? How easy is it to apply?
- Systemic forces – is there a continuous learning culture? Is employee improvement and initiative encouraged? Is there time available to try out new ways of doing things?
The authors evaluated a leadership development programme in the Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA), interviewing 23 managers who had completed the programme at least 6 months prior to the study. The interview questions were designed to measure transfer and the five factors identified above as possibly making a difference: support, adoption, continuity, situational context, and systemic variables. Some of them turned out to make a big difference, others not much of a difference at all.
Findings: What Makes The Difference To Training Transfer
One surprising finding is that judging the training to be valuable, and actually using the skills from it in the workplace, don’t necessarily go hand in hand. They are influenced by different factors.
Encouragement and verbal support from bosses and peers made people value the training more, but didn’t lead to people actually using it.
What was strongly correlated to training transfer was the number of other managers who received the same training. In particular, the strongest correlation with post-training utilisation was having one’s boss take the training.
The biggest barrier to transfer seemed to be the organisation’s culture. People need to believe that they are understood and accepted by others, so they need a ‘critical mass’ of other people who have also done the training and can speak the same conceptual language. Nobody wants to be thought weird, so they will shut up pretty quickly if their untrained colleagues look at them strangely – especially if that colleague is their boss.
Having other trainees physically close by therefore increased motivation to use the skills, creating a ‘safe’ environment and allowing peer support and mentoring. It also allowed them to see other people using the skills in the workplace. The strongest encouragement to use the skills came from seeing others use them with successful outcomes.
Another factor was reciprocity – the idea that as the organisation had invested a lot of money in training them, they had an obligation to use the skills.
Having time to use the new skills was also important. “Opportunity” did not seem to be correlated; the authors suggest that if people are comfortable using the skills, they will create opportunities to use them.
What Influences Perception Of Training’s Value
Just as being able to talk the language of the training with other employees makes it more likely that people will use it, hearing the judgements of others influences their perception of the value of the training. Where people are encouraged and supported, they will value the training more.
This doesn’t necessarily translate into higher utilisation though. Having one’s boss take the training and use the skills are far more motivating than supportive words alone.
Considering the leadership skills of an individual in isolation doesn’t work, because the extent to which we have confidence in our skills and actually use them is strongly influenced by the context in which we use them – organisational culture, our peers, and especially our bosses.
Taking an individual out of a dysfunctional work environment, training them in leadership skills, and dropping them back into the same environment will most likely mean the new skills will fade away or not be tried at all.
Instead, the researchers conclude that effective transfer of training needs a critical mass of people going through the training at the same time, so that they others working in physical proximity with the same mental maps. They advise organisations to “go big or go home” when contemplating a leadership development programme.
Anyone with corporate training experience will most likely have witnessed the cynical responses of middle managers when it’s announced that they are being put through a training programme that the senior management team are not participating in.
The most effective way to remedy this cynicism and maximise training transfer is to start leadership development at the top, so that senior managers go through the programme first and then it cascades down through the hierarchy.
In time-pressured jobs, it will always be tempting to delay trying out new skills. The researchers suggest that managers will be more likely to find time for formalised follow-ups and refreshers, rather than informal ones.
Finally, a reflection of my own about the implications training design. Some trainees in the study reported that concern about being thought weird or asking questions that are ‘unacceptable’ in the existing organisational culture held them back from using their new skills.
That suggests that the more that leadership programmes can get their concepts across in everyday rather than esoteric language, the easier trainees will find it to use their new skills with colleagues, and especially bosses, who have not yet been exposed to the training.
It should also make the training more robust. It’s more work for the trainers to express their concepts in clear, simple language, but it means that any flaws that might lurk in the early drafts of their conceptual models don’t have fancy, obscure words to hide behind, and can be discovered and challenged more easily.
Source material: Leadership development training transfer: a case study of post-training determinants, Yabome Gilpin-Jackson and Gervase R. Bushe, Journal of Management Development Vol 26 No.10, 2007 pp. 980-1004