Training is a rite of passage for many employees and required for the certifications and knowledge needed to progress in their careers. While organizations may take the time to prepare an employee for training and budget for them to attend a learning course, most organizations still struggle to assess and support the transfer of learning from training programs into the workplace.
According to the American Society for Training & Development, there is a 70/20/10 rule when it comes to learning and development. Research shows employees learn:

  • 70% through real-life and on-the-job experiences;
  • 20% through mentoring or coaching; and
  • 10% through formal training.

Therefore, organizations must ensure that learning be applied on-the-job—in an immediate way—to improve actual employee performance and generate a positive business impact.
What is required for the transfer of training to the workplace? This question has been posed by researchers since the early 20th century, but has intensified in recent years due to economic challenges, an evolving workforce, and increased organizational focus on measuring and justifying training investments.
In general, the transfer of learning takes place when organizations:

  • develop an overall learning transfer plan;
  • implement tools and processes to reinforce the application of learning post-training;
  • measure if and to what extent learning is applied on the job; and
  • advocate for full manager support and involvement.

To identify breakdowns in the transfer of learning and develop best practices for addressing these gaps, ESI International, an international provider of project management centric learning, conducted a survey in March 2011. Titled "Applying Training and Transferring Learning to the Workplace: How to Turn Hope into Reality," the global study highlights the shortfalls in applying training and opportunities for improvement.

Survey Findings Both Surprising and Encouraging

More than 3,000 government and commercial training-related managers assessed three key phases in the application and transfer of learning: pre-training strategies, post-training reinforcement and rewards or incentives used to motivate employees.
Overall, the study highlights several weak areas in the on-the-job application of learning, including manager support, trainee preparation, incentives, and an overall formal design and measurement process. Findings show that:

  • 60% of those surveyed do not have a systematic approach to preparing a trainee to transfer, or apply, learning on-the-job.
  • When asked what specific rewards motivate trainees, almost 60% say the "possibility of more responsibility," followed closely by an impact on their HR/performance review. Only 20% indicate that there is any financial reward or other incentives.
  • 63% say managers formally endorse the program, while only 23% of managers hold more formal pre- and post-training discussions.

But most surprising, the study suggests that organizations start out optimistic and hopeful that they are fully committed and engaged in the transfer of learning, but upon further questioning, one finds that hope and reality are two very different things when it comes to the transfer of learning in the workplace.
For example, while two-thirds of respondents estimate that they apply more than 25% of training knowledge back on-the-job, they have little concrete proof. Almost 60% say the primary method for proving or measuring this estimate is either informal/anecdotal feedback or "simply a guess."
The study points out some striking contradictions in how well organizations think they transfer learning and the lack of proof to back up their estimate of learning transfer or on-the-job application. Client experience at ESI shows us that organizations often fail to establish success criteria or identify expectations for learning engagements. This is a key pre-training strategy in order to measure trainee performance against agreed upon standards.
On the other hand, when it comes to post-learning tools and programs, survey responses show employees leveraging an ever-expanding array of tactics to recall information learned during training, including post course discussions with the manager or team leader, on-the-job tools, informal support such as social networks or online forums, and communities of practice such as peer groups and coaching.
The top three strategies indicated as the most important for the transfer of learning are that trainees have the time, resources and responsibility to apply learning; trainees have manager support; and the instruction approach simulates the actual work environment.
Employees need to know that the application of learning is a priority for management. Management can show this by aligning training with company strategy and motivating employees by setting expectations beforehand and offering incentives for them to succeed.

Ways to Increase the Application of Learning

Through open-ended questions, the survey also asked respondents to share specific learning transfer tactics and identify best practices. The responses resemble a wish list of actions that management or sponsors should do more of, and they fall broadly into the following areas:

  • Incorporate real projects in the training
  • Conduct more training and/or better marketing and communication on what exists
  • Communicate a transparent measurement strategy
  • Establish change management guidelines
  • Increase managers’ involvement before and after training
  • Make training more relevant

Trainees should understand that the organization or sponsor expects them to apply what is learned and that there will be an assessment of training impact by collecting data from them and other stakeholders, such as clients.
In the end, holding employees accountable for learning transfer means the onus is on organizations to communicate the vision and reasons why a change in knowledge/skills/competencies is needed to support the company’s growth.

—Raed S. Haddad is senior vice president for global delivery services, ESI International. This article first appeared as "Training and the Bottom Line: Realigning Efforts" at HR and is reprinted with permission.