In their 1992 classic, Transfer of Training, Mary Broad and John Newstrom explained how the ‘transfer problem’ was the principal reason why only 15% of what people learn during formal training is transferred and applied in the workplace in a way that improves their performance. Through painstaking research, they proved the intuitive truth that effective transfer of learning is conceived, born and grows to maturity in the workplace and that it is the learner’s manager rather than the trainer or the learner who is the principal player. Their analysis quickly became the received wisdom on the subject and in the 20 plus years since its publication, none have challenged their orthodoxy. And few have adopted their practices.
Turning Learning into Action by Emma Weber is a welcome addition to a canon that is surprisingly small given that it deals with a problem that each year wastes over $500 billion worldwide. Subtitled “A proven methodology for effective transfer of learning”, it is a book for L&D practitioners rather than academics, but its purpose is the promotion of the author’s proprietary solutions rather than the creation of a community of practice. Though substantiation for the claim of ‘proven’ is somewhat slender, the techniques on offer lean heavily on established practices for which supportive evidence is plentiful, albeit that the reader will need to go elsewhere to find it. It sticks to the well-trodden path blazed by Broad and Newstrom and though offering few genuinely new insights, it is fresh and accessible, invoking the author’s passion for her subject. Best still, she has practised what she preaches and presents in a clear and authoritative manner her prescription for ‘doing’ learning transfer rather than theorising about it.
The book opens with a brief history of learning transfer in which Weber traces the roots of the problem back to the dawn of instructional design and a failure at that time – and since – to distinguish properly between learning (the acquisition of knowledge) and training (the acquisition of new capabilities). This issue lies at the heart of the transfer problem and Weber is right to highlight it, although her point would have been more persuasive if she hadn’t occasionally made the same mistake herself, using the two terms interchangeably. She argues that considerable strides have been made in the design and implementation of learning, citing without attribution figures of 80 – 85% effectiveness, and asserting that there have been no comparable improvements in training effectiveness. She goes on to identify learning transfer as the ‘missing link’. As to why learning transfer is still the missing link 60 years after it was first identified as a problem, Weber pulls no punches. She accuses L&D practitioners of having an obsession with content and learning and of failing to hold themselves to account for the performance improvement that their organisations are actually seeking. It is hard not to agree. She is similarly critical of the learning transfer strategies that have found their way into common usage, dismissing discussion groups and action learning sets as lacking ‘ownership’, refresher sessions, peer presentations and blended learning as too content-focused and social media as fostering unaccountability. Once again, fair criticism. Where I do part company with the author, however, is on her assertion that ‘preparation for learning’ cannot make a significant contribution to learning transfer. She appears to dismiss anything that takes place before the learning as making only “negligible difference” to learning transfer. Not so. There is compelling evidence that ‘motivation to transfer’ has “moderate or better” impact on learning transfer and that the practices that engender it, such as establishing the training’s relevance and usefulness, are best used ex-ante.
Weber’s most eye-catching proposition, strikes at the very heart of the learning transfer debate. For almost all of the 60 years in which academics have been researching learning transfer, they have put managers centre-stage. The fact that learning transfer happens in the workplace would, so it was argued, inevitably oblige the manager to take the lead. Broad and Newstrom’s research endowed managers with almost sacred cow status, as well as responsibility for over half of the learning transfer practices that were known to make a difference including all of the most influential ones. So when Weber argues that it is precisely this reliance on managers that has held back progress in learning transfer, some may cry heresy. But I think she may be onto something. Research and intuition may argue that managers are best placed to help learners put their newly learned capabilities to work, but what if they don’t do it? A learning transfer strategy built on such weak foundations might be doomed to fail, not in concept but in execution. Mounting criticism of the poor value provided by much training might demand that we look elsewhere for the answer.
Which is where TLA® comes in. TLA® or ‘Turning Learning into Action® is Weber’s proprietary alternative to our self-deluding reliance on managers, as well as the title to her book. She describes it as an enhanced coaching methodology that involves a series of “specific, structured and accountable one-on-one conversations that occur at various intervals after the training event”. In common with other coaching conversations, TLA® is claimed to be particularly effective when the purpose of the training is to change behaviour and the author specifically mentions communication skills and management and leadership development. Suffice to say, it is a methodology that would be familiar to any experienced coach, although dressed up in a snappy new acronym, which is often the way when authors are trying to differentiate the undifferentiable. After describing in some detail the methodology itself and the skills needed to use it, the author provides helpful guidance on all aspects of its implementation including planning, process and evaluation. In short, a full toolkit for any L&D practitioner minded to set themselves up as a TLA® facilitator, although the author is quick to point out that an external specialist, such as those she employs might be a better choice.
As methodologies go, TLA® is entirely plausible. I do take issue with the assertion that effective transfer of learning can be influenced only by the conversations that occur after the learning. There is a great deal that can be done to encourage learning transfer and a lot of it, such as conducive policies and initiatives to create a helpful transfer climate, must be put in place before the learning. I would also have welcomed greater scrutiny of the role of learning transfer in informal learning, which the author touched upon but did not develop fully. But Turning Learning into Action® is still an important book, not because of the depth of its research, but because it invites the reader to think the previously unthinkable. The learner’s manager has been the sine qua non of the learning transfer debate for so long that we have been mesmerised into believing that we have no alternative. Those of us who champion learning transfer have invested all of our energies in trying to make the ‘manager-centric strategy’ work and have come up empty-handed. As Weber points out, the overwhelming majority of managers lack the time, skills and motivation to help their colleagues transfer and apply newly learned capabilities. What we need now are learning transfer specialists, embedded in the workplace, removed from the delivery of training content and focused exclusively on ensuring that new capabilities are put to work. For as long as we refuse to accept that fact, we will make no progress in learning transfer, training will continue to provide poor value and the organisations we serve will not deliver the improvements in productivity that would allow them to compete successfully in global markets.
There is a certain amount of irony in Weber’s advice that we remove managers from the pivotal position in our learning transfer strategy, and replace them with trained specialists. This is precisely the same recommendation that was made by Broad and Newstrom in 1992. It’s to be hoped that the training industry makes a rather better job of transferring and applying the ideas contained within Turning Learning into Action than we did with Transfer of Training.