Whether or not we really are our own worst enemy as a species, human nature frequently defeats possibilities of human success. When we consider our efforts in learning transfer, there is, for example, human laziness and our willingness to settle for less than might have been achievable. The assumption that learners might see training as little more than ‘a nice day out’ or an escape from the day to day is, however, sometimes unfair. If nothing much is going to change afterwards, we might ask ourselves who is failing to provide motivation and incentive. We might, more pointedly, ponder why they are so keen to escape.
But there are other human failings here too. Long argued as the most important factor in making learning something that is achieved rather than visited, managers are prone to both impatience and to unrealistic expectations. Charged with responsibility for training budgets and possibly monitored more closely on expenditure than outcomes, there is a tendency to assume that the training has been delivered so the better performance will now automatically follow, as if a switch has been thrown. Illuminating human understanding, of course, usually takes rather longer. Whenever the topic is raised, I ponder an old TV advert for Colt lager, which summed up the truth of learning transfer in a pithy exchange between a building site worker and an old lady carrying a violin case:
Old lady: Excuse me, but how do I get to Carnegie Hall?
Workman: Lady, you gotta practise…
Humour aside, the frequent inability among managers – focused as they are on bottom lines – to distinguish between learning and learning transfer enables to them to wash their hands of responsibility. As Roy Pollock and Andrew Jefferson commented in a 2012 Association for Training Development newsletter:
“It doesn’t matter if the training event itself was excellent. It doesn’t matter if the real problem is in the post-training environment that we, as learning professionals, don’t control. When performance doesn’t improve, the business still views it as training’s failure.”
But when this happens, learning (and, for that matter, the development of learners) becomes a parcel, passed back and forth between those skilled in learning delivery but for whom follow-up lies beyond their ambit and those responsible for post-training development but who are ill-equipped (or ill-disposed) to do so.
One answer is to redefine the relationship between learning and performance management (PM). The traditional view is that learning is prescribed as an outcome of performance review: a shortfall is diagnosed and learning is applied as a cure. Yet if the full course of treatment is not completed, the malady will remain – and the blame will be attributed to either the medicine or the patient.
A better approach is to see PM – operated not as a periodic event but as an on-going process – as what happens after learning, encouraging and assisting its absorption and application. Given that PM and learning should share a common aim of greater performance, surely not an illogical proposition.
But if this road seems the most sensible one to take, it currently has more than its fair share of potholes. While a 2015 Brandon Hall Group report, Performance Management 2015: Coaching For Development Needed, identified PM as too focused on its own process and too little on the employee, another of its discoveries is probably more critical. While proactive, learning transfer-oriented performance improvement requires the inputs of development coaches, very few managers are skilled to do so. Surveying the greatest performance management opportunities and challenges that organisations face, 37% reported a familiar ambition: Aligning employee goals with business goals. One place above it in the list of findings, and reported by 64% of respondents, was a major stumbling block: training managers to be effective coaches.
The impact of a coaching style of management has been frequently evidenced, although the magic elixir is available in different flavours – and different strengths. Where managers are simply encouraged to coach, performance improvements of between 7 and 12% have been found. When managers are taught coaching skills, these figures increase to 18%. Organisations that want to have their cake and ice it, however, could go a step further: where managers receive training on the learning content, improvements of between 32 and 55% have been documented. (Further evidence in support of ASK’s [modal_text_link name=”ELTE” class=”” id=””]Engage, Learn, Transfer, Evaluate methodology[/modal_text_link], the underpinning of all our programmes.)
While this sounds like reason to celebrate, rewinding a paragraph might bring a salutary reminder. If two thirds of organisations considered their biggest staff development obstacle to be training managers to coach, the traditional learning transfer argument that managers are the key to solving an age old problem hits something less like a pot hole and more like a brick wall.
Beyond investing in coaching skills for managers – and the reportedly urgent recognition of the need offers some encouragement here – there are two responses to this conundrum. The first is to involve and deploy coaching and learning specialists in the workplace to supply the post-training support that learners so often currently lack. This is precisely the service that our [modal_text_link name=”PDM” class=”” id=””]Personal Development Mentors[/modal_text_link] perform, staying in touch with individual learners once their training is over and helping to make their learning personal, meaningful, effective and sustained.
The second is to pass a message to L&D. There are many factors beyond coaching skills – and a focus on cost rather than returns – that contribute to managers’ low engagement in learning transfer: their own PM criteria, which rarely include reviewing their contribution to developing others; reward and recognition practices that exacerbate this by failing to encourage such activity and bypass opportunities to hold them accountable; the simple action of making learning transfer support part of managers’ job descriptions.
Yet maybe there is something more. If managers are to embrace the idea that learning support is something that the whole organisation is actively engaged in, the current wealth of learning transfer literature serves this aim poorly. Couched in either ‘trainer speak’ or the dense prose of academia, it addresses mostly those who already operate in these languages – but it does not often reach beyond. If managers are to get the message – and “learning transfer is about helping staff perform more effectively to boost the organisation” surely conveys the gist in every day English – its managers that L&D needs to address.
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