The 80/20 Rule for Learning Transfer

By Michael P. Leimbach and Ed Emde

If 10 CLOs were asked how best to increase the value of learning, almost all would say the same thing: Increase the amount of learning transfer in the workplace. However, if the same CLOs were asked about their own learning transfer success, they likely will express disappointment.

The lack of learning transfer has been a long-standing issue in the learning community, and research on how to increase it is both complex and contradictory. If CLOs followed typical advice, they could add hundreds of components to their learning programs, put an undue burden on learners, managers and training professionals and more than double the investment they make in each skill development effort, not to mention ruin their budgets.

The Rule of Three: Practical and Effective

There is a less costly approach to increase the desired learning transfer. A focused and practical approach has emerged from extensive research conducted during the past several years. This research, 2009’s “Exploring Trends in Human Resource Development: Bridging the Research-Practice Gap” and 2010’s “Learning Transfer: What Organizations Are Doing To Drive Enhancing Learning Effectiveness,” was reported in Industrial and Commercial Training, Human Resource Development Review and other professional and research publications. It shows significant increases in the use of skills resulting from well-designed, efficient learning transfer activities.

These activities, when analyzed to determine which had the greatest impact on improved performance, indicate actions organizations can take to increase the application of new learning on the job, deliver business results and improve ROI.

The research identified 11 core activities that create a meaningful increase in learning transfer. These activities meet the 80/20 rule: They represent the 20 percent of learning transfer activities that create 80 percent of the impact. Based on results from a wide variety of organizations, the research showed learning transfer can be increased by as much as 180 percent, with only modest cost increases.

To simplify research results, 11 factors were consolidated into three critical areas where organizations can improve learning transfer. If a learning initiative is designed to address these three elements, its impact can be significantly increased.

The three elements are: learner readiness, design for transfer and organizational alignment.

Learner readiness: It would seem obvious that learners need to be prepared to learn if their learning experience is to be effective. Yet few organizations pay enough attention to motivation, enthusiasm and positive anticipation prior to a learning session. Learner readiness is about ensuring that learners see the relevance and payoffs of new skills and are confident they can use their learning on the job. The aforementioned research showed that addressing these elements can increase transfer by as much as 70 percent.

Autodesk, a 3D design, engineering and entertainment software company, provides an example. Its learning organization launched an initiative to increase consulting skills for its sales force. Among other actions, the company implemented a plan to prepare salespeople and technical specialists for learning.

To kick off the initiative, employees received an email with a link to a fast-paced, YouTube-like introduction to the upcoming learning event. The introduction provided an overview of the content, but also delivered a clear message about the potential impact of the new skills on participants’ sales success and the motivation necessary to fully engage in the learning. Following the introduction, participants completed a self-assessment based on their current strengths and greatest opportunities for improvement.

“The pre-work preparation created a foundation for success, letting the learners know that they had something to contribute as well as something to learn,” said Starr Hill-Bennett, Autodesk global program manager of worldwide sales and services training. “The results showed that when learners attended the core skills workshop, they were focused, motivated and ready to take advantage of their learning. Also, the up-front readiness component allowed us to move more quickly into skills and finish with an Autodesk-specific case study focused on application.”

Starting the learning experience before the planned sessions, and doing so in a way that engaged the learner’s interest and participation — specifically, the Autodesk training staff used technology to deliver the preparation activities to each individual’s desk — ensured learners had some “skin in the game” before they took part in the core learning program.

Design for transfer: Too often, learning and development staff members focus exclusively on the learning event and its objectives — the traditional concerns of instructional design. They pay little attention to opportunities to build in a variety of transfer elements such as structured follow-up activities, creation of specific action plans, or opportunities to practice behavioral models. Without these elements, performance outcomes can suffer.

Major Hammell, senior director of sales force effectiveness for Georgia-Pacific, said this shift from the traditional point of view to a focus on the expected business impact of a learning initiative is critical. “In the past we used the instructional design process to focus on what happened in the event — the learning objectives and activities. So, this time we turned it on its head and asked, ‘What will it take to achieve the performance outcomes we want?’”

The result of this design focus was sales training that emphasized not just the event — a workshop — but also actions to support use of the skills in the field. For example, the new sales skills were incorporated into a sales planning form that was implemented in Georgia-Pacific’s CRM system. Learners used the form to select a specific sales opportunity to which they would apply their new skills. Sales teams also practiced skills in a simulation and received feedback.

The workshop was followed by 12 weekly messages pushed out to learners and managers through an automated email system managed by the sales force effectiveness team. Each message included a review of a skill, tips for application and links to games and videos to further enhance interest.

Importantly, the design included manager involvement. Sales directors also received materials and Web-based coaching on how to conduct a review “meeting in a box.”

“These activities really serve as immediate and ongoing reinforcement of the learning experience and significantly improve our efforts to enhance sales capability for the long term,” Hammell said.

The Georgia-Pacific experience illustrates the power of focusing design efforts on actual performance outcomes. Building in a variety of relevant activities before the event allows an audience to embrace and use new skills prior to attending the workshop. Continued reinforcement and application activities post-event ensured participants make the new learning part of their everyday job activities.

Organizational alignment: Most executives are busy, so learning leaders often experience challenges gaining executives’ and managers’ involvement. Yet organizational alignment is

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one of the most critical aspects to increase learning transfer. By securing executive sponsorship, engaging managers and encouraging peer support, the organization can create a learning culture. With such a culture in place, the aforementioned research indicates it is possible to increase learning transfer by more than 90 percent.

Work by the learning organization at Clean Harbors demonstrates how to achieve alignment. The hazardous waste disposal company and provider of environmental, energy and industrial services has been growing rapidly, and it found a need to merge cultures from new acquisitions and create a unified sales force.

To achieve this objective, the Clean Harbors learning organization initiated a project to provide all salespeople with a common set of skills and processes. Sarah Mitchell, vice president of the sales operations, said it was clear from the beginning that organizational alignment was critical to success. As a first step, the project team conducted interviews with executive stakeholders, focusing on critical success factors and identifying potential barriers to success. The results were used to craft a message for the field highlighting the initiative’s strategic importance.

The interviews were the key to gaining executive involvement in kicking off the workshops in person and winning commitment from front-line managers to provide coaching and support. Managers met with their salespeople before the workshop to set learning and performance goals, and many managers chose to participate in the workshop.

After the workshop, managers received weekly coaching tips and resources to support effective coaching. “Manager involvement was critical to our success,” Mitchell said. “Without them we would not have seen the level of improvement in sales that we experienced.”

The Clean Harbors team put forth extra effort up front, but providing the initial support and ongoing coaching and reinforcement needed to deliver real results paid off. The organizational alignment achieved was critical to delivering the expected performance outcomes.

Alcatel-Lucent, a telecommunications technology company, offers a final example. Becoming a single global organization and providing world-class customer service are high priorities for Alcatel-Lucent. Ensuring employees use their global effectiveness skills is a critical part of breaking down barriers.

To meet these needs, the company implemented a global effectiveness skills development program. When the skills development initiative was rolled out, it was enhanced with real-world job application activities, post-session reinforcement messages and practice role-plays to support learning transfer.

The program confirmed the importance of global awareness skills and the value of learning transfer activities. “With global awareness, our employees are more effective in cross-cultural business relationships, and the learning transfer activities helped employees use the skills more extensively,” said Parinaz Sekechi, a learning consultant for Alcatel-Lucent University.

Learning Transfer — So Worth It

Virtually every learning leader seeks to demonstrate the value of learning initiatives. Where number of participants was once seen as a measure of success, today there is greater demand to show solid ROI and business impact. Investing in learning transfer yields big returns.

The CLO should require that any major learning initiative include plans for learning transfer activities focusing on the three major areas: learner readiness, design for transfer and organizational alignment. The examples presented here did require additional time and effort, but the use of technology and successful recruitment of managers as coaches greatly reduces the time commitment by staff, while increasing the likelihood of success.

While long-term, large-scale strategic initiatives have a place, they often become so time-consuming and burdensome they never reach fruition. The cases discussed here offer examples of how organizations increased learning transfer on the job on a program-by-program basis. The outcomes these companies experienced show that a less-is-more approach can help zero in on actions that are quick, specific and easy to execute.

By focusing on the 20 percent of actions that produce 80 percent of the returns, learning organizations can sustain a high level of effectiveness and business impact with every initiative they undertake.

About the Authors:

Michael Leimbach is vice president of global research and design for Wilson Learning Worldwide, and Ed Emde is president of Wilson Learning Corp. Reprinted from Chief Learning Officer magazine

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