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Have Trainers Really Grasped the Importance of Training Transfer?
Trainers face pressure to demonstrate that training delivers the desired skills, knowledge and behaviours required to enable the organisation to improve its performance. Transfer demonstrates the effectiveness of a training programme and is important because, it is believed that there is a relationship between improving employee capability and achieving competitive advantage.
Training spend in the UK is approximately £23.5bn per year. Stakeholders want a return on investment (ROI) from the training delivered. However, the 2011 CIPD Survey found only 28% of organisations measure ROI and conduct a cost/benefit analysis.
Definitions and Meanings
A review of research offered a number of definitions regarding transfer:
“The degree to which trainees effectively apply the knowledge, skills and attitudes gained in a training context to the job… for transfer to have occurred, learned behaviour must be generalized to the job context and maintained over a period of time on the job.”(Baldwin & Ford)
“When the knowledge learned is actually used on the job for which it is intended… the application, generalizability and maintenance of newly acquired knowledge and skills.”(Cheng & Hampson)
“When training results can cross time, space and context.”(Vermeulen)
Transfer occurs at Level 3 of Kirkpatrick’s taxonomy of evaluation, and refers to a future point in time following training delivery where the trainee applies the knowledge, skills or behaviour to perform a task within the organisation and more specifically uses the training in a manner that positively impacts job performance.
Researchers and practitioners have struggled to find a tool to measure transfer. Different research has used different measurement tools, making it difficult to compare results, and to understand the relationship between different transfer variables. Some researchers have suggested there is no proof that transfer exists, although this view might be overstated.
Research indicates that levels of transfer depreciate over a period of time:
- 62% transfer immediately after training
- 44% transfer after six months
- 34% after one year
However, with no agreed measure it could be argued that these figures are not reliable and it may not be possible to know whether transfer has or has not occurred. Research suggests that there are three levels of human behaviour; visible, conscious and unconscious.
The semi or unconscious level is a psychoanalytic view that suggests trainees have internal forces outside their awareness that directs behaviour. At this level, a trainee may not be conscious of transfer, and therefore may not understand how training has impacted the way they perform a task. This is complicated further in adaptive transfer where transfer occurs in a different context. However, researchers argue this is only possible where tasks are similar and when trainees have developed an “abstract mental representation” of both the knowledge and the problem.
Research focuses on three key transfer areas; training design, the work environment and trainee characteristics and has demonstrated, at best, conflicting results regarding the factors that impact transfer in the organisation. The inconsistent research results could be a result of;
- Individual Factors – Different trainees have different learning capability and therefore need different training design and different work environment factors to enable transfer.
- Training Design – Different types of training design may be relevant to different organisational and role contexts and need different strategies to enable transfer.
- Work Environment Factors – Each organisation is unique and therefore the training design and transfer strategies need to reflect the organisational system in which the training is taking place to enable transfer.
Most research papers focus on one type of training and in one organisation. The multi-dimensional and complex nature of transfer changes according to organisation type, organisation and training type and cannot be explained fully with such research limitations. This may explain the inconsistencies found by those using meta-analysis to develop a model of transfer.
Trainee characteristics considered to affect transfer include the trainee’s intellectual ability, motivational factors and their perceived confidence, or self-efficacy and the strategies they employ to use their training in the work place. Other trainee characteristics highlighted include job and career factors and personality traits of the trainee.
The need for self-efficacy to achieve transfer could create a paradox because brevity of training time may leave trainees lacking confidence in their new skills, knowledge or behaviour until they have become proficient in them, which requires transfer to have occurred.
In 2003 the CIPD developed the People Performance Model. The focus of the model is that performance is the result of three variables Ability, Motivation and Opportunity (AMO).
Ability refers not just to the skills and knowledge to do their job but also the confidence and the capability to take what they have learned back into the workplace if transfer is to occur, which aligns with the research regarding the requirement for self-efficacy.
In addition to motivation to do their job well, researchers identified that trainees must also have a willingness to learn, and the motivation to use the skills and knowledge they have learnt in the workplace. The theory of planned behaviour supports the connection between trainee intention in regards to perceived self-efficacy and their actions to control transfer back in the workplace. Other research argues that trainee motivation is enhanced where trainees have supportive managers, but that motivation doesn’t guarantee transfer.
Trainees must develop cognitive and behavioural strategies which include preparing an action plan, setting goals, getting the support they need and exploiting opportunities to apply their newly acquired skills and knowledge.
Different types of training may require different transfer strategies, which may explain why there are inconsistent results in the research regarding transfer. If the trainee has not acquired the right transfer strategy for their new learning, transfer may not be successful.
Training design is defined as;
“a set of events that affect trainees so that learning is facilitated” and covers a number of factors, including “the content of training, the trainer, the trainees, the training methods and the program’s planning and design.” (Nikandrou, Brinia, & Bereri)
Traditionally training has been based on the four stage instructional system of design. At each stage of the ISD, trainers need to ensure that they consider how transfer can be enhanced. However training design can only impact the effectiveness of transfer in regards to the accessibility of learning to the trainees and support to develop self-management strategies.
Work environment factors are supported by empirical research and focuses on the alignment of training to the strategic goals, managerial and peer support, opportunities to practice learning and holding trainees accountable for practicing their new skills. Research suggests that interpersonal, collaboration practices, and social support variables may improve transfer but training design will require more transfer interventions where the work environment is less favourable.
The People Performance model emphasises the role of the line manager in creating the environment for the AMO variables to be released and for individuals to exhibit discretionary behaviour. Other research suggests that line manager support may not positively impact transfer, but that the lack of line manager support has a negative effect on transfer.
Having the opportunity to practice learning back in the workplace is important in supporting transfer but intolerance towards errors and mistakes contradicts action theory that suggests that work related action enables the trainee to build appropriate action-orientated mental models which aids transfer.
Changes in the organisation such as a new system, new ways of working or the trainee being given new role responsibilities can interrupt transfer. It could be argued that the speed of organisational change negatively affects transfer and research can only provide a snap shot in a dynamic process and cannot prove that there is a relationship between the work environment factors observed.
Trainers grasp of the importance of transfer
The 2011 CIPD Survey found that one in six organisations do not evaluate training, and of those that do the percentages against each level of Kirkpatrick’s taxonomy are;
- Reaction = 93%
- Learning = 56%
- Transfer = 48%
- Results = 42%
This means only 35% of organisations surveyed evaluate transfer. It could be argued that given these results that trainers have not grasped the importance of transfer. However, the survey also states that only 27% of trainers discuss the progress of learning at management meetings, which could suggest that the lack of evaluation is not a result of failure by trainers but because of the low priority given transfer by the organisation.
It is possible that transfer may not take place immediately, and may take months or even years to be fully utilized in the workplace. This time lag and the difficultyin attributing a financial return from transfer may diminish the perceived value of training and reduces its importance to organisations. The 2011 CIPD survey supports this view when it proposes that the lack of assessment may be as a result of a lack of awareness by the organisation of the real value of the intervention or that organisations view interventions as something that happens in the background. The shift from formal off the job training interventions to on the job learning opportunities may also affect the trainer’s ability to evaluate ‘transfer.’
The 2011 CIPD survey reports;
“practitioners are beginning to deliver differently and to link L&TD to change and organisational development. They are looking to build capability and lift performance through interventions such as coaching and leadership development.”
Sloman observed that;
“most professional developers… care about learning” and “those involved in learning, training and development are intervening to develop the knowledge and skills of the workforce to allow the organization to deliver high value products and more efficient services.”
Which suggest that trainers have grasped the importance of transfer.
The trainer’s role in transfer
Research suggests that transfer requires trainers to design training and influence the work environment factors by developing a multifaceted training process and facilitating a training experience that includes pre, during and post training elements to ensure that effective learning takes place.
The role of trainer includes internal or external professional training practitioners, but the trainer role is also used as an opportunity for career development. Many ‘subject experts’ are given the job of passing on their knowledge and skills and as many as 80% of trainers may not have had training in instructional techniques.
Individuals become trainers because of serendipity but the accessibility of entry into training does create issues in regards to transfer. Research by Roffey Park suggests that many trainers do not have the knowledge to apply learning theory in their training design, with many trainers picking up their knowledge of theory working with other trainers.
Research suggests that the interaction between the trainer and the trainee will impact transfer and that trainers who are subject matter experts do not necessarily work well with executive level trainees. This suggests that it is important that the trainer is able to connect with the trainees if transfer is to occur.
However, it could be argued that too much emphasis is placed on the role of trainers in facilitating transfer, the transfer model gives equal responsibility for transfer to the individual and the organisation, and yet in practice it is the trainer who is expected to solve the ‘transfer problem.’ To propose that the trainer should take responsibility for the whole process is a misnomer that fails to consider all the other organisational factors and influences in the process.
The training workshop is a small element in the learning process although the trainer is required to understand the role they play in the wider organisational context.
Although levels of transfer may seem low, a web search shows that the average returns on direct mail marketing (around 2%) and conversion ratios in sales calls (around 10%) may indicate training is significantly outperforming other functions. To suggest that there is a ‘transfer problem’ may represent unrealistic expectations of possible transfer levels given the number of variables involved. Although improvement is possible, it could be argued that researchers are expecting more from trainers than is expected from other organisational functions or than is achievable.
The 2011 CIPD Survey highlights that;
“the three most common tasks for learning and development specialists are management/planning of learning and development efforts, delivering courses/time in a training facility and organisational development/change management activities.”
This suggests that the trainers role has moved outside of the training room and that the responsibility for transfer has been given to those who can affect it the most; the line managers and the trainees.
Factors that ensure transfer takes place
Noe supported the development of the Learning Transfer System Inventory (LTSI), which includes 16 factors measuring the individual, training and environment factors that affect performance. The purpose of the LTSI is to measure the factors impacting transfer and provide understanding as to why training works. However, Noe criticises the LTSI for failing to provide adequate assessment in regards to characteristics relating to trainee and training design.
The Learning Transfer Model, was developed by Leimbach; Learner readiness refers to those activities which prepare the trainee for the training intervention and indicates the pre-training preparation which is required to ensure that the trainee can engage with the training, Leimbach suggests that if Learner readiness is addressed transfer could increase by as much as 70%.
Learning Transfer Design can increase transfer by as much as 37% and relates to the process implemented in designing the training and interventions around the main training event. Transfer is impacted by the alignment of the training intervention to the organisation. The importance of needs assessment in improving transfer has been well documented.
By including transfer activities into the design of the training intervention trainers can impact performance in the workplace. However, the inconsistencies in research findings suggest that different situations in which training is delivered require different solutions to improve transfer.
Training is defined as;
“a planned intervention that is designed to enhance the determinants of individual job performance.” (Chiaburu & Tekleab)
Learning is defined as;
“a relatively permanent change in knowledge or skill produced by experience.” (Goldstein & Ford)
Cognitive theory suggests learning is a continuous process of applying knowledge and skills in the work environment, this in turn, modifies the way the knowledge and skills learnt are assimilated. Learning is important in the application phase of transfer within the work environment, and within the trainee’s own existing cognitive framework.
Transfer suggests that there is an end point to training being adopted within the workplace and limits learning to off-the-job training and transfer to knowledge or skills for a specific task. This does not allow for adaptive transfer that learning in the knowledge or skill area is used by the trainee, but in a different context or different way. However, on the job and ‘decontextualised’ learning further complicates the study of transfer.
A further definition that is worthy of consideration is that of learning capability, defined as;
“the ability of organisations to promote, continuously develop, and sustain abilities to learn and create new actionable knowledge.” (Berry & Grieves)
In the last decade there has been a shift in training practice to that of the learning process that is directed by the trainee and is based in the workplace, the purpose being to increase the individuals capacity to learn.
Responsibility for learning has shifted from the trainer to that of the individual, supported by the organisation in line with the ideas promoted by strategic human resource management. The training intervention therefore becomes the beginning of the learning process and learning transfer happening in the workplace.
In answer to the question as to whether trainers have really grasped the importance of transfer, it can be concluded that most professional training practitioners have grasped its importance, but that not everyone who delivers training has the theoretical knowledge or skills to understand transfer. In addition it must be emphasised that the organisation and individual trainees have equal responsibility, in partnership with the trainer, to enable transfer to take place.
There are a number of factors which trainers should be aware of to ensure that transfer takes place which fall under three main areas; training design, the organisational work environment and the individual trainee capability to learn. However, rather than focusing on transfer factors as an input to training design a more appropriate focus for trainers may be to create the learning processes required to build learning capability in response to the organisational context and the trainee population.
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