Management guru Peter Drucker famously said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” He suggested that even the most well-thought-out business strategy will fail unless it is congruent with the organization’s culture.

An organization’s most important resource is not the product it sells or its market share; it’s the people who are at the heart of an organization, and it’s the people who make the strategy work. Drucker knew that implementing new strategic initiatives that change what and how an organization’s people perform will be met with resistance and, in some cases, rejected.

This message doesn’t seem to have trickled down to learning and development (L&D) professionals, who continue to try to influence change through training and then scratch our heads when employees don’t apply that training in the workplace.

Learning Transfer

Learning transfer is defined as the degree to which trainees apply what they learn in a training intervention in an on-the-job setting. It involves more than just remembering facts and concepts the training introduced but is vastly more complex, as it is influenced by a variety of factors both internal to the learner and external, in the work environment.

Learning transfer researchers have grouped these factors into three key areas: learner characteristics, learning design and environmental factors. When analyzing what makes training successful, the research points to environmental factors, such as the culture of the organization, as being the most influential influence on the success or failure of training.

Focus on Culture, Not Training

Considering the huge amount of money organizations spend on L&D activities and the fact that as much as 85% of training is ineffective in producing lasting changes in behavior, it’s important to realize that are we focusing too much on creating great training events and not enough on creating a culture that supports employees’ learning.

If the L&D team is responsible for employees’ growth, we have been like a gardener who plants a seed in a flower pot with some soil — and then puts the flower pot in a dark cupboard and assumes the plant will grow.

What We Can Do

There is a lot of research to suggest that the ecosystem of support that surrounds a learner before and after training has more effect on learning transfer than any traditional approach to delivering training. The openness of the ecosystem to change and how peers and managers respond to, support and promote new ideas and learning have more influence on learning transfer. Here are some examples of ways you can create such an ecosystem:

Cast a Wide Net

Train peers, co-workers or team members together so the entire group buys into the new skills and techniques. If you can’t train everyone together, communicate with learners’ teammates prior to and after the training to summarize what the learning is trying to achieve and how their support helps the team improve.

Enable Feedback

Feedback from others lets learners know how well they are doing and how they can improve. As such, feedback and coaching from an employee’s support network is the strongest predictor of training transfer. Transfer improves whether it’s a peer or a supervisor providing the feedback; what’s more important when it comes to learning transfer is the quality of the feedback. Take steps to ensure supervisors and peers understand the training and how learners should use it so they have a foundation for providing feedback.

Engage the Manager

A supportive manager has the biggest impact on learning transfer. Managers play a variety of roles in supporting employee growth; at times, they need to be a guide, a mentor, a sounding board, a console — and so much more. Ignoring the role the manager plays in the development of an employee is a one-way street to training failure.

Make sure learners’ managers know expectations for the learner after training, such as what type and how much practice is required and how you expect learners’ behavior to change. Provide guidelines outlining the challenges learners may face and how managers can support learners through these challenges. Give them a list of resources that learners will need in order to transfer their learning, and suggest potential projects learners could work on to use their new skills.

Organizations spend massive amounts of money on L&D every year — often with little to show for it. The continuing trends of investing heavily in the latest and greatest learning management system (LMS) to deliver training quickly and track completions, or purchasing a new authoring tool to create more elaborate training designs, are akin to filling a leaky bucket with water, without the right culture in place.

As we look toward the new year, think about how you invest in training, and remember that culture eats strategy for breakfast and training for dinner. For maximum training impact, any investment you make in training should focus first on improving the learning culture in your organization and then on the training you create.

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