We all know that manager involvement in learning makes a difference, which is why managers are often seen as central to solving learning transfer problems. We can call out many studies that show increased levels of transfer when managers are even perceived to be involved in the learning process. And it makes sense – of course managers are important for the development and support of their teams.

Managers Know Something That Research Misses

What the research doesn’t tell us is how managers feel about being involved. Imagine that your training organization has asked a hard-working but overburdened manager – let’s call her Sarah – to increase her workload to satisfy learning program needs. You ask her to set up meetings with her team to discuss training and how to apply what they learn.

It doesn’t matter how supportive she is or how dedicated she is to the success of her team; there are only so many hours in the day. What Sarah really wants is to be involved on a level where she can make a difference to the performance of her team members. Instead of asking Sarah to be involved with every learning project, you should target the use of her time and expertise.

As learning advisers, we generally tell clients that they should bring managers into the transfer plan when they can satisfy the following three criteria:

  • They are able to support guided practice and give feedback relevant to the course.
  • They have some experience applying approximate skills taught on the course.
  • They know which skills are important for the development of their team members.

What We Should Ask Managers to Do

Managers’ involvement in learning is most effective when they can support their team members in practicing their new skills through constructive feedback. Ask Sarah to contribute to a team member’s practice and feedback session for a new skill – maybe presentation skills or customer service. If Sarah is a good presenter or has good customer service skills, she can enrich what her team member learned in training through this practice session. And, because Sarah knows her team member’s desired performance levels, she has an interest in helping members achieve those levels, again through giving feedback that mirrors the course content.

When we look at manager involvement through those three conditions, it makes less sense to do other commonly requested tasks, such as:

  • Ask Sarah to coach a team member through how to use new product information from training on the product, which she may know less about than her team member.
  • Assist a team member to create small habits, such as active listening or constructive feedback, that her team member learned in a project management course.
  • Help with the maintenance of the type of skills that are best supported through peers or other people who have been through the same training.

What to Do Next

The examples above show that manager involvement should be targeted if you want to fully leverage their good will and expertise without overburdening them with tasks best done by other people.

Start by asking yourself which training programs don’t need Sarah’s involvement – for example, topics like building good communication habits or recalling knowledge. Eliminate those programs, and then determine how you can support Sarah on the programs that do need her support. Provide her with job aids and support materials so that she provide the type of feedback and guidance that learners need.

If you think about manager involvement as a process of elimination, you’ll end up with a small but targeted number of training courses where you know the managers can provide the biggest impact, without taking all their time.