I was comparing notes recently with a learning designer friend on challenging conversations we have with senior managers and clients. We reflected on a common scenario: a program review and the inevitable push to tweak the learning content to “make the activities more engaging” or “make the assessment more “difficult to pass.”

My friend’s client wanted to adjust what was a “great learning program” to make it more actionable. When she told the client politely that what the program really needed was an analysis of why learning wasn’t being transferred into workplace actions, she received the usual quizzical looks and was told to tweak the content.

We’ve all been there: We might lobby for some kind of analysis, only to receive pushback and a request make the learning our priority. It’s frustrating, because we all know that, even with the best training, learning isn’t always applied back on the job.

What Managers and Clients Focus on and How They Miss the Mark

Management and clients tend to ask questions that they think get to the heart of why learning isn’t applied:

  • Do people lack the intelligence to apply the learning?
  • Is it a question of personal motivation?
  • Does the learning need to be redesigned?
  • Do we need to review the incentives for employees to apply learning?

On the surface, they seem like good questions, but they don’t address the real issues. Moreover, these questions are reactive, like slamming the barn door shut once the horse has bolted. What should we do?

Getting to the Heart of Why Learning Isn’t Transferred

An investigative approach can help us expand our skill set and ensure that learning is a success for learners and companies. Let’s take the typical example of a training intervention where salespeople need to learn a large amount of new product information. The learners participate in a great training event, receive access to a learning portal with lots of curated content and then go back to work. Somewhere down the line, we find out that our learners have trouble explaining the information to customers.

Why? It’s unlikely to be low intelligence, low motivation, bad learning design or poor incentives. It’s more likely that they forgot the information or had trouble adapting it to their specific job scenarios.

So, what can we do to understand potential barriers to application? Even before designing the learning, we should investigate how people are going to apply it to find out what the key application problems might be. We could talk to prospective learners, ask for feedback from their managers, survey our cohort or observe learners as they work.

For example, with information-based learning, employees probably need reminders and cues about how to adapt information to their job roles. Doing some basic analysis can help us design learning transfer tactics for a particular group of people to overcome problems with application.

In the case of our product knowledge training, it would have been worth knowing how, when and how much product information people need to recall to do their jobs well. It would also have been good to know if information use was different for face-to face customer enquiries versus telephone or email messaging.

How Does Early Analysis Save Time and Money?

The people holding the purse strings might say that budget doesn’t allow for investigation and that doing early analysis is intrusive or time-consuming. However, learning projects are no different from other projects: They need to be planned, and the risks need to be assessed. Lack of learning application is a risk that can cost companies money that would have been better invested in other ways.

Learning transfer isn’t a secret sauce that solves all application problems, but without support, only an average of one out of six people apply what they learned in training, according to Robert Brinkerhoff’s 2003 book “The Success Case Method.” As a result, knowing how to double or triple application effectively doubles or triples your learning return on investment (ROI).

Investing some money and time into investigating the barriers to learning application early, and making plans to overcome them, saves time making reactive adjustments and makes financial sense in the long run.