Development doesn’t end when the program concludes; it’s only just begun. Having regular opportunities to practice skills on the job promotes retention. Learners change their behavior when their direct managers and leaders provide continual reinforcement through a series of communications and activities before, during and after the program takes place.

What Defines Success?

What happens in the classroom is just the beginning; it’s what happens after the door closes that matters. The effectiveness of training is assessed on knowledge transfer, application and results, a combination that can’t happen without retention. Simply put, retention requires the information to stick, after which it can be recalled, applied and make the impact intended. Once the skills and behaviors are inherent, then you have reached success, helping to increase proficiency and shape a leader.

Unfortunately, this ideal scenario often isn’t reality. Studies indicate that 70 percent of information is lost in 24 hours and 90 percent within a week, according to Dr. Art Kohn. These numbers are unsettling, considering that U.S. training expenditures totaled over $70 billion in 2014.

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Applying adult learning theory and instructional design naturally promotes retention. Make learning experiential and active, highlight relevancy through examples, or reiterate the information in different ways. Although these approaches help, they don’t stop the retention loss.

Compare this process to a workout. You participate in a yoga class. You learn new techniques, receive detailed instructions, practice several times with the class and independently, and leave feeling energized and confident. However, you don’t find the time to practice on your own for a week or two. After which, you find yourself trying to recall the flows and feeling sore. Give it a month, and you’re not even sure where you’ve placed your mat. How would this scenario differ if you checked in with a yoga practitioner immediately and frequently after the class? It would be harder to let that mat collect dust, as this level of support would motivate and keep you accountable.

When applying this concept to the learning experience, it’s critical to incorporate the learners’ direct managers throughout the process. These individuals are the catalyst for retention and true behavior change.

The Manager as a Stakeholder

Good managers attract candidates, drive performance, engagement and retention, and play a key role in maximizing employees’ contribution to the organization.

As a good manager, you must work to increase your employees’ engagement and productivity, which involves becoming an active agent in their learning. Learning can’t be entirely left to human resources (HR), the chief learning officer, or any other learning and development (L&D) professional. They don’t have the bandwidth to be continuous facilitators of each individual’s learning and performance improvement. They aren’t close enough to the action on a daily basis to provide instructional experiences, identifying when and where they will have the most impact, as performance improvement expert Stephen Gill points out. This is when managers can influence the experiences, promoting true learning and retention.

It Starts on Day One

New employee orientation is the first impression employees get of the quality of the organization and the nature of the relationship with their manager. This is a pivotal time, as research shows that one of the biggest reasons employees leave a job is because of poor relationships with their managers. Take the orientation as an opportunity to make a positive impression by emphasizing how you value the employee’s development.

You can take actions such as induction activities involving reviewing the experience before and after the orientation, providing guidance on application of the information received, identifying a “buddy” for ongoing support, and arranging for shadowing a staff member during interactions or project work.

Mapping out specific, ongoing efforts and engaging the learner in this process is the next step. The learner will get the most out of the plan if she or he feels strong ownership of it by taking part in the development process. Plans should include actions such as check-ins, coaching and reinforcement activities to facilitate the application of the knowledge. Also, professional development rarely includes only gaining knowledge and skills. It often includes self-development and recognizing one’s capabilities and areas of opportunity. With the right guidance, learners are often the best experts at realizing their own needs for self-development.

Commit to Opportunities

A person’s motivation to transfer training back to the job is shaped during the learning experience. It comes as no surprise that when learners perceive learning as relevant, useful and valuable, they are more likely to apply their newly learned skills. Influencing factors include:

  • Acknowledging the need to improve job performance,
  • Belief that the new skills will help, and
  • Practicality and ease of transferring skills to improve performance.

Remember these factors when exploring your employees’ career and development aspirations. During these conversations, talk about how the employee wants/needs to grow, enabling insight into potential development opportunities. Document these ideas in an individual development plan so you and your employee can refer to them regularly and update accordingly.

Budget necessary funds for resources the learner will need. A budget may be necessary for course tuition and materials, self-study materials, videos, training fees, time and travel to attend courses, and other expenses.

If a development option involves attending a specific course, agree on expectations during the registration process. Talk with the employee about what she or he expects from the program and share what you want her or him to gain from attending the program. This is also a great time to talk about any pre-work required.

Take development seriously. You’re providing the money and time for an employee to attend a course, so treat it like an investment in the person and your organization. Ask employees to be sure they can dedicate the time out of the office for the course and if they can’t, suggest rescheduling. Provide support by reallocating workloads while they are attending the course. Know that by helping your employee develop, you’re also helping your team and organization develop.

Provide Ongoing Feedback and Support

After the learning has been delivered and the learner is back at work, action is needed. Even if things seem fine, regular check-ins are a must; making your employee aware of this process promotes accountability. Check-ins should consist of ongoing affirmation and support, opportunities to demonstrate the new skills being applied, and timely and targeted feedback.

Greater manager involvement in L&D promotes the notion of lifelong learning and improves the quality of these activities. Line managers, rather than HR or personnel specialists, are best placed to understand both the organizational and individual needs, according to Stephen Gibb.

Promoting and facilitating the process of the learners using and retaining what they’ve learned in training takes little time, but it makes a significant difference. Discussing results and providing feedback is motivating, demonstrates that the manager is watching and supporting their efforts, builds accountability, and helps sustain the energy required for behavior change.

The Other Ingredient

Engagement of the manager is critical, but he or she can’t go it alone. When both the manager and the learner are committed to ongoing focus and development, they reach the winning combination.

All too often we see that learners don’t take the extra steps needed for retention. They attend the training, but then return to their desks to tackle work piled in their absence while the new information they received slips away. Post-assignments are commonly implemented to combat this loss, but, these too, are often perceived a burden or simply completed to check the box.

For example, a post-assignment was implemented to support a leadership development program. The learners were tasked with reading an article that was methodically selected, reinforcing the concepts learned in a dynamic way. They posted their reactions on a discussion board and answered questions that were carefully crafted and vetted.

Can you guess what happened next? The discussion board was empty except for a few diligent learners taking the time to complete the assignment. One post was exceptional and completed by a high-potential individual. Later, this individual expressed frustration with the assignment, perceiving it to be nothing more than busy work. If learners can’t perceive the value and impact, it does become busy work for all involved.

Awareness and Defined Steps

The empty discussion boards are alerts that something is amiss; the misstep is not making the value and impact evident. When someone participates in a session, monetary and time investments are made.   With the average employee investing 34.1 hours in formal training annually, according to ATD research, they certainly don’t want to waste time any more than L&D professionals do. It’s likely a matter of employees being unaware that retention takes effort.

For an optimal outcome, both the learner and his or her manager need to make the effort. There are approaches to avoid this inadvertent pitfall and to act against retention loss. They are as follows:

  • Increase awareness: Make learners aware of the retention paradox and provide the supporting data. Awareness shifts perceptions, and the support and effort are recognized.
  • Inform: Advise them of the efforts that will be taken to ensure retention, including the role of the manager. Unknown problems can’t be solved; acknowledging that one exists is the first step.
  • Set them up for success: Involvement in the planning and evaluation approaches is valued and creates buy-in, so ensure that the learners can weigh-in throughout the process. This can range from self-selection of activities to individual goal setting.
  • Incorporate accountability: Identifying specific expectations, including actions, goals and timing, for both the manager and learner, promotes prioritization and accountability.
  • Make it stick: Commit to the process and make it happen. Embedding it into the overall learning process makes it a default piece of the programming over time.

Awareness, manager involvement and learner ownership are the key ingredients to the recipe for success. Focusing on and implementing specific efforts that involve the right players stops the retention loss and has the potential to significantly increase the effectiveness of your training long after you close the classroom door.