Consider the following question: “What is the purpose of training?”

What would your answer be?

Often the initial answers about learning, knowledge, new skills and compliance change as people reflect on the desired end result from training. They usually begin to hone in on a purpose for training that is about helping people develop so they can be better at delivering what they do on behalf of their employer. They arrive at something like, “The purpose of training is to improve competence, and thereby, change the way people do things, so they perform better and get better results at work.”

Fair enough, but how successful is learning and development (L&D) at doing this?

An article published in the McKinsey Quarterly stated, “Only one-quarter of the respondents to a recent McKinsey survey said their training programs measurably improved business performance.” This survey, and many others, show that training can work well for some trainees but does not work reliably. Why?

Look again at the purpose above. Another way to think of this is – What you do in the training room matters, but what your trainees do afterward matters more. In 2012, a group of researchers conducted a meta-analysis of the science of training and development in organizations and found, “Successful training is not a one-time event but an iterative process that considers the elements leading up to training as well as important factors after training.”

It’s clear that training should never be sent on a solo mission. Training should never be presented, like James Bond, as the lone hope for saving the world. Training should be executed as part of a team, where the other players are just as important. Alternatively, you can expand your concept of training, so when you think of training, it includes everything from the initial analysis through the final measurement. When you do this, the classroom component is just one of the pieces of the program.

Ultimately, this is about learning transfer. Arguably, if there is no learning transfer, the training was not successful. So, you must ask the question: Are the trainees effectively using the content presented to them in the training event, and if not, why?

Understanding Learning Transfer

Learning transfer relies on learners choosing to take action after the training event. If they do nothing, or not enough, learning transfer does not happen, and the training has failed. The key is to make sure that learners act. It is the lack of action, and therefore lack of learning transfer, that is at the heart of the low success rates for training identified in so many surveys.

Most training done in organizations pays little attention to learning transfer. It is one of the elephants in the L&D strategy room. The case for proactively driving the learning transfer process is self-evident, yet so many learning professionals choose to behave as if the elephant is not there. On the rare occasion anyone points out the elephant, there is usually an acknowledgement of its existence, followed by a slide back into the usual explanations for traditional delivery: “Let’s just get the people through this program that the head of operations wanted.” They are held captive by culture, context and traditional practices. L&D professionals are busy; they are short on time, resources and energy.

Addressing the Elephant in the Room

The learning transfer elephant is big and should be impossible to ignore, because ignoring it is expensive. Besides, it really annoys the elephant. Every training program should be focused on making sure that what is learned in the classroom is subsequently deployed in the workplace and has a positive and sustainable effect on performance. Otherwise, why do the training at all?

The good news is that you can transform your training events into effective development programs. Yes, it takes more work, but what’s the point in continuing to do something that isn’t working well? There is a saying often misattributed to Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

To give yourself the bandwidth to expand your training to include learning transfer activities, consider whether you would be better served by training less people and providing better results for the people you do train. When you can demonstrate the new way you approach training gets better results for the organization, the door opens to asking for and receiving more resources.

The next question has two parts: What needs to be done, and who needs to do it?

To get the right things done, the work of Dr. Ina Weinbauer-Heidel and her 12 levers for effective learning transfer is highly recommended. The levers focus on three areas – the mindset of the trainee, the design of the program and the workplace environment.

When you look through the 12 levers, it becomes obvious that a variety of people need to be involved in learning transfer activities. This includes the trainee, their manager, their colleagues, the facilitator, the program designer, the executive sponsor and many others – especially when you consider the cultural context lever. Without input from all these people, reliable learning transfer will not occur. It is this breadth of responsibility for pulling the levers that is most likely the reason learning transfer fails following most training courses. Someone must be held accountable for the results of the entire program, and in turn, someone must hold the varying parties accountable for doing their part.

Think of a recent training program you were involved in. Who was responsible for the different aspects of the program, particularly those activities that were supposed to take place outside the training room? Was there anyone with the authority to hold various stakeholders accountable for their input in the program? If there were any activities that trainees were supposed to do after the event, what were the consequences if they failed to do so? What about the managers of the trainees – were they held accountable? It’s a fact of busy organizational life that – unless there are consequences for inaction – people will find other things to do that are more urgent, because those do have real consequences.

Who receives the “blame” when a training program does not transfer well or does not solve the problem it was intended to solve should also be considered. Have you ever heard this? “We sent the team for training and they still aren’t doing their job right, so the training was obviously not good enough.” What they mean is that the training event itself was not good enough, because they perceive training as a one-time event. If you use an expanded definition of training, including the whole program from beginning to end, their statement is still true, but it becomes obvious that there are many places other than the classroom where improvements can be made. For example, use the 12 levers as a framework to show all stakeholders they have a role in contributing to the success of the program, and that it is unreasonable to place full blame on how L&D delivered the classroom event.

A good reputation and, by extension, the brand of L&D is dependent upon delivering successful development programs. At a recent conference, Josh Bersin said that their study regarding the net promoter score for L&D resulted in an average value of minus 31. Given the range of possible values is from minus 100 to plus 100, L&D is not doing well in terms of customer satisfaction. Why does L&D in organizations have such a poor reputation? One of the reasons is the lack of successful results due to ignoring the learning transfer elephant.

Ignore the learning transfer elephant at your peril, because without learning transfer, your training budget is mostly wasted, and your reputation becomes tattered.