In many organizations, a successful hiring process and employee training program can be time-consuming and expensive. The effort and cost are worth it when the result is an efficient and productive new team member.
But new employees often have a hard time effectively transferring everything they learned in training to real-life job situations. Mistakes can ensue, and managers often must step in to fix the problem and remind the employee of proper procedures. Poor knowledge transfer can impair company productivity and employee morale.
Fortunately, there are strategies to implement in your employee training programs to help team members act with confidence and use their training effectively in everyday work situations.
5 tips for improving learning transfer in your organization
Transfer of learning in the workplace is the process of taking everything you learned about a job during a training program and then applying – or transferring – that knowledge to real-life work situations.
While every organization is unique, most include three stages in the learning transfer process:
With these three elements in mind, here are five tips for improving learning transfer in your organization.
1. Clearly identify learning goals and outcomes.
Before any training starts, it’s essential to review the training session’s purpose and clearly identify learning goals and outcomes. This is beneficial for two main reasons:
- Everyone knows the big picture. Your team can refocus its efforts and keep the big picture in mind. Identifying learning goals is standard practice in education. You often see sections labeled “Learning Objectives” at the beginning of textbook chapters, case studies or lectures.
- Participants know what to expect. Participants get an idea of where the training is headed and what will be expected of them at the end of the process. When people know what the takeaways are supposed to be, they’re more aware of what they’re learning and which pieces of information are most important.
For example, say you’re training customer service agents to field phone complaints properly. At the beginning of the training, you’d announce the learning goals and expected outcomes:
- Learn the proper way to greet customers.
- Understand when to transfer a customer to a superior.
- Know how to handle hostile customers.
Because the customer service agents know the expected outcomes, they’ll be more likely to focus on the materials related to these concepts.
FYI: A performance improvement plan can help both high performers and struggling workers focus on the behaviors that will help them reach their goals.
2. Use real-world examples during training.
When training your employees, it’s essential to use as many real-life examples and situational experiences as possible. If everything is a drill, they won’t be able to transfer much of what they learn from training sessions.
Let trainees shadow employees, field phone calls and get a taste of actual experiences. When combined with drills and exercises, these real-life experiences can facilitate a better transfer of learning and help to develop leadership capabilities.
3. Get buy-in from managers and other stakeholders.
Managers should be part of their future employees’ training. They know precisely how their department operates, and they may prefer specific protocols that human resources personnel are unaware of. Managers can share expectations with new hires and explain experiences they may encounter.
If the employee needs to interact with other departments, those department managers should also ideally be part of the training program. For example, if you’re training your shipping people, have sales managers instruct them on notifying salespeople about when their customers’ orders have shipped. This boosts efficiency while preventing silos within the company where one department doesn’t know what’s happening in other areas of the company.
4. Provide post-training support.
At the end of the training program, conduct a post-training briefing where you ensure employees understand how they should apply the skills they’ve learned. Set goals for how they will apply their knowledge moving forward.
It’s also essential to provide participants with ongoing, accessible support. They should have resources where they can ask questions, review concepts and communicate when they’re having trouble transferring knowledge to their job.
5. Pair new hires with a mentor.
After the training program, pair a new hire with a mentor in their department. The mentors should be someone who has been in the position for a while and can show the new team member the ropes. The mentoring period can be for a limited amount of time, just until the new person feels comfortable doing the job.
It’s crucial that the mentor has a lighter workload during this time so they don’t feel pressured, overburdened or resentful of the new hire for taking their time and attention.
Tip: Motivate employees to learn by making training concise and fun while showing them how new knowledge and skills can make their jobs easier or prepare them for internal promotions.
What is learning transfer?
Transfer of learning means learning in one context and applying that knowledge in other situations. There are three distinct types of learning transfer.
- Transfer from prior knowledge to learning: This is when a person has some experience or knowledge that touches on a subject and then takes a class or training program that goes into more depth.
- Transfer from old learning to new learning: This is when a person is familiar with a subject and is now brushing up on that knowledge due to new technology or developments in the field.
- Transfer from learning to an application: This is when a person takes a class or training program and is then expected to use the knowledge and skills they learned in the real world. This learning transfer type is most relevant to workplace situations.
Why is learning transfer so challenging?
While transferring something you learned to a new situation seems straightforward, it’s often challenging. People respond differently to training programs, and even if someone understands a concept thoroughly in training, this knowledge might not translate to real-world success.
For example, think about a college football team. Every year, there’s a new crop of athletes, and sometimes first-year students will take a “redshirt” year. During this time, they practice with the team but don’t compete in games. The year is dedicated to learning.
Sometimes a first-year student will get a chance to play. Even rarer, they are named the starting quarterback. They face the challenging task of transferring the knowledge learned in practice to a live-game situation with variables they can’t control.
Even if the athlete performed exceedingly well in practice, they might not achieve success right away.
How managers should think about learning transfer
If an athlete’s practice success doesn’t translate to actual games, the coaches don’t question the player’s athletic abilities. Instead, they think about how they can improve the transfer of learning. They may consider improving their practice structure so players can take more of what they learn on the practice field to the game field.
Business owners and managers should mirror this approach. When you recruit new employees with immense potential but see them underperforming in the workplace, don’t give up on them. Instead, think about how you can improve your training so that employees can take what they learned in the conference room and apply it to the sales floor.
Did you know? Improvements in the learning transfer process can support employee mental health by reducing the stress of poor communication and job dissatisfaction.
Why is learning transfer in the workplace so crucial?
Learning transfer issues have crucial implications for employees, managers, and business owners.
- How learning transfer problems affect employees: Imagine you’re a newly hired employee. You’re excited about your job and have just gone through the company’s training and onboarding process. Now it’s time to put this information into practice. You begin your work but end up confused about how you’re supposed to perform your duties. You refer to your training materials, but they aren’t clear. You must decide whether to bother your manager to ask questions or guess the best way to move forward and hope you’re right. You’re confused, frustrated and feel unappreciated at work. You’re fearful that this will make you lose your new job.
- How a manager experiences learning transfer problems: Say you’re a manager who recently hired someone to fill a position. You’re relieved that your department’s workload will be more shared and efficient. But the new employee has made mistakes and seems to need your attention constantly. You’re pulled away from other critical responsibilities and are starting to experience workplace burnout. You know the new hire went through the training program and should know what to do, and you don’t understand what went wrong. You’re disappointed and frustrated, and may be rethinking your hiring decision.
- How a business owner experiences learning transfer issues: If you’re a business owner, you may wonder why new employees seem to take a while before becoming fully functional even though they’ve gone through the training program. You’re concerned about company productivity since your new employees seem to need their hands held. Morale is suffering, and you’re not sure whom to blame. You know something has to change.
Tip: Measure learning transfer by giving employees a post-training survey, quizzing them at the end of training, monitoring employees’ behavior in their roles, and examining overall employee performance.
How to facilitate the transfer of learning
Your training program’s success depends on your ability to facilitate learning transfer among your employees and participants. It’s not about spending more money on training. Instead, focus your attention on giving your training programs the tools to facilitate your employees’ long-term success. It may not be easy, but the more time you spend improving your learning transfer processes, the more dividends you’ll see.
Larry Alton contributed to the writing and research in this article.