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Updated Apr 08, 2024

5 Ways to Improve Transfer of Learning in the Workplace

Train employees to act with confidence in real-world situations.

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Jennifer Dublino, Senior Writer & Expert on Business Operations
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A successful hiring process and employee training program are key to business success. Ideally, you’ll quickly get new employees trained and fully engaged in their jobs to maximize productivity and minimize disruption.

However, new employees often have difficulty 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 lower employee morale. 

Fortunately, there are strategies you can implement in your employee training programs to help team members act confidently and use their training effectively in everyday work situations.

5 tips for improving learning transfer in your organization

You want your employees to take everything they learned during training and apply it when handling real-life work situations. To improve how well they do this, consider the following five tips:

1. Clearly identify learning goals and outcomes.

Before training begins, it’s essential to review each session’s purpose and identify its learning goals and outcomes. This is beneficial for two primary reasons:

  1. Everyone understands the big picture. When everyone knows the purpose of a training session, they will keep the big picture in mind as they learn. Identifying learning goals is standard practice in education. You often see “Learning Objectives” sections at the beginning of textbook chapters, case studies and lectures.
  2. Participants know what to expect. Participants get an idea of where the training is headed and what will be expected at the end of the process. When people know what the takeaways should be, they’re more aware of what they’re learning and which pieces of information are most important.

Here’s an example of clearly identifying learning goals during training: Say you’re training customer service agents to field phone complaints properly. At the beginning of the training session, you’d announce its 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.

FYIDid you know
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. 

To help trainees gain experience, let them shadow employees, field phone calls and get a taste of real-world situations. When combined with drills and exercises, these real-life experiences can facilitate a better transfer of learning and help develop leadership skills.

3. Get buy-in from managers and other stakeholders.

Managers should be involved in their future employees’ training. They know precisely how their department operates and may prefer specific protocols that the HR department is unaware of. Managers can share expectations with new hires and explain any experiences they may encounter.

If an employee must 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 cross-departmental cooperation 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 a training program, conduct a post-training briefing to ensure employees understand how to 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 have trouble transferring knowledge to their jobs.

5. Pair new hires with a mentor.

After the training program, pair a new hire with a mentor in their department. The mentor 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 limited – 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.

TipBottom line
Motivate employees to learn by making training concise and fun while showing them how new knowledge and skills can make their jobs easier and prepare them for internal promotions.

What is learning transfer?

Transfer of learning in the workplace is the process of taking everything you learned about a job during an employee training program and then applying – or transferring – that knowledge to real-life work situations. In other words, it’s 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 deeper.
  • 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 expected to use the knowledge and skills they learned in the real world. This learning transfer type is most relevant to workplace situations.

The 3 stages of learning transfer

While every organization is unique, most include three stages in the learning transfer process:

  • Preparation
  • Action
  • Evaluation

Preparation

This stage occurs before training and involves preparing the training topics, materials and methodology. The new employee’s direct supervisor, your internal HR department or various managers will handle this stage. 

In the preparation stage, the following training elements will be addressed:

  • Training topics and goals: Your training team will set specific business outcomes. For example, a goal might be “The new hire will be able to achieve 70 percent of the team’s average productivity by the end of the first week and 90 percent by the end of the second week.” They’ll also set learning goals, such as “The new hire will be able to access and use our pricing database.”
  • Materials: Your training team will decide on a training model and materials. For example, they may opt for an in-person class, self-driven reading assignments, videos or a combination of elements. They’ll need to gather, write or record the appropriate materials and ensure they accurately reflect the company’s processes, policies and technology.
  • Methodology: In addition to materials, the training team will decide on a specific methodology. For example, the training may involve group classes, individual online learning sessions, on-the-job training and role-playing, or a combination. It may also incorporate reinforcement training, including mentoring relationships or co-worker partnerships, to provide real-world guidance.

Action

This stage occurs during training. Your training team must conduct and monitor the training sessions and continuously ensure things are going well, including the following: 

  • Training atmosphere: The training team must ensure all training sessions are engaging. Bored employees won’t absorb knowledge. Additionally, they should make sure that presenters are personable, friendly, animated (avoid monotones) and interactive. Sessions should include frequent breaks, varied content, short quizzes, games and humor. Consider providing refreshments for the training session, especially if it’s lengthy. You want to keep trainees’ attention and make them feel welcome.
  • Logistics: The training team must efficiently handle all logistics, such as scheduling a room and designating trainers for in-person classes. They should test all technology ahead of time, including videos, microphones, computers and other equipment, to ensure everything works as expected. Presenters and trainers should know their schedules and locations and be prepared to present their materials with a thorough knowledge of the curriculum. 

Evaluation

The third stage is evaluation. It’s crucial to evaluate your training programs during each session or after all training concludes. The goal is to ensure trainees have amassed the proper knowledge and that sessions have been effective. Evaluations can be formal (e.g., a written test), informal (e.g., asking questions after presenting information to assess knowledge transfer) or both. You can also conduct periodic evaluations throughout the new hire’s initial several weeks or months to ensure the information has been retained.

TipBottom line
Measure learning transfer by giving employees a post-training survey, quizzing them at the end of training, monitoring employees in their roles and examining overall employee performance.

Why is learning transfer in the workplace so crucial?

Learning transfer issues have crucial implications for employees, managers and business owners. Here’s why learning transfer in the workplace is so essential:

1. Poor learning transfer adversely impacts employees. 

Improving the transfer of learning sets employees up for success. In contrast, poor learning transfer creates confusion and frustration. 

For example, say you’re a newly hired employee who’s just completed the company’s training and onboarding process. You begin working 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 by asking questions or guessing the best way to move forward. You’re confused and frustrated and feel underappreciated at work. You’re fearful of losing your new job.

2. Poor learning transfer frustrates managers. 

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. However, the new employee has made mistakes and seems to need your attention constantly. You find yourself frequently pulled away from other critical responsibilities and are starting to experience workplace burnout

You know the new hire went through a training program and should know what to do, but you don’t understand what went wrong. You’re disappointed and frustrated and may be rethinking your hiring decision.

3. Poor learning transfer creates chaos for business owners. 

Business owners rely on their teams to meet goals and grow the company. New hires are integral to business growth and success. However, it can be confusing and frustrating when new employees take a while before becoming fully functional – even though they’ve undergone a training program. New hires who can’t hold their own impact company productivity and morale, and business owners are left to deal with unhappy teams and managers.

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. There’s a new crop of athletes every year, and sometimes first-year students will take a “redshirt” year. They practice with the team during this time 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 to the starting lineup. 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. 

Training programs that are not well thought out and well executed can leave out critical information, bore the trainees or fail to focus on likely real-world situations and scenarios. Since employee training is critical to successful business operations, it behooves you to spend time and effort evaluating and optimizing the process.

TipBottom line
HR management software can help you manage employee training and development through in-person training, online courses and workshops.

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 consider how they can improve the transfer of learning. For example, they may consider improving their practice structure so players can take more of what they learn on the practice field to games.

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 they can take what they learned in the conference room and apply it to the sales floor. 

Did You Know?Did you know
Improvements in the learning transfer process can support employee mental health by reducing the productivity-killing stress of poor communication and job dissatisfaction.

Boost productivity and engagement by improving 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. 

author image
Jennifer Dublino, Senior Writer & Expert on Business Operations
Jennifer Dublino is an experienced entrepreneur and astute marketing strategist. With over three decades of industry experience, she has been a guiding force for many businesses, offering invaluable expertise in market research, strategic planning, budget allocation, lead generation and beyond. Earlier in her career, Dublino established, nurtured and successfully sold her own marketing firm. Dublino, who has a bachelor's degree in business administration and an MBA in marketing and finance, also served as the chief operating officer of the Scent Marketing Institute, showcasing her ability to navigate diverse sectors within the marketing landscape. Over the years, Dublino has amassed a comprehensive understanding of business operations across a wide array of areas, ranging from credit card processing to compensation management. Her insights and expertise have earned her recognition, with her contributions quoted in reputable publications such as Reuters, Adweek, AdAge and others.
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