Learning has a dirty secret

Emma Weber

“What dirty secret?” I hear you ask!

Let me tell you. Far too often, learning is not transferred back into real behavioural change in the workplace, creating tangible business results for the organisation.

And fine. This is nothing new. But why, years after acknowledgement that most learning is wasted are we still seeing a distinct lack of belief in the ability for learning to truly create business outcomes and to contribute strategically through guaranteed behavioural change post learning?

Many think – ‘behavioral change – that’s hard.’

Others label business outcomes post learning as the ‘holy grail of learning’.

OK so the brain has a tendency to go back to what is familiar and comfortable. When we are required to do something differently, it takes a high degree of effort. Change stimulates an arousal state perceived as stressful, so people resist it. But brain neuroplasticity tells us that the brain is not rigid. Despite the fact that it’s difficult to change, it is also completely possible to change.

Our 2017 learning transfer research found that 31% of contributors don’t actually know whether their learning interventions are benefitting job performance. 56% suggested that their organisation’s investments in learning were “generally beneficial”.

If the on the job benefits of the majority of learning or training are largely unknown or just “generally beneficial” then it begs the question – how can we increase visibility and effectively evaluate the outcomes of learning so we can know categorically whether it has been beneficial?

I’d argue that if all learning was followed up with a structured and facilitated transfer of learning process supporting the learner to reflect on their learning goals, we might start to overcome this dirty secret.

Research has shown that reflecting on learning and experience is in fact far more influential than learning from experience (Stefano, Gino, Pisano & Staats, 2014).

Reflection supports learners to make new connections in their brains through insights, which in turn connects maps of learning and knowledge. This will change the brainwave state of the brain, causing an outpouring of catecholamines – feel good neurochemicals. This process also stimulates the basal ganglia – the habits section of the brain. There can be much deeper learning from that perspective, rather than the usual logical, linear kind of thinking that comes from the prefrontal cortex.

With a systematic approach back in the workplace, creating real change becomes not just a possibility but a reality. Use a transfer of learning methodology that relies on reflection, holding people accountable to change with a real person there to challenge, stretch and support. Pick your battles. Choose which initiatives you will follow through and support with a robust learning transfer strategy. Not every learning initiative is the same.

Ask yourself –

  • What is the learning required?
  • Where are the skills, knowledge and behaviour gaps?
  • What do people need to haveknow and do to create the outcomes you want?
  • What actions will people commit to?
  • How can you hold them accountable to change?

I believe that learning is of such intrinsic value to an organisation that it must be prioritised and taken seriously. To deserve that priority it is imperative that Learning & Development professionals are creating business impact from their work.

Reinforcement and retention are buzzwords in the industry right now. It is so important to go beyond content, beyond reminding, beyond reinforcement to reflection and accountability.

I envisage a future where L&D professionals are talking business outcomes with confidence. Where they know without a shadow of a doubt that behavioural change is guaranteed.

Take a look at our Learning Transfer Manifesto to get clear on how to meet the transfer of learning challenge.

For guidance on how to easily showcase learning results – take a look here.

Emma Weber

Emma Weber is a recognized authority on the transfer of learning. As CEO of Lever – Transfer of Learning, she has helped companies such as Telstra, Oracle and BMW deliver and measure tangible business results from learning. Emma has also been a guest speaker at learning effectiveness conferences worldwide and authored the hugely successful book Turning Learning into Action. Much more detail around the issues and solutions examined in this article are available in the book – please feel free to download a free chapter.