Lee Waller is a Research Fellow at Ashridge.

She has a first
degree in Psychology, an MSc in Occupational Psychology,
and is a member of the British Psychological Society.
Her research focuses on enhancing what participants on
leadership development programmes learn and apply, the
evaluation of development interventions, and the impact of
emotion on learning.

Email: lee.waller@ashridge.org.uk

Enhancing the transfer of learning:
A focus on the individual
Despite the current economic uncertainty,
organisations are continuing to spend a significant
amount on the development of their employees.
But how can they ensure that the learning from these
programmes is being applied in the workplace?
Lee Waller suggests that the attitudes and motivations
of the individual may be the critical element in making
learning stick, and explores what this means for
the learner, the programme designers, and the
organisations involved.
Ashridge Business School


it involves more than just the individual learner. new ways of working. statistics suggest that less than 50% of employees transfer their learning after six months. as illustrated in Figure 13. Organisations spend a vast amount of money on developing their human resource. how motivated they are to apply their learning. To develop as a leader. A poor return on investment in anyone’s book. and how confident they are that they are able to improve their performance4. But research continues to suggest that this money may not always be well spent. Programme (training) design relates to how relevant the content is to the individual. Generalisation and maintenance Reproduced with the permission of John Wiley & Sons. Individual (trainee) characteristics refers to how prepared individuals are to attend development programmes. These factors are generally categorised into one of three areas: Individual characteristics. and as little as 10-20% of learning gained on leadership development programmes is actually applied on the job1. While programme review sheets may indicate that participants are happy with what they have learned. Baldwin and Ford’s Model of Transfer http://www. Transferring this from the classroom to the workplace therefore involves more than just memory.uk .5. Leadership development involves more than just learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge. and how helpful the methods are in assisting them to apply learning6. programme design.org. even when times are tough. In the context of leadership development. and the work environment. Indeed. one has to learn new behaviours.2. Ashridge Business School Fig 1.ashridge. and change attitudes.The Ashridge Journal Enhancing the transfer of learning Spring 2012 Background to the research What influences whether or not learning is applied at work? The extent to which leadership development programmes actually have an impact in the workplace is a question which has been debated for some time. the ability to apply learning back at work involves a complicated interaction of many factors.

org. and as such.10. and how open the organisation characteristics such as motivation and learning will be transferred. where opportunities arise for skills become evident. which will be discussed as the support that individuals get from their importance of the programme design to below. In the 1960s the individual. practised.The Ashridge Journal Enhancing the transfer of learning Spring 2012 Work environment includes factors such Early research in this area focused on the Our research.uk . suggests that perhaps it is indeed the manager to apply learning. the process of system’. As will These components constitute the ‘transfer returns. Transfer system factors Individual characteristics Programme design Work environment Learner readiness The extent to which individuals are prepared to enter and participate in learning Content validity The extent to which individuals judge learning content to reflect job requirements accurately Personal capacity to transfer The extent to which individuals have the time. transferring learning is not so clear cut. whether their the transfer of learning. The transfer system Ashridge Business School http://www. cognitive ability9. schedules allow them the time to practise focus shifted to the individual. is to using new ways or working7. and more recently to the perhaps efforts to enhance the transfer of work environment to which the individual learning should be focused here.ashridge. energy and mental space in their work lives to make changes required to use learning on the job Motivation to transfer The extent to which individuals are motivated to use their knowledge and expertise in their work Transfer design The extent to which learning has been designed to match job requirements and give participants the ability to transfer learning to the job Opportunity to use The extent to which individuals are provided with or obtain resources and tasks on the job enabling them to use knowledge and expertise Performance self-efficacy An individual’s general belief that they are able to change their performance when they want to Supervisor support The extent to which managers support and reinforce learning on the job Supervisor sanctions The extent to which individuals perceive negative responses from managers when applying new learning Transfer-effort performance expectations The expectation that effort devoted to using learning will lead to changes in job performance Peer support The extent to which peers reinforce and support use of learning on the job Performance-outcome expectations The expectation that changes in job performance will lead to outcomes valued by the individual Positive personal outcomes The degree to which applying learning leads to outcomes that are positive for the individual Negative personal outcomes The extent to which participants believe that applying their knowledge and expertise will lead to negative outcomes Performance coaching Formal and informal indicators from an organisation about an individual’s job performance Resistance to change The extent to which work groups are perceived by individuals to discourage use of new knowledge and expertise Fig 2. to be used. exploring which best determines whether or not new skills. and are detailed in Figure 28. however. and mastered11. their attitudes and motivations.

and work environment to provide a picture of the influence of these three areas on transfer. influential are the characteristics of the individual. There were however. or how it Ashridge Business School http://www. All were European. and two from the UK public sector • 88 individuals from eight different tailored leadership development programmes responded to the first online survey. This area was found to be the strongest facilitator of learning transfer.” Individuals were also motivated to apply what they had learned. five from the private sector. Both qualitative and quantitative methods were used to collect the data. and were taking responsibility for applying learning. and uniquely. confident that the learning would improve their performance. For example.uk . the programme design. • Seven of our client organisations took part in the research.org. or the support they receive from the work environment to which they return. Participants were keen to attend programmes and most understood their benefits. sent a week after the programmes • 72 responded to the second survey. two key barriers to applying learning in this area. programme design.ashridge. as well as open-ended questions exploring participants’ learning and transfer experiences. creating opportunities to use new skills. and the work environment – had an impact on whether a participant would use what they have learned. yes. It would seem that how prepared participants are to learn and how motivated they are to apply learning is more important to whether learning is transferred than the design of the programme. On the whole. sent 6-8 weeks after the programmes • 14 individuals were interviewed 7-12 weeks following the programmes. Scores for these 16 factors were combined into the three categories of individual characteristics. whilst many individuals anticipated benefits from attending the programmes. particularly in terms of leadership skills development and preparing for future roles. unique influence on whether learning was transferred. a high score for the factor of ‘supervisor support’ would indicate that the individual expected to receive a lot of support from their manager to apply learning. This was the only area to have a statistically significant. many did not actually know what to expect from the programme before they joined. Were the characteristics of our participants facilitating the transfer of their learning? The Learning Transfer System Inventory (LTSI)12 assessed the likelihood that an individual’s ‘transfer system’ would facilitate transfer by measuring the 16 factors as detailed in Figure 2. First. One leader felt it was “a good opportunity for me to be able to get this very specific type of leadership training. what appears to be most.The Ashridge Journal Enhancing the transfer of learning Spring 2012 The research procedure and methodology Research findings Our research found that while all three areas of the transfer system – the individual characteristics. As one participant eloquently put it: “I was really motivated when I got back. Everyone else was as well – they wanted to conquer the world!” The second questionnaire provided a measure of reported transfer. which were further explored in the 1:1 interviews.

whilst critical to transfer. many individuals found on their return to work that they slipped back into bad habits and old ways of doing things.ashridge.org. a model of learning transfer proposed by Kirwan and Birchall. Second.The Ashridge Journal Enhancing the transfer of learning Spring 2012 Transfer design Perceived content validity Performance self-efficacy Learner readiness Feedback and coaching Peer support Manager support Opportunity to use Resistance to change Manager sanctions Positive outcomes Transfer Negative outcomes Fig 3. an individual characteristic. and the autonomy to create opportunities to use the learning themselves. the efforts of an individual to transfer their learning are likely to come to nothing if the programme is not relevant to their role. which argues that motivation to transfer. as influential as they may be. such as the practical sessions.” http://www. Kirwan and Birchall’s Model of Learning Transfer linked to their development. new projects on which they could use their new skills. it becomes clear that the characteristics of the individual. One participant told us his manager was “giving me new responsibilities and new authority that empowers me to act out what we learned on the course. one of which was manager support. and as such were not clear how they could apply their learning to their roles. This is demonstrated in Figure 3. and those which are responsibility of the organisation13. may be influenced by other areas of the transfer system. does not nurture their confidence to use their learning.” The work environment Whilst the area of the work environment was perceived by our participants as the weakest facilitator of transfer of learning. is at the heart of the transfer process. One leader told us: “One has a tendency to fall back on ways of behaving that you’re comfortable with. particularly when under pressure. or they do not find support from the work environment to which they return to apply what they have learned. participants didn’t anticipate receiving support from their managers to apply learning. One leader told us there were “many practical tasks that helped us better understand and start to use what we had learned. and is impacted by factors from across the system. the Therefore. Was transfer supported by the programme design and participants’ organisations? The programme design Whilst this area was perceived as only a weak facilitator of transfer. some elements of the organisations were supporting the application of learning.” In considering these two barriers. but when they returned to work found that their bosses were giving them more responsibility. Ashridge Business School helped them transfer their learning. Interestingly. many of our participants did find the content was relevant and the programme design. both those which are the responsibility of the programme designers.uk . feedback and coaching.

since this will encourage their engagement in learning from the outset and focus their thoughts on how their new skills can be employed15. Once they return to work. Recommendations for enhancing learning transfer So what does this mean for those involved in the learning and transfer process? What is it that we all need to do to ensure that participants possess the appropriate knowledge. it’s different from other colleagues. that robust diagnostic processes are employed to ensure the programme is specifically tailored to the organisation and the participants’ roles. M re 3. Ku Sá Le M 2. The programme designers The part that the programme designers play is also a continuing one. developing an action plan to take things forward.” As straightforward as this may appear. Seeking feedback from peers. didn’t provide them with development opportunities. Participants found that when they returned to work. and found that their bosses were not interested in what they had learned. Whilst on the programme individuals should be identifying clear links to their role and career.” But by far the biggest barrier to applying learning from within the organisation appears to be time.. even the most motivated individual is likely to fail to apply their new skills14. attitudes and motivations to maximise their learning transfer? Ashridge Business School http://www. as to a certain extent this is within their sphere of control. and start to think about ways in which they can apply learning. taking responsibility for transferring new skills. What might be important here however. Re 1. It is critical therefore. energy or mental space.org. “I have been so busy it is hard to take a step back and apply new things. It makes it difficult to feed back to him and make him aware of my progress. An individual who can recognise the relevance of a programme to their role will not only have opportunities back at work to use the learning. Without the necessary time. Tr m . others expected to face objections from their peers if they attempted to use their new skills: “I will face barriers. direct reports and managers will also help to build confidence in the development of their skills16.” There was also quite a split in terms of the support that leaders found from their organisations in terms of their openness to change.The Ashridge Journal Enhancing the transfer of learning Spring 2012 Others however. Their first responsibility is to ensure that content is relevant to those who will attend17.ashridge. and identifying and creating ways in which they can use what they have learned will help ensure that this learning is not lost. particularly those with very busy managers. because it’s new. is that participants understand what they can do themselves to enhance the impact of their learning. Di or . Whilst some told us that their work environment was a place where trying something new was welcomed. they need to ensure that they understand how the programme will benefit their role and career. but are likely to be motivated to learn and to transfer. resistance. it is this factor that so often thwarts efforts to transfer learning.uk The individual learner The influence that the individual would appear to have is encouraging. were less fortunate. pressure of heavy workloads made it difficult to find time to try out new ways of working. or have time to discuss their learning: “I don’t really see him that much nowadays because he’s got more locations to travel to. Before they have even stepped through the classroom door.

individuals need to be confident that applying learning will bring positive results. A critical element to improving transfer is an awareness and understanding of what it is that needs to be done to support the transfer of learning. will also act as a progress check. helping to avoid the common pitfall of reverting to type. Finally. to ensure that programmes are aligned to participant’s jobs. objectives. of their potential barriers and facilitators of learning transfer. Organisations The role of the organisation again begins long before the programme starts.ashridge.The Ashridge Journal Enhancing the transfer of learning Spring 2012 The programmes themselves also need to provide opportunities for individuals to practise new skills and make clear links to the workplace. It’s equally important that the benefits of the programmes are communicated clearly and that development is positioned as reward and recognition if individuals are to be motivated to attend and to learn19. feedback and reflection during programmes also helps build confidence by identifying strengths. influencing particpants’ attitudes towards learning and their motivation to transfer this learning. it could cancel out the efforts of others and have a detrimental impact on whether or not learning is applied. However. Appropriate selection and nomination processes are therefore key. There are a plethora of potential influences. what the subsequent exploration of all the factors in the transfer system has taught us is that the development of these characteristics is very much in the hands of both the programme designers and the organisations to which the individual returns. and serve to prompt participants to use new skills rather than old and familiar ways of working.org. areas for development. and that it is indeed relevant to their role or future role. Being aware of what we all can do. along with recommendations for how they might increase the amount of learning they are able to apply back at work. Providing opportunities for coaching. This will encourage motivation to apply learning and promote a continuous learning culture so that learning is not regarded as something that stops once the individual leaves the classroom. and ways to apply learning and overcome obstacles18. In conclusion In many ways it would appear that the researchers of the 1960s and 1970s had the right idea. support from their organisations can come in a variety of ways. Managers need to provide opportunities and space in their employees’ workloads for them to practise new skills. Ashridge is developing such a tool – a psychometric that will provide a profile to both the individual and the organisation. as we have seen. increase their responsibility and offer stretching assignments20. Developing clear action plans which align learning to specific objectives and detail how learning will be applied will help to ensure practical ways to use learning are identified. that organisations demonstrate that learning and using new skills is valued. It’s important therefore. As the factors that influence transfer are so interwoven. will help improve the longterm impact of leadership development programmes. skills and attitudes to learn and to transfer learning may indeed be the key to ensuring that learning is applied back at work. as well as developing self-efficacy and nurturing confidence. We all need to take responsibility for our part in the process. and transfer becomes a natural part of the learning journey21. and support this through clear policies and rewards for development. return on investment for organisations. Ensuring that individuals arrive in the classroom with the necessary knowledge. and ultimately result in learning that transfers from the classroom to the workplace. Ashridge Business School http://www. and core competences. Follow-up sessions. helping participants to identify ways to apply learning. The first is the actual ability to use their learning. individuals and organisations alike may benefit from a tool which helps to target the factors relevant to improving transfer.uk . and develop the confidence to use these skills in the office. When their employees return to the office. and barriers are overcome. and ensuring we do it. or simply touching base will help to continue the learning process into the workplace. The first step is to ensure that the individual will actually benefit from the programme they are to attend. and as such. if one party fails to support transfer. Providing feedback. coaching. The role of the programme designers need not end when the participants leave the classroom.

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