Who's accountable for learning transfer in the workplace?

Reading time: 8m

AuthorNick DaviesChief Commercial Officer (CCO)
Reading Time8 minutes

Imagine that the last training programme you ran was a resounding success. People acquired the relevant skills and knowledge, have successfully been applying it in the workplace and six months later the business has seen that team’s levels of productivity and performance soar.

As an L&D practitioner, you’re delighted to accept the praise being bestowed upon you by senior management.

Now let’s imagine you’re running this same course with a different department that’s showing signs of declining productivity. In this instance, you’ve conducted a thorough analysis and have confirmed the need for training. Assessment scores at the end of the training course showed scores of 70%-90% and you’re feeling positive that this course would once again help drive positive behaviours within the workplace.

However, fast-forward six months and senior management are thoroughly unhappy with the productivity of the department, which is still steadily declining. How can this be? Assessment scores were great and the learners were completely engaged with the course.

Yet reports from line managers reveal that there has been no real behaviour change demonstrated since the training. The training might have been great, but who is accountable for the failure to support effective learning transfer in the workplace?


What is accountability of learning transfer?

Accountability is defined in training literature as “the degree to which organisation, culture and/or management expects learners to use trained knowledge and skills on the job and holds them responsible for doing so” (Brinkerhoff & Montesino, 1995; Kontoghiorghes, 2002). A more recent review of training literature concluded that this body of research points to the importance of considering the interpersonal factors such as supervisory and peer support as moderators of the transfer of the training relationship.

All too often, learning is seen as a one-time event with L&D professionals arguing that what happens after the course has finished isn’t their responsibility. Paul Matthews, author of ‘Learning Transfer at Work’, believes that this attitude arises when an L&D professional sets themselves up as an ‘order taker’ or as a ‘shopkeeper’. He describes how they may turn to the traditional LMS with its list of courses and events for people to choose from, treating it like an online shopping site where the seller is not involved with how the product will be used after purchase.


Traditionally, the most talked-about factors influencing transfer include learner variables, intervention design, and the work environment or climate (Baldwin & Ford, 1988; Ford & Wessbein, 1997; Salas et al., 1999). Let’s consider the work environment aspect of this for a moment. While we can’t expect L&D to take full accountability for what happens post-training, it’s important to consider the role L&D plays in communicating with stakeholders to create a work environment conducive to effective learning transfer. A key part of this is ensuring everyone is aware of the role they play in the ownership of learning transfer—in top-down organisations, this is most likely to be hierarchical. Are key stakeholders aware of clearly defined expectations? Do they accept delegated accountability? Are there agreed consequences for failing to meet these expectations? Are they confident that they are able to deliver and know how to report on results?

According to a CIPD report, learning and development functions are getting closer to the business, but to support this shift, more attention needs to be paid to the mix of roles and skillsets within the function. Learning needs to be increasingly positioned outside of HR and closer to operations, with responsibility for identifying learning needs sitting with line managers or senior directors. This has benefits in diagnosing performance needs, engaging managers in the design and delivery process and, importantly, facilitating learning solutions in the flow of work.


Bringing L&D closer to the business for effective learning transfer

Let’s talk a little more about the role of managers. Managers translate policies into day-to-day practices and are the familiar face your staff will associate with people management and work allocation. It’s your managers who play a key part in the learning transfer process and help learners create behavioural change post-learning.

Yet, according to a recent report, it was revealed that a worrying 46% of respondents admitted that their line managers were not significantly involved in the learning process. Furthermore, only 22% of line managers facilitated conversations both before and after the learning intervention.


Managers have a powerful influence on how their team behaves and performs. Whether they’re aware of it or not, they model certain behaviours and essentially shape the culture within their teams. In our previous post, we mentioned the importance of a ‘culture of failure’; one which facilitates learners to take their skills and actively apply them without the fear of making mistakes. Managers—and those higher up—should encourage a ‘falling forward’ approach, whereby employees are not afraid to fail because these failures are not perceived as destructive. This enables them to apply the learning, receive feedback and re-apply the skills and knowledge acquired.

Be sure to communicate to managers and senior executives how the organisation’s future success depends on the speed with which people can learn and transfer new ideas and information. Ownership of learning is hierarchal, but the responsibility for the completion of learning is learner-led. It’s important that you in L&D communicate this effectively so that everybody is clear on the role they play in the learning transfer process. Let’s take a look at this in more detail.


Responsibility vs accountability of learning transfer

Let’s consider the employee’s role in their own learning transfer process. Ownership of an improvement (which benefits the individual and the organisation) should be viewed through the lens of accountability and responsibility, terms which are often used interchangeably but have distinct characteristics that separate them. Responsibility comes down to task completion—as the acquirer of knowledge, this responsibility sits with the learner.

However, how is the learner to take full ownership of learning transfer if they are unaware of the effectiveness of the pedagogy being applied? Could they take full ownership without knowing whether this would, in fact, lead to applicable knowledge transfer? This is where accountability now comes into play. Whereas responsibility is an ongoing duty to complete the task at hand, accountability generally refers to what happens after a situation occurs. It is therefore concerned with the consequences of certain actions, rather than the initial duty to carry these actions out. Accountability would therefore lie with the manager, who is accountable for the outcome, actions and development of their learner.

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How can you now put this knowledge into practice and take steps to increase learning transfer? Acknowledgement of the relevance of accountability in transfer can be found in Borad’s work (Broad, 2005; Broad & Newstrom, 1992). They suggested the following accountability-related mechanisms to increase learning transfer:

  • Build transfer of learning into supervisory performance standards (i.e. performance standards include an expectation that managers will support training and will be held accountable for the results)
  • Develop a manager-learner contract to specify each party’s commitment to maximise the results of training
  • Transfer action planning (i.e. commitment to behavioural change by the learner and support by the manager)
  • Plan assessments of transfer (i.e. an evaluation process to provide the manager and learner with objective feedback on the use of training-related knowledge and skills)
  • Conduct evaluation surveys Provide feedback (e.g. remind learners of what they learned and that they need to apply it)

Take Thinqi, for example. Thinqi allows L&D managers to share learner reports with managers and line managers, so they can track exactly how their team are progressing. It’s perfectly designed to leverage the power of your managers in the learning transfer process and encourage a coaching dynamic that provides ‘scaffolding’ to support autonomous learning journeys. For example, Thinqi enables evaluation, 360 reviews and OKR setting between line managers and employees—minus the hassle. Furthermore, the Badges feature lets you manually award badges both for the learning theory and its application in the workplace.

It’s your go-to solution for driving both learner motivation and effective learning transfer.


In summary…

Learning does not start and end in the training room (or online equivalent). After investing time, money and effort into training employees, the goal is to see practical application leading to improved performance and attainment of targets. If there is a problem, employees must be able to fix it as opposed to just reciting the theoretical knowledge behind it.

Learning transfer requires a devolved degree of accountability accepted by all stakeholders from the moment the training has finished. It’s up to you in L&D to ensure everyone works together to play a part in embedding learning into the flow of work and create a culture that never stops learning.

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