The Research: Why Training Transfer is So Low
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The Research: Why Training Transfer is So Low

“If I had five hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four
sharpening my axe.” Abraham Lincoln

Dozens of studies in the past 40 years have tried to figure out how to improve training transfer. I’ve read many of them (see list below) and there’s one thing they all agree on: People retain only 10% to 20% of what they learn. The question academics all try to answer is: How can organizations vastly improve that number?

Here are the factors researchers tend to look at:

  • Supervisor support
  • Workplace support
  • Planning
  • Transfer climate
  • Frequency of use
  • Trainee motivation
  • Handouts, etc.
  • Task constraints
  • Goal setting
  • Learning culture
  • Training quality
  • Peer support

As a person who’s managed, and trained, employees for 20 years, when I see that list I want to simplify it. Here’s how I’d boil down the factors into a more pragmatic list. If you trained somebody and got, say, a 10% return on your investment, it would be because of:

Poor assessment

    1. – employees hate having to sit through training that’s not directly related to their job, So you didn’t do your homework and the training was off the mark — maybe even just a


    off — so people remembered little of what they learned and applied even less on the job

Low motivation

    – how much people remember is highly correlated to how much they care, so you obviously didn’t motivate your trainee

Bad training program

    – you chose a poor trainer, or a weak e-learning program

Dysfunctional team environment

    – perhaps your trainee learned valuable new skills but due to politics, turf battles, or something else, the person couldn’t apply that new knowledge on the job

Poor follow-up

    – you “left training transfer to chance” and didn’t revisit the training concepts with the trainee.

What’s interesting when you look at that abbreviated list is that it’s easy to see WHY training doesn’t stick. Managers are accountable for all these factors. They’re the ONLY ones who can ensure that knowledge transfer occurs. Which means, of course, that if you want to improve training transfer at your organization, the place to start is with managers. You need to get their heads in the right spot, change their behaviors, and ensure that they’re doing the things that result in high knowledge retention after training events.

Next post: Which factor matters the most?

Here are some of the studies I refered to above:

  • Cromwell and Kolb (2004)
  • Ford et al., 1992; and Axtell et al., 1997 .
  • Huczynski and Lewis, 1980
  • Daniel J. Williams, Master Sergeant, United States Air Force. — Analysis of the Factors Affecting Training Transfer Within the Work Environment.

Stephen Meyer
CEO/Director of Learning and Development
Rapid Learning Institute

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