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Companies’ spending on training and development accounts for hundreds of billion pounds globally each year. But every year, according to successive empirical studies, only 5 to 20 per cent of what is learnt finds its way back into the workplace. While this failure to transfer and apply new learning in the workplace has long attracted academic interest, practitioners have been slow to change their ways. Despite the imperative that things cannot be managed without being measured, training has been getting off lightly. Surely a training industry that delivers less than 20 per cent cannot be fit for purpose?

The academics have been admirably persistent in offering prescriptions for this widespread malaise, but perhaps the answer lies not in the classroom, but in the humble job description?

In the Learning Transfer Survey 2010, respondents estimated that 47 per cent of the training in their organisations was transferred, but they then acknowledged that they themselves were using barely a third of those practices known to generate positive transfer effects. Most organisations do not measure either the rate of transfer of learning, or the impact of training on workplace performance, thereby perfecting the conditions in which optimistic estimations of the successful transfer of workplace training become an exercise in self-deceit.

Significantly, the least frequently used learning transfer strategies (including learner selection and linking remuneration and non-monetary rewards to evidence of successful transfer) depend on the active, sustained participation of line management – the single most powerful influence in the development of an individual in any organisation. The survey reflects many trainers’ viewpoint that they lack the power to influence what line managers do to support people’s development.

Training is a process and a journey, not an event: the train will not travel far unless the organisation lays and maintains the track. Line managers may be man- aging the train, but the line is being poorly served.

This disconnect between training and line management is a recent phenomenon. In the 19th century, experienced workers were responsible for training novices: supervising skills practice and demanding continuous improvement. Learning was supported by disciplined accountability so that it was always transferred and applied. But increasing workplace complexity and the introduction of role specialisation brought the emergence of ‘the trainer’ – a positive development in principle, but the source of two failings: managers came to believe that all responsibility for improving performance now lay with the trainers, while trainers, no longer able to oblige learners to practise new skills and lacking workplace clout, retreated into traditional educational practices and abandoned their most powerful techniques for transferring learning. The two parties on whom performance improvement depends drifted apart and the gap between them now claims the majority of the billions of dollars wasted each year on executive training “scrap”.

Nor should the role of business schools be ignored. The transfer strategies MBA students deploy – possibly without support – while straddling the divide between business school and workplace are critical to a successful outcome; if there is already a disconnect between training and line management, remember that business schools operate at a further remove.

To ensure that training produces improvements in workplace performance, that gap needs to be closed. If poor performance costs jobs, then it should be someone’s job to address poor performance. Managers’ job descriptions should be changed to include accountability for learning transfer and their performance in this role should be appraised and rewarded if done well. Trainers should be obliged to design programmes that include application as well as learning. We strive to eradicate waste in every other business activity, so why not training?

Robert Terry is chairman of Ask Europe and editor of the Learning Transfer Survey Report.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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