Updated: Oct 9, 2020
I had the pleasure of speaking with one of the luminaries of learning transfer, Roy Pollock. The interview is being used as a part of fantastic The 6Ds School online course. I highly recommend this course; it contains many practical tips and templates to kickstart breakthrough learning in your company. Sign-up to the course here.
Roy - “I am speaking today with Fergal Connolly, a learning consultant for a leading international tech company. Fergal has held a variety of roles in his L&D career. In each, he brings added value to his company by researching the latest trends in learning transfer and turning that research into applicable everyday practices.
Roy - Fergal, thank you so much for taking time from your busy schedule to join us.
Fergal - Roy, thank you for inviting me here today. The 6 Disciplines of Breakthrough learning had a huge influence on me when I first read it. It really spoke to me as it focuses on learning transfer, turning learning into action, which for me should be the goal of every single learning initiative. So I am excited to be here today to talk to you.
Roy - As you know, the fourth of the six disciplines is to Drive Learning Transfer, that is put in place processes and systems to ensure that what gets taught gets used in a way that improves performance. You recently published a series of blogs on your research in this area. What were the key take-aways from that research?
Fergal - I take a research-focused approach to my work. I delve into the academic literature regarding learning transfer and try to take something that is written is a very inaccessible way, there a lot of academic language like hypothesis testing, sampling method, methodological framework, and statistical analysis, its written in complex academic language, so I take that and simplify the essence of what the research was where they trying to do, how did they do it, and what did they find. I then create blogs and share them with my network and the learning community. The reason I take this approach is because it's hard to argue with science. What you tried to do either worked, or it didn't. To implement research you have to follow the scientific method with rigor, you follow a set protocol and you minimize the variables that may interfere with the testing of your hypothesis, reduce bias, and you communicate your findings be they positive, negative, or anywhere in between. So thats why I take this approach to my work.
Your question was about the key take-aways from my research. My key takeaway from my research is that there is a lot of positive research out there regarding easily applicable methods and approaches that leads to increased learning transfer. The academic research has not identified a single silver bullet that magically turns all learning into improved performance. Learning is complex. It has been studied for millennia. And a variety of supports and practices increase learning transfer.
As we are focusing on the fourth of the six disciplines, Drive Learning Transfer, I will focus my answer there. One thing that comes up in the research time and time again and has been shown to positively influence learning transfer is feedback and support from your manager. Learners rate this type of feedback as the most valuable to them and research shows that having a manager with a coaching style is the biggest influence on learning transfer.
Accountability is also very influential. Making learners accountable for following through on their learning is very powerful. A simple conversation between a manager and the learner about what the manager expects from the learner after training can have a drastic effect on the direction and intensity of a learners actions post training. Having learners take the time to create and share their action plans increases the likelihood of following through on learning.
Of course, getting feedback from your manager and having a well defined plan is useless unless you have the time and energy to commit to it. Another thing the research says is important is for managers to be cognizant of the time required to try new things, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. Its recommended that managers reduce their direct reports workload following training so that they have time to reflect on their learning and implement any plans they have. Additionally, the learner needs to be in a good place mentally and physically in order to be able to follow up on learning. If the learner is stressed, overworked, tired from lack of sleep or is dealing with distractions, learning is unlikely to be transferred. Again, managers need to be aware of how their directs are responding and only send on learning assignments when the time is right.
As you know there are a number of other factors that influence learning transfer. But in the interest of time, I will highlight just these easily actionable ones.
Roy Pollock, DVM, PhD
Roy - Can you share a specific example of what you have done to better understand the transfer climate and enhance learning transfer?
Fergal - I work in a tech company. It's a very fast moving culture, change is constant; products are being launched, internal policies are changing, team priorities shift constantly. As a learning consultant, it was difficult to do a thorough needs assessment and design appropriate learning interventions, because by the time the training is due to launch, the needs of the learners have changed, and the training you created is now scrap. But one thing that remains relatively stable is the company culture, the companies perception of learning, the learning culture in teams, etc.
So like I said, I take a research-focused approach to my work. I identified a tool that would enable me to quickly survey a wide range of teams and get a research validated measurement of the learning transfer climate in place in the company. My reasoning was that understanding the transfer climate would enable me to pinpoint elements in the teams environment that were promoting effective learning transfer, and elements that were inhibiting learning transfer.
That tool is the Learning Transfer System Inventory, or the LTSI. It was created by Holton, Bates and Hatala, some prominent learning transfer researchers in the 90’s. They tested it extensively over the years and made several updates and refinements to the questions on the survey and the analysis performed on the back-end of the survey. Right now it is the most widely-used research instrument in academia on the topic of learning transfer. The LTSI measures: Ability to use knowledge and expertise. Motivation to use knowledge and expertise. Work environment supporting the use of knowledge and expertise. Learner characteristics.
I cant go into the specifics of what we found unfortunately, but it helped us to identify the areas where we were performing well as a learning organization and it also identified some areas for improvement. The weak links in the chain, if you will. That we were able to focus our energy on. This approach enabled the learning team to be so much more efficient, we were able to focus on elements that had been identified as blockers to learning transfer, these are the elements that were stopping the learning programs we were creating from doing what they were designed to do. Taking the time to understand the learning ecosystem was a novel approach but it was so rewarding for the team.
To the people watching this, I recommend you research the learning transfer system inventory and see if it's right for you and your company. In the 6D book Roy and Andy summarize the LTSI and even provide an appended version of the survey, that encapsulates everything the LTSI does.
Roy - Based on your experience, what advice do you have for learning professionals who want to reduce learning scrap and improve the transfer of training in their organizations?
Fergal - Learning professionals are an amazing group of people. They are the givers, the helpers, the enablers of learning in an organization. They do so much to help others, but they definitely dont want to waste their time.
Based on my experience, we need to channel our energy more effectively on to elements that the research says truly helps other people to learn. For too long have we been the people who make the powerpoints, the people who design elearning and the people who schedule the companies onboarding calendar. We need to make a change to how we approach helping others. We can be so more effective if we focused less on the learning event itself, and more on the environment where learning is turned into performance. This space is where the magic happens; where learners turn into performers; where thinkers turn into doers.
So, if you are a learning professional, and you are driven by helping others to reach their potential you need to focus more on this performance mindset.
Luckily there are a lot of resources out there. So many books, and learning events like this one that you can use to improve learning transfer. The 6Ds of breakthrough learning really opened my eyes to the learning professional that I could be. But I think what is most important is that we don't just read these books and we don't just attend these courses, but we take positive steps to implementing what you are learning every day. We need to transfer our own learning, before we can enable others to transfer their learning. I would encourage you to talk about this program with your peers in work - can you teach them about this course? I highly encourage you to talk about this program with your manager, what you expect to get from this course, what you are learning about, what you thinks is applicable in your work place, but most importantly what support you require from your manager in order to implement this in your workplace. At the end of the course, create an action plan and share this with your manager. What are the next steps you are going to take and how will these steps take you closer to implementing what you learned.
Each of the steps I’ve outlined above are very easy to do but they are supported by academic research and promote learning transfer.
Roy - If people want to learn more about your research or get in touch with you, what is the best way for them to do that?
Fergal - I am always eager to make new connections in the learning community, I am active on LinkedIn - search for my name: Fergal Connolly. On Facebook, fergalconnolly.com and I have my own website www.fergalconnolly.com where I publish my articles and have curated other articles from the world of learning transfer.
Roy - anything else you want to say or add?
I just want to thank you, Roy. You are doing valuable work here and sharing it with your community. The community is better for having you in it. Thank you for letting me be a part of it. I wish you and your learners all the best in the future.
Thank you very much.
Fergal highly recommends The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results for anyone who wants to increase the value they bring to their organization through learning, to those who want to increase learning transfer, and to those designing their first learning programs.
Fergal is a learning transfer expert who shares his evidence-based learning transfer approaches with the learning community. Fergal holds an MSc in Education and Training, and a BSc in Psychology. Contact Fergal for speaking engagements, writing opportunities, or learning transfer consultancy by visiting www.fergalconnolly.com.