3 Ideas on Improving Learning Transfer

12 Apr

Ever run into this problem: you find yourself energized by a workshop, seminar, or retreat, but when you get back to work, the energy fizzles, and the things you committed to do never happen?

Part of this could be an adaptive learning challenge, akin to the famous New Year’s Resolution phenomenon—that is, there might be a part of YOU that doesn’t want you to make the particular change. To the extent this is the case, you’ll need some kind of process to surface that part of you, so you can convince yourself that it is ok to change. Immunity to Change does a good job of this.

But part of this falls into another thorny, perennial, ubiquitous challenge: Learning Transfer. When you have a Learning Transfer problem, you are learning things in one context that don’t carry over to another. Much of consciously-designed, work-related learning falls into this trap.

I think a lot of traditional learning has learning transfer issues, too, but you can’t see them as easily because time elapses between school and job, or because the things you are learning in school don’t correlate to work experience directly, or because you don’t expect them to correlate directly. You’re not necessarily thinking, as you’re in an English Literature course, “this can help me at my job (which I might not yet even have) in these particular and discrete ways.” You would be thinking something like that in, say, a management seminar.

I digress. The point of this post is that three thoughts occur to me as ways to come at the Learning Transfer problem. I offer them for your consideration.

  1. Make it look like work

You can reduce the tendency for a learning transfer problem by making the learning look like work. The more it resembles work conditions, the less likely there is to be a kind of surface tension between learning in one place and doing in another. You might call this the “transplant” analogy: the idea that the “body” of work will less likely resist a new organ that it recognizes.

Questions arise, of course. If you’re at an offsite retreat, part of the point is to be away from work. How do you make that look like work? Right, I get that. I suggest you might focus on the outcomes. Make the things you produce in the learning dovetail smoothly into work. If, for example, coming out of the learning you decide to take on some new project, have your plan developed so far that it can be implemented the second you’re back at work with no obstructions. Have the people, their roles, their next actions all worked out. Have the people BE at the learning session. Make sure whatever other things they are currently doing are moved out of the way. In other words, reduce the various things and thoughts that can come between the learning and the application of the learning. To say it in another way, have the foreign language of the learning outcomes be articulated in your comforting work dialect.

  1. Make it happen at work

To take the above idea one step further, you could just design the learning to happen at work, right in the thick of your actual work conditions. After all, the body won’t reject an organ that never had to be transplanted in the first place. Instead of designing a learning opportunity as an external, stand-alone event (or accepting events conveniently designed by third parties), you could do your best to make of it something that organically arises within your own work ecosystem. On your campus, taught by your colleagues, outcomes clearly integrated into the work activities you intend them to affect. Perhaps the best way to do this is come at it this way: instead of thinking “how can I take this external thing and insert it in my work,” you might ask “how can I change work so that learning as powerful as these external events is a routine and ongoing part of normal operations”? In answer to the second question I think you will quickly imagine a variety of things, like making learning a discrete and measurable part of the job description, listing it as part of the the work team’s charge, hiring and supporting dedicated learning staff, honoring people who are learning, allowing what is learned to change what you do and how you do it, and so on. You might be thinking “but we learn all the time at work, what about that?” This is generally true, but do we acknowledge, honor, or scaffold it? Or align it with organizational goals, as if learning were really one of our main outputs? Do we think of learning as a core currency of our work, a reason we are together, the primary justification for the enterprise? We could.

  1. Make the hidden workplace “rules” discussable

Perhaps the best way to address the learning transfer problem, though, is not to make the learning less noticeable to the workplace’s immune system, or to change work to make it a natural and organic learning environment, but, a contrary angle: to make the learning, or, more specifically, the hidden workplace reactions to it, more visible. Part of the reason what you learn won’t transfer is that people don’t want it to. The workplace is a society, and it has a status quo. And in the status quo there are rules for what you do and don’t do. They control much of what happens, but they aren’t, usually, a topic for conversation. But they could be. Let’s say you’re up for a managerial role for the first time. Your organization sends you to management training. You’re ready to be a manager, and have lots of thoughts about how to get going. So far, so good. When you get back, however, your peers have to be willing to accept you engaging in your new managerial behaviors for you to be successful: there’s role for them in your learning transferring to the work environment, which they are a big part of.  In other words the rules for what you personally do, and how people interact with you, have to be rewritten.  My point is simple: you can make these rule changes more likely if you make it permissible to talk about the hidden rules. If in some safe, trust-building way, you are able to surface the rules and get people to acknowledge them, that’s a start. If you can get them to be open to making changes, that is even better. You might say something like this: “I want to try out being a manager. I know I’ve never done this before, and this changes whom I am at work and how we will interact. I will need your help making this work. You need to be ok with it. Are you ok with that? Do you have concerns? Can we talk about it?”


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