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Will Hutton

Will Hutton

Principal, Hertford College, Oxford University and chair of the Big Innovation Centre

Tuesday 15 Nov 2011
Ensuring learning transfers to the workplace: where does the buck stop?

Ensuring learning transfers to the workplace: where does the buck stop?

Despite the current economic uncertainty organisations are continuing to spend a significant amount of money on the development of their employees, with the aim of creating a competitive advantage in a fast moving and competitive climate. In times of austerity however, when every penny counts, how can they ensure the learning from these development programmes is transferring to the workplace?

Lee Waller, Research Fellow at Ashridge Business School, has been researching this issue, exploring what factors influence whether learning sticks, and what part the learner, the programme designer, and the organisation as a whole have to play in ensuring that learning transfers.

So what does influence learning transfer?

There appear to be three key components:

  • The learner’'s characteristics, such as how prepared they are to attend a programme, or how motivated they are to apply their learning.
  • The programme design, including how relevant the content is to the learner, and how helpful the methods are in assisting them to apply learning.
  • The work environment, such as the level of support learners get from their manager to apply learning, or whether their schedules allow them the time to try out new ways of working. These components constitute the 'transfer system'.

Whilst all these areas have an impact on whether a learner will use what they have learned, what appears from our research to be most influential is the learner's characteristics - whether they were keen to be on the programme, motivated to use their learning, believed they could improve their performance, and anticipated benefits from using that learning.

So how therefore, should we set about improving transfer of learning? Does the responsibility for ensuring learning transfer rest primarily on the shoulders of the learner? Whilst this might be a prudent conclusion, the transfer of learning is a complex business. What happens in the classroom, and what happens back in the office will both bear influence on transfer directly, as well as through their impact on the characteristics of the learner?

For example a learner who, when returning to the office, receives little support from their peers when trying new things, is unlikely to feel motivated to use what they have learned. Similarly, a learner who is not given opportunities to practice new skills in the classroom is likely to have doubts about their ability to use these skills in the workplace, which will again affect their motivation to use what they have learned.

Given the complex nature of the transfer system and the countless ways in which the different factors can influence each other, it would seem that all stakeholders in the learning process have a part to play in ensuring that what is learned in the classroom is used in the workplace.

The learner needs to ensure they understand how the programme they are to attend will benefit their role and career to encourage their engagement in learning from the outset. Taking responsibility for transferring learning, and identifying and creating ways in which they can use the learning will help ensure learning is not lost. Seeking feedback from peers, direct reports and managers will also help to build confidence in the development of their skills.

Programme designers need to ensure that content is relevant to those who will attend. A learner who can recognise the relevance of a programme to their role will not only have opportunities to use the learning, but is likely to be motivated to learn and to transfer. It is also important that programmes provide opportunities to practice new skills and make clear links to the workplace, to help learners identify ways to apply learning, and develop the confidence to use these skills back at work. Providing opportunities for coaching, feedback and reflection during programmes also helps build confidence by identifying strengths, areas for development, and ways to apply learning and overcome obstacles.


Our research found that the work environment had only a weak relationship with transfer, suggesting that there is a lot that organisations can and should be doing to help their employees transfer what they have learned.

The first step is to ensure that the employee will actually benefit from the learning, and that it is indeed relevant to their role or future role. Appropriate selection and nomination processes are therefore key. It's equally important that the benefits are communicated clearly and development is positioned as reward and recognition if individuals are to be motivated to attend and to learn.

Actually having the ability to use learning is critical to transfer, and as such managers should provide opportunities for employees to practice new skills, and develop clear action plans for how learning will be applied. Providing feedback, as well as nurturing confidence, will also act as a progress check, helping to avoid what we found to be a common pitfall - reverting to familiar ways of working when under pressure.


Whilst learning transfer is a complex business, there are certainly plenty of opportunities to ensure that participants and organisations realise the full potential of management development programmes. If all those involved take an active role in the learning process, those significant pennies are more likely to result in a significant impact.

Lee Waller is a research fellow at Ashridge Business School