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Who Is Accountable For Learning Transfer?

Written by Paul Matthews

This blog is an excerpt from the forthcoming new book ‘Learning Transfer at Work: How to Ensure Training >> Performance” by Paul Matthews

Here’s a tough question, and I will apologise later … How much sustainable behaviour change are you managing to achieve from the training courses you deliver? If you are like most people delivering training, the honest answer is ‘not that much’ or perhaps more honestly, ‘I don’t know’. Now, maybe you as an L&D professional can take home your salary knowing that most of the training you do is a waste of time. Maybe the people who asked for the training are happy with that low level of impact. Maybe, like some L&D people I speak with, you can ‘bury your head in the sand’ or look the other way and make nonsense noises while you plug your ears with your fingers. Maybe you say some nice words about learning transfer and do a few things that might help, but really you are just doing what you have always done. Or maybe you are waking up to the reality that we should, as ‘professionals’, be doing much better than we are at producing business impact from our training courses.

There are many in L&D who would cough and splutter in indignation at that previous paragraph. How did you react? Maybe you are one of the very small minority of L&D professionals who are doing a good job of learning transfer and that last paragraph genuinely does not apply to you, and if so, I apologise, and I salute you. Or maybe you just feel very uncomfortable when someone calls out what should be obvious to all and says that the emperor has no clothes. In the parable of the emperor’s clothes, he did come to his senses and realise that he had been deceived. He was living within an illusion where everybody was pretending something was real when even a child could see that it was not. Somehow, so many people are living within the illusion that training is working well, when even a cursory examination shows that it is not in most cases delivering on its promise.

If learning transfer is important and therefore should be done, and it is possible to do, and people are avoiding it, we end up in the murky waters of responsibility and accountability. Who is responsible for making it happen, and who should be held accountable if it doesn’t happen? In other words, “when and where does the buck stop?”

Stop and think for a moment about the last training course you were involved with. Who was accountable for making sure learning transfer happened? When I ask that question, very few people have an answer. In other important organisational activities someone is accountable, so what’s different about learning transfer?

One of the reasons is that the activities required for successful learning transfer come from many people across different departments, and it is most unlikely that each person will do their bit and all the parts will magically coalesce into a successful programme. Somebody needs to be the conductor of the orchestra. The conductor in turn requires each member of the orchestra to contribute the part they need to play to perform the symphony. And then somebody else, perhaps whoever booked for and paid for the orchestra to perform, is holding the conductor accountable for the quality of the performance at the event. And who holds the event organiser accountable? Perhaps the people who paid for tickets to attend the concert. There is inevitably a chain of accountability.

Now, think back again to the last training course you were involved with. What was, or should have been, the chain of accountability, perhaps even starting with the company shareholders or owner? Where did the chain break? If you fix that link in the chain, are there more weak links further down the chain that will then break? Then take a step back and consider how accountability plays out in the organisation. Accountability is a facet of organisational culture, often driven from the top. Does the senior team take ownership? Do they accept accountability or are they full of excuses?

It is easy to say that a person should be accountable, but for delegated accountability to be effective, it must also be accepted. No-one wants to be held accountable for something that is likely to fail; that is a poisoned chalice. Alongside delegating accountability, you must also ask people if they have everything they need to be successful. If they say ‘yes’ then they are well on the way to accepting ownership and the fact that they are accountable. If they say ‘no’ then they will not take ownership and if/when things go wrong they will drop into spectator mode and watch as things fail. You might even get ‘I told you so’ comments. On the other hand, if they feel a sense of ownership because they have accepted accountability, they will step in when things go wrong to solve the problem.

So, in your organisation, who is accountable for learning transfer?



Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, learning transfer, performance consultancy, and how Learning & Development can help achieve business targets. He is the author of “Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times” and “Capability at Work: How to Solve the Performance Puzzle”. His third book, “Learning Transfer at Work: How to Ensure Training >> Performance” is due to be published in the summer 2018.

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