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How to Make Learning Stick

Event-centered learning should be abandoned. So, what's a better approach? Think engagement.

September 12, 2012
Related Topics: Talent Management, Management, Talent Management, Management

Making learning stick lies at the heart of any learning and development function. After all, it’s only when learning translates to action that a return on investment is realized.

Yet many learning leaders focus on things like post-training coaching, which, while better than no post-training, acts on a fundamental falsehood in understanding human change processes.

A 2008 research study by Lisa Burke, an associate professor of management at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, and Holly Hutchins, an assistant professor of human resource development at the University of Houston, asked training professionals what best practices they felt led to learning transfer.

People at lower and middle levels of an organization — say, an analyst, manager and director — most frequently described activities that occur after training. Respondents holding executive positions most frequently identified activities that occurred during the earlier design phase.

These are understandable. But they are also ill-conceived, event-centric responses.

Many learning functions are designed to run events, maximize occupancy and measure reaction. Practitioner and academic literature doesn’t help to break this event-centered point of view, with almost all the models of instructional design and transfer using a before-the-event, during-the-event and after-the-event framework.

This assumption also leads to conceptual confusion about formalizing informal learning. It is time this wrongheaded, underlying assumption was abandoned. Such a framework pervades the way leaders and practitioners describe learning and lies at the heart of low transfer rates and poor returns on investment.

To make learning stick, learning leaders need a fundamental shift in the way they think about transfer and where they focus interventions.

A more useful framework is learner-centered — it considers a cycle of how practitioners support engagement, participation and activation of an individual’s prior learning. Participation here doesn’t need to be in an event; it could just as easily be informal learning, with no need to define boundaries.

Of engagement, participation and activation, learner engagement is perhaps the most vital and most overlooked. Robert Brinkerhoff, a professor from Western Michigan University, suggests that more than 40 percent of the time interventions fail because of poor up-front context setting, with as few as 10 percent of learners fully engaged with the experience at hand.

When a typical learner is asked why he or she is participating, the typical answer comes back: “Because it’s Tuesday.”

For learning leaders, this means adopting a consumer-marketing approach. Learning leaders need to invest as much energy into marketing their offer as they do in creating the offer itself — in the same way that Coca-Cola, Nike or Starbucks focuses huge amounts of effort on appealing to and leading the interests of their customers.

It’s therefore worth outlining some critical activities that learning leaders can prioritize to create motivated learners who are hungry to participate and strive to apply:

Segment and select participants: Targeted experiences with engaged learners deliver a better return. Open programs will deliver a positive reaction but a lower shift in business metrics.

Co-create the intervention: Involve people at some level in developing the experience. If you’re looking for large scale change, at the very least convene a participant review board to make sure the experience resonates.

Market how learning activities create personal success: What’s in it for the participant? In a customer service intervention with a highly cynical group of learners from the U.K.’s Royal Mail, a 78 percent application rate occurred because of a strong focus on what participants cared about — coaching their children — as opposed to solely the corporate interest (time to value of new starters).

Once the skill was mastered in one area, people were happy to apply it in another. Psychologists call this “spillover.”

Create personalized learning journeys: Perceived relevance is one of the strongest correlations with transfer. Don’t waste participants’ time by getting them to do things they don’t need. Personalized learning journeys create relevance and build engagement because people feel the development is unique and useful to them.

Schedule after a challenging experience: Anxiety — and excitement — is strongly correlated with transfer. One global management consultancy schedules its induction after its new joiners have worked — and sometimes failed — on a couple of difficult projects. This way the participants arrive with a huge appetite to learn.

Provide feedback upfront: Most people think they’re above average. Well-delivered 360-degree or 180-degree feedback creates a more accurate self-perception and a focus on where to develop.

Use business leaders to communicate the need and payoff for individuals: On describing movies, producer Samuel Goldwyn, of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer fame, said: “Start with a volcano erupting and get bigger.” The same goes for interventions that change cultures. Use business leaders to market the intervention, create strategic alignment and highlight those individuals who have previously learned and improved most significantly.

Engage the participants’ managers: Engaged managers are likely to maximize transfer. But they’re likely to have a long list of other priorities that makes supporting learning something of an inconvenience. Market to them how their lives will be easier, and their teams will deliver better business results due to their people developing.

Cultivate a culture of apprenticeship and a mindset of mastery: Have leaders and managers talk about being a member of the organization as being an apprentice. It frames the culture as one where everyone is constantly engaged in learning, formal and informal.

Sebastian Bailey is president of Mind Gym Inc. He can be reached at

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