Learning and Real-Work Application: Bridging the Gap

An employee’s attendance at a learning event—even if he or she is actively engaged during the session—does not demonstrate learning success for the employee, his/her manager, or the organization. The desired outcome any organization wants to achieve by providing these development opportunities is change; change that is clearly demonstrated through performance improvement and a stronger bottom line. Unfortunately, organizations often invest in learning programs with little or no demonstrable change in participant behavior after the event is over. Why is that? I think a simple conversation I overheard provides a few important insights.

During a recent business trip, I had a lunch-time layover in Atlanta, Georgia. I took out a small personal loan, purchased a sandwich, and settled into a seat near my departure gate. As I ate, two gentlemen sat down nearby and began discussing the learning event they would be attending the next day.

Man  #1: “Did you do the assignments John asked us to complete before this session?”

Man  #2: “Yes, but it took a lot longer than I expected.”

Man  #1: “I didn’t do it. I mean, how important is any of this training anyway? Is it taken seriously?”

Man  #2: “I don’t know. It seems like if it were really important, John would do more than ask us to hurry and take a couple of online refresher classes the day before our meeting.

Man  #1: “Exactly. Do you remember last year’s training? It was great, but nothing changed at the office and it was basically never mentioned again.

Man  #2: “I know, right? I just feel like it’s all a waste of time if we don’t actually apply it at work, but there isn’t any accountability for me, or anyone else, to make a change.”

And there you have it, conveyed in a few simple sentences, three critical reasons why so many organizations aren’t experiencing the results they desire when they invest in training and developing their employees and leaders.

  1. Lack of understanding of the importance and purpose
  2. Lack of action planning and accountability
  3. Lack of sustainability tools and measures

1. Lack of Understanding of the Importance and PurposePointing torwards the future

When leaders, managers, and participants don’t know the purpose of a learning event, (i.e. why it is important to their work or the desired outcomes), it often feels like a “waste of time.” Every learning program must have a clear purpose that is aligned with business strategies and identified needs. If TD designers and leaders don’t identify a specific purpose for the training, how can they possibly communicate the purpose and need to participants in a way that stimulates engagement and post-workshop application?

In an article written by Kristi Hedges and published by Forbes, Ms. Hedges makes a thought-provoking point: “Just because a senior leader wants it doesn’t make a program meaningful. Greater transparency about why participants are selected and what the program will lead to is critical. Otherwise, there’s widespread skepticism and even frustration which foils learning every time.”

Key Action: Identify the “why” before selecting or designing a learning program. Establish specific desired outcomes and communicate this information clearly before, during, and after each learning event.

2. Lack of Action Planning and Accountability

Real success is achieved based on what happens after participants return to work. Too often, participants leave a learning event without a clear action plan or sense of accountability for incorporating the skills, concepts, and/or behaviors into their daily practice. They soon lose their excitement and sense of commitment to apply what they’ve learned if they aren’t held accountable and don’t receive support and buy-in from managers. Employees can lose trust in leaders and the organization when new programs or initiatives don’t take root and produce demonstrable change.

Man scared of the time

Participants’ direct managers and leaders must be aware of and engaged in their direct- reports’ learning and hold participants accountable for on-the-job application. They must also hold themselves accountable for modeling the behaviors as well as following up with team members to help ensure the skills, tools, and behaviors introduced during training are transferred to the real world and are producing the desired results.

Key Action: Involve managers and leaders of learning participants before and after the training. Recently, Talent Development Magazine announced ATDs 2018 BEST award winners and stated that “executive participation in developing employees is a hallmark of BEST winners.” In fact, these leaders go above and “beyond advocating for the importance of  employee development—they  participate in the talent development programs.” They show up and follow up.

3. Lack of Sustainability Tools and Measures

Leaders and participants must have a process or mechanism for consistent and effective follow up after a learning event. Post-workshop learning transfer and sustainability tools and measures developed (and viewed) as part of the learning event are central to driving performance improvement and achieving business results.

Trending upwards

When a learning event or program is designed and launched without a built-in mechanism for learning transfer and follow-through, almost everyone eventually loses. Learning is forgotten, tools are left unused, new habits are not formed, and change is not sustainable. The end result is reflected in the conversation shared at the beginning of this article.

It is not that a learning program is bad; it’s that the learning and accountability for applying the skills and changing behaviors must not end when the participant returns to work. In the same Forbes article referenced earlier, Ms. Hedges says, “Most companies measure how much participants enjoyed the program, and while a consideration, is not a meaningful goal. Companies need to carefully consider what measurement should be well ahead of time.”

Key Action: Ask yourself, “How do we measure the success of this program?” Then, introduce tools, measurements, and other resources that help participants (and their leaders) be accountable for making real change, committing to the program, and following through on the application commitments.

There are many benefits that come when an organization approaches learning and development programs with a clear purpose and defined measures for success, and incorporates tools designed to drive true learning transfer and sustainability.

  • Amplifies participants’ sense of ownership and accountability for on-the-job application and outcomes.
  • Increases retention of talented staff due to greater trust in the organization and an upsurge in job satisfaction and engagement.
  • Supports the efforts of managers and leaders in developing direct reports, creating sustainable change, and identifying future leaders.

To learn more about developing learning programs that support and inspire true, long-term change in your organization, contact CMOE for a complimentary consultation.

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About the Author

Cyndi Keller

Cyndi Keller is the Director of Curriculum Design & Development at CMOE. She brings over 20 years of communication project management experience to the Design Team and CMOE clients. She works with the Design Team to guide the design, development, and production of innovative learning and development curriculum.