It already exists for more than 100 years: the history of transfer research. Nevertheless, there is an enormous research-practice-gap. With an average implementation rate of 20%, companies spend a lot of money and time on development measures that are not very effective. In her brand new book, Ina Weinbauer-Heidel brings all the important findings on transfer research to the point and makes them practically accessible with the 12 levers of transfer effectiveness.
What led you, as a scientist, just to the topic of transfer research?
Ina Weinbauer-Heidel: The topic has just imposed itself after a while (laughs). After my studies I started to work in consulting, back then in a very technical environment. We optimized machines and conveyor belts and already back then I was thinking: we make great concepts but somehow they are not applied in the practice. That was unsatisfying so I started to deal with implementation and transfer. Later, I had the opportunity to start working at a business school and I was very happy because I thought: Awesome, now I can finally work with people! And if you develop people, you can really change something.
At that business school, I was responsible for designing tailor-made MBA‘s. The participants paid a lot of money for those programs, which was a sign for me that the programs must be effective – otherwise you would not pay so much.
In the long term, however, the work wasn’t really satisfying either and after a while I started asking myself again: is all what we do really useful, is it really effective? And the question is on my mind ever since. I wanted answers and I wanted to know how to make people not only learn new things, but also implement them. So I checked all popular science books I could get but did not find something satisfying. That was the point where I decided to do the whole thing myself on a scientific base. That is how my dissertation arose, the rest is history.
After all those years researching on this subject, do you see yourself as a scientist or practitioner?
From my personality, I am a very pragmatic person and that also reflects my work. I always start with a practical problem I want to have solved. Regarding to what I expect from a solution, however, I am very scientific. This combination of a practical approach and science is also what characterizes my book. In it, all answers to transfer questions are formulated just like I wanted to find them in my prior research – with a scientific foundation but at the same time by giving practical and quickly implementable advice.
Why training transfer does not happen so far
Let’s stay with the science: the transfer research is more than 100 years old, but only a few of the results have found their way in the corporate practice. Where does this gap come from?
(laughs) That was exactly the topic of my dissertation! Before I started, I thought: I will find the holy grail of transfer research! I will find out on what transfer success really depends. But already in the first literature review I realized, that I am probably not the first person who deals with this topic. The first official transfer theory was already published in 1901. While I was working through this more than 100 years old history and reading more than 4000 articles, I figured out that there are already many small holy grails, but they are not used in practice.
Now the question comes up: Why is that so?
There are many reasons for that. One reason is the kind of a routine trainings have nowadays. Trainings are seen as a ready-to-use package that can be used as a quick solution for almost every problem. For instance: We have a sales problem – well, let’s do a sales training! The fact that the products might have to be optimized or structures do not fit is not often an issue in the first reaction. Instead you start with the same training as always. You already know it, you know how to do it and you can implement it quickly – just as you have done it so far.
Trainings have become habitual and a quick solution for every problem
The second and not less important reason is that transfer researchers have not yet succeeded in expressing themselves in agood and understandable way which is very paradox – transfer research says about itself: we have a transfer problem!
My aim was to save my colleagues from personnel development departments from the laborious detail work that has to be done if you want to put together all the small puzzle pieces from the research literature. So as a summary and quintessence, there are the 12 levers in my book. It’s very handy, so you don’t have to invest three and a half years like I did. (laughs).
How to stop diminishing participant motivation
Let’s get into practice: transfer success depends a lot on the participants themselves and their attitude and motivation. How can I influence this as a personnel developer?
I call it the lever of „transfer motivation“. This is a very important lever which is mentioned quite frequently in research. Everyone who has children at home knows that people always want to learn something new. That also refers to adults. In the practice of inhouse training, the problem is not that there is no motivation innately but that many employees get demotivated after a while. One example: if participants of a seminar go back to work, it is most likely that they have many ideas in their heads and are full of zest for action. This is especially the case when they come back from their first two or three seminars in a new organisation. Now it is crucial how a company handles this situation. If the reactions are like “We’ve been always doing it like this – why should we suddenly change something?” or if the boss asks you “Why haven’t you been at work for the last 2 days?” your motivation will diminish. As well if your colleagues make comments like “She/he is acting very weird, but will calm down soon again, she/he was only participating in a seminar.” The initial motivation that was there immediately after the seminar is often diminished in everyday work.
The second thing is the training design itself. You often sit in a seminar which offers very interesting content but is not exactly what helps you to solve your own concrete problem. Keyword: lever of “content relevance”. Almost every seminar offers a lot of theory and exciting models that somehow match your own challenges, but nevertheless they don’t offer direct and realizable solutions.
These are all factors which weaken the transfer motivation. That is why I say: if we can manage to keep the participants motivated, then we already achieved a lot in terms of transfer success.
How do you deal with employees who have already been demotivated due to past training experiences?
To deal with already demotivated participants is more difficult, of course, but it is not impossible. If you want to promote transfer effectiveness in your company, I advise you to practice active training marketing. The fact that things will change from now on and that the company will focus more and more on the transfer topic can be “sold” very well. For example by telling success stories of people, who were in a training and implemented something successfully afterwards.
You can also give trainings a new “label” and call them for instance “transfer level trainings” in the future. This clearly signalizes: “Transfer is crucial for us. We really want to help you to implement the things you’ve learned.” This is how you can bring demotivated people back on board.
How to encourage transfer effectiveness in your organization
If I want to dedicate myself to transfer promotion in my company: where should I start first? Are there quick-wins?
This question arises frequently in my seminars: is there a lever which is more important than another one? Something I can start and what works right away?
The good news: Yes, there is a lever like this. The bad news: it is always a different one. There are companies and programs where some levers have more leverage than others. If HR managers know the 12 levers, they know exactly which ones are the most decisive for their programs. But to five an example: The lever “support through supervisors” is often very effective. In an expert organisation, however, it is rather irrelevant because the reference persons are on the same level or there are very flat hierarchies.
My opinion regarding quick wins is that there can be only quick wins in transfer support. Otherwise, the measures will not be able to gain ground and the transfer topic will soon be out of the company’s focus again.
There are two different approaches to achieve quick wins: the width and the depth approach.
At the width approach you’re looking for a tiny little measure that is introduced to all trainings and programs. Only if this measure receives positive echo, the next transfer measure is introduced. This can be, for example, a small transfer planning folder with 4 pages that is placed in each seminar on each table. Participants can write down exactly what they want to implement after the training. With this, the lever of “transfer planning” is covered more or less and at the same time the participants get the signal that transfer is important for the company.
At the depth approach it is exactly the other way around. You choose a program, which is particularly important and urgent in the company. A program of whichthe board is convinced about as well – in practice, this is often a sales program. Then you start to make this program your transfer showcase program. Together with all stakeholders, board and trainers, this means you really seize all levers and optimize all transfer opportunities. This is how you make the program really effective and afterwards you report on the successes with this program, let it “infect” the whole organization and start with the next one.
Why rethinking old habits is key
In the chapter on training design you clear up with old familiarities such as the expectation query in the training or the SMART formulation of targets. Do you think that many things are currently just done wrong when it comes to transfer support?
It is not important for me to decide whether something is right or wrong but to find out what is more effective. An expectation query in the training takes a lot of time, which can be used more effectively. If you already ask the participants about their expectations before the training, it is much easier to find out what the participants need in order to be able to implement the learned skills afterwards. That is the reason why it is much more effective to do this before the training than using the first hour in the training for the clarification of expectations. From a trainer’s perspective it is as well difficult to change a whole training plan if the expectations from the participants are different to the ones they received from the HR department in advance. And there are also expectations that may not be fulfilled in the training at all. With this in mind, an expectation query in the training is not wrong, but it is much more effective to do it before the training.
SMART targets come from the woodcutting industry. So you might want to ask yourself: Are they useful in leadership training or can you do something more effective?
Something similar applies to SMART targets. They are definitely not wrong but there are more effective options. The SMART targets originally come from the woodcutting industry when back then they wanted a worker to log as many trees as possible in a short time. The more specific the target for the worker was, the more trees where logged. As you might agree, this system is not 100% transferable to inhouse development measures – just think about soft skills training! Furthermore, it has been found out that SMART targets can demotivating you a lot. It is not very expedient to think: I want to lose 17kg until the 17th of March. That resolution is a cognitively good intent, but it doesn’t really touch you on an emotional level. Research has shown that we need goals that affect us emotionally. In the weight-loss example this would be for instance: I will look sexy with my new bikini at Bali’s beach this summer. If you set that as a goal and if you have a concrete plan to do achieve it, you’ll probably gain much higher results than with a SMART target.
But, like I’ve already mentioned before, our habits have a strong influence on that as well. Out of habit you often start a training with an expectation query or you formulate SMART targets. As well, it is a habit to end a training with a feedback round and not with a transfer scheduling sequence. I would simply advise you to look at all those elements critically and then to ask yourself: can it be a bit more effective?
Concrete tips for transfer success
Can you tell us the very concrete intervention from your book, which is perhaps not among the top 5 of the popular transfer measures?
Yes, I’d love to. For instance, people regularly look at me in a weird way when I tell them that a good intervention is to reject orders. I recently experienced it myself. There was a request from an HR departmentfor a transfer seminar. I knew that this company is just undergoing a major change and that the departments that should take part in the seminar are busy with so many other things. Well, there is one lever called the “transfer capacity lever” that decides whether there is enough time for the implementation or not. In this case it was clear from the beginning that the capacities are not there at the moment. If I hadn’t refused this, I would not do what I am preaching myself. And I advise to every company that it should only start with new things at a time when there are prospects of success.
Another intervention, I’d like to mention: stop handing out certificates for physical presence! This is again such a habit: at the end of a seminar you get a certificate. However, if you think about what is actually certified which tat, it is only physical presence.
There is the lever of the transfer expectation in a company. The question behind is: does the company notice if something is implemented or not? Does the company signalize that transfer is expected? Why physical presence is certified you probably don’t siganize that much transfer focus. My recommendation therefore is a certificate for the implementation of the learned skills. For instance after an implementation presentationpointing out the successes three months after the training. This sends completely different signals. Another option is that trainers ask participants after a seminar which implementation success they want to have certified.
To get the participants line managers on board, a transfer support evaluation can help.
One more intervention: a big issue for training and development managers often is that it is hard to the participants line managers on board. They managers know that support is important but maybe they just don’t want it or they don’t want to spend time resources on it. One possible intervention here is to evaluate the line manager support.. For example, If a managementevaluation is planned anyway, an additional question could be: how far does the line manager support the implement of training contents? If the result is, that nothing happens so far, you have a great data basis to urge the topic.
Last question: what is the further plan with the concept and what comes next?
My very humble vision is to make the world more transfer-effective. (laughs) I believe in the value of training and development measures. And I often meet like-minded trainers or manager from HR departments who spend a lot of time, passion and commitment on the design of trainings and development measures. But this only makes sense if the training content is implemented afterwards. I would like to strengthen this sense and the therewith importance of training measures by means of transfer-effective trainings. My further plan is to carry the lever concept more and more into practice, so that more people can use it. I want to bring people together who share the same passion for this topic and who really want to change something. If you do that and let people develop something together, incredible things happen! This is what I see as my task in the future at the Institute for Transfer Effectiveness and as well with the new Training Transfer Essentials Certification: put the tool in the hands of the people, so they can make themselves and their participants more effective.
About the author
Ina Weinbauer-Heidel loves to work at the interface of transfer research and transfer practice. As a scientist, consultant and trainer she draws scientific insights with her Institute for Transfer Effectiveness, which are useful for the practice. Her current book on transfer training was published in January 2017. Together with MDI she is offering the Training Transfer Essential Certification Course, especially designed for personnel developers and trainers who want to improve their transfer strength.
Leadership trainer Masha Ibeschitz about the training transfer concept
Masha Ibeschitz has contributed practical insights to the book of Ina Weinbauer-Heidel. That is why we also wanted to ask her some questions.
Masha, everyone who knows you, knows that your schedule book is always more than full. What was your motivation to invest time and make contributions to the book?
Masha-Ibeschitz: When I met Ina and talked with her for the first time, I immediately got the impression that what she was doing really makes sense. If someone has already invested a few years in a dissertation, you can assume that this is something with a concept and with a profound background. I myself work in this field I deal with the transfer issue for 20 years already. We both realized that it would be interesting to do something together and that we can profit from each other’s knowledge. I am very honoured that she invited me to add my practical experience to book.
The levers are mainly about tailoring and selecting the right tools. From your experience: is there a method or intervention you would definitely integrate in each training?
There is nothing like THE method but there is a combination of things that I like to integrate in my trainings quite frequently. On the one hand it is the business reference of trainings, which is indispensable. On the other hand it is the involvement of executives and peers and a very strong focus on the self-responsibility and self-efficacy of the participants.
What do you experience as the most common reason why transfer success is currently not as widespread in companies as it could be?
The reason for transfer success depends a lot on the question: which frame do training measures have in an organisation? If this frame isn’t clear – business need, desired results, desired behaviours etc. – many things are not possible. Without a good frame it’s really hard to achieve good results. For me, this is a frequent reason why participant do not implement their learned skills – they don’t know the “big picture” and the leverage and purpose of knew behaviour. And if this is the case, you can be as motivated and hard-working as you want – you probably won’t be successful.
How can you create a good framework for development measures?
It depends on where you have to start. If it is a strategic project, then it makes sense to start at the top level, board for example, and to create a top-down framework. If it is a more tactical project, it will also be important to start with the superiors. But then for instance, it will be sufficient to remain at the level of the department heads. .
What serves you next?
Nobody likes to give insights into fields, where problems exist. And due to a mutual comfort zone everybody tends to avoid questions about it. We’re talking about trainers and organisations designing development programs together. For real trainings results as well as positive and direct contribution to business-goals it takes courage – on both sides.
The Kirkatrick approach is one of the most effective methods for effective design and evaluation of development measures. With the simple “mountain story” it gives us an idea of what what to do and how to proceed after the so often expressed sentence “We need a training!”.