Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The Knowledge and Learning Transfer Problem

Milk carrier Frederick (Fred) Jones delivers full milk cans at Drouin's co-operative milk factory, Drouin, Victoria [picture] /During a meeting at Cambridge University around 30 years ago I was thoroughly chastised by a Cambridge academic.

I’d used the phrase ‘learning delivery’ when describing computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) approaches. CSCL was one of the hot pedagogical approaches of the day – when network-based learning was in its relative infancy.

“Charles, my dear fellow”, said the Cambridge man, “we may deliver milk, but learning is something that is acquired, never delivered”.

Of course he was right. I’d been sloppy with language. What I’d meant by ‘learning delivery’ was ‘providing the resources and environments that help learning and, by inference, improved performance, to occur’. Learning takes place in our heads. We alone make it happen.

I guess the phrase I’d used was a shorthand. However, it was the last time I ever used it. It conveyed an inaccurate message.

Sometimes language does matter.

The myth of knowledge transfer

imageThe same could be said of the phrase ‘knowledge transfer’. We can’t and don’t transfer knowledge between people. We transfer information. A subtle but important distinction.

We can create and use techniques and approaches that help and facilitate knowledge acquisition. We can share information in the form of data and our own insights. We can create environments where people are likely to have their own insights – their lightbulb moments – and we can help people extract meaning and learn through their own experiences.

But we don’t transfer knowledge. Not between people, or even between organisations.

Of course exposure to other people is one of the primary ways we learn and improve our performance. Some organisations, such as Citibank, refer to their 70:20:10 approach as the 3Es – learning through experience, exposure and education. The ‘exposure’ part is important.

Exposure to other organisations’ experiences can also be very useful for our own organisation’s learning and development, but no two organisations are exactly the same. If we package up the acquired data, information and practices in one organisation it’s extremely unlikely that they can be simply unpacked and used as-is with the same effect in another, no matter how closely aligned the organisations might be. The ‘knowledge transfer’ model doesn’t even work between organisations in industries with relatively standardised process . What works for Mercedes is unlikely to work for Ford without quite a bit of thought and customisation.

The incessant desire to hear about ‘best practice’ is really a need to hear about good practice and emerging practice (Dave Snowden explains the important differences extremely well in his Cynefin Framework). In other words, people are actually asking ‘tell me about the things that work for you. They might give us some good insights if we can apply them in our own way’. There is no ‘best practice’ where there are different environments and processes.

It’s the case of language carrying deeper meaning again, and often distorting our thinking – in this case building a belief that there is a ‘best way’ that can be picked up and transferred. But there is no ‘best practice’ in anything but very simple situations.

The problem with learning transfer

The knowledge transfer myth and best practice misunderstanding have striking similarities with the ‘learning transfer’ problem, in both senses of the phrase – transfer of learning into heads and transfer of learning from heads into action.

Of course we don’t ‘deliver’ or ‘transfer’ learning either. The way we learn best is when the stimuli are relevant to our need. Learning is a highly contextual activity. The closer to the point of use that it occurs the more effective it is likely to be. There’s a number of reasons for that.

When we develop a new capability, for example, it’s best to acquire it within the context we’re going to use it. Then apply it as quickly as possible. In that way we’re much more likely to remember how to use it correctly, and more likely to be able to recall it again later.

We know also that practice is critical for retention, and that spaced practice has been shown to provide an effective mechanism to help memory retention over the longer term, so we can recall when we need it. Spaced practice, procedural learning, distributed practice, priming and other methods have a long history of demonstrating greater persistence of learning resulting in improved performance.


Eliminating the Learning Transfer Problem

There can be no challenge to the fact that a major problem exists with learning transfer, and that it has existed for years. It could be argued that the problem came into existence the day we separated training from the workplace.

“Estimates of the exact extent of the transfer problem vary, from Georgenson’s (1982) estimate that 10% of training results in a behavioral change to Saks’ (2002) survey data, which suggest about 40% of trainees fail to transfer immediately after training, 70% falter in transfer 1 year after the program, and ultimately only 50% of training investments result in organizational or individual improvements” (from Burke & Hitchens)

One of the best ways to overcome the learning or training ‘transfer’ problem can be simply to eliminate the need for it.

“"Talent development specialist Boudewijn Overduin says the solution to this problem is simple: ‘If you don’t train, you don’t have a transfer problem’.” (from our 702010 towards 100% performance book)

If learning is embedded in the daily flow of work, rather than away from the workflow, the idea that we need to develop ways to ‘transfer’ that learning into practical use disappears. When there’s little or no gap between the two there is no ‘transfer problem’. When we learn from work (rather than learning to work), even better.

Of course this is easier said than done. Especially as most organisations have an often large and continuing investment in formal training and development, the vast majority of which is carried out away from the workflow. The overwhelming majority of staff development budget is spent on the acquisition, design, development and delivery of formal development in the form of programmes, courses, and eLearning modules.

If just a fraction of that resource was spent on embedding learning into the workflow – through designing solutions that start with the ‘70’ in 70:20:10 parlance (learning through working) and embrace the ‘20’ (learning though working together) before adopting the ‘10’ (formal training and development) – then the transfer issues become minimal or are fully eliminated.

This approach needs a detailed understanding of the issues to be addressed, the ability to architect and create solutions that stretches well beyond instructional design, and the trust of stakeholders so they play their part in the process.

There are some important reasons to adopt this approach, expressed well by Jay Cross in his contribution to our ‘702010 towards 100% performance book:

Our learning ecologies are entering a do-or-die phase similar to global warming. Management is demanding that the workforce be more effective but ‘what got us here
will not get us there’. We must nurture learning in the workplace or face corporate meltdown.

Beyond schooling

Work on hybrid learning environments (see Zitter and Hoeve, 2012) suggests that most of the work L&D departments carry out is still firmly grounded in school-based learning where ‘learning is central and organised in a formal curriculum or learning paths with predictable outcomes and a focus on explicit knowledge and generalised skills’.

On this side of the dimension, learning tasks are constructed to facilitate knowledge acquisition and knowledge is considered as a commodity that can be acquired, transferred and shared with others (Sfard, 1998)

When L&D moves beyond schooling, learning is characterised as ‘becoming a member of a professional community’ (Sfard) and is acquired in realistic, real work situations.

By melding working and learning, and becoming immersed in real problems and real experiences, we eliminate the knowledge and learning transfer problems. The future role of L&D, and of managers, is to make this happen. That’s an area where the 70:20:10 approach and the 70:20:10 methodology can really help.



Burke, L. and Hitchens, H. (2007) Training Transfer: An Integrative Literature Review

Zitter, I. and A. Hoeve (2012), Hybrid Learning Environments: Merging Learning and Work Processes to Facilitate Knowledge Integration and Transitions, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 81, OECD Publishing.

Sfard, A. (1998), “On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing just One”. Educational
Researcher, 27(2), 4–13.

Milk carrier Fredrick (Fred) Jones delivers full milk cans, Drouin, Victoria, Australia. National Library of Australia. Wikimedia Commons
Pancakes and Cream cake. Cake and photograph by Lindsay Picken, LP Cakes, Kirkcudbright, Scotland. Used with permission

For more information about the 70:20:10 model and the 70:20:10 methodology, visit the 70:20:10 Institute site.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Heading towards high performance

This article was initially published on the Totara website on 4th January 2017.

“Welcome to the first instalment of our new Disruption Debate series, where we speak to leading industry experts to discover more about disruption in the L&D industry. In this post, Totara Learning's Chief Commercial Officer Lars Hyland speaks to Charles Jennings.

Charles is a co-founder of the 70:20:10 Institute, as well as a leading thinker and practitioner in learning, development and performance”.

How technology has changed business forever

As we enter uncertain global times, never before has technology played such a key role in our lives, whether it’s at home, on the move or in the workplace. Technology is now widely considered a fundamental change agent for how we live our lives and run our businesses, and Charles believes that embracing technology is one key factor for the success of L&D and HR departments.

“At a meeting I recently attended, we spoke about the capabilities trainers need in order to succeed in their roles,” said Charles, “and one argument that came up was that there’s a group of trainers who work primarily in the classroom who don’t need to know about technology. However, we can’t even begin to think like that in today’s world. Of course we might need face-to-face specialists, but everyone in L&D today needs to be able to operate within a technological environment and enhance what they’re doing through the use of technology.”

Technology, Charles said, has given us the ability to deliver both reach and richness through our learning. “Prior to the emergence of the internet, you could provide very rich development experiences in classrooms, workshops, business schools and so on, but this simply didn’t scale. Face-to-face teaching is expensive, and it’s impossible to ‘process’ large numbers of people through physical training. Some years ago it wasn’t uncommon for companies to fly people from China to the USA, or from Boston to Frankfurt at great expense, or to send people from Singapore to London for a five-day course. What technology has done is break the richness/reach trade-off. In the pre-internet era, decisions needed to be made between rich development environments or those with much greater ‘reach’ - such as correspondence courses. In today’s world we can have both. We are able to provide rich learning opportunities to lots of people located anywhere.”

“I’m a great believer that access to information is a human right almost as much as access to clean water and healthy food”

A personalised social learning experience

Today’s L&D technology requirements are vastly different from how they started out. The traditional L&D infrastructure came out of HR/IS requirements for digital record keeping, and the first learning management systems were essentially extensions of these HR systems. They were filing and scheduling systems for training, with no real support for any flexible learning. Charles said: “To launch an e-learning course, some of the early LMS platforms I used required as many as 15 clicks, some of them counterintuitive”. However, with the rise of social media, a whole new generation of technologies arrived which can be attached to modern LMS products that can enhance the learning experience.

“One question we face today is ‘How can I have a personalised learning experience’?”, said Charles. “This doesn’t just mean a tailored learning path - I want my learning to be like my online shopping experience. I want it to have some ‘understanding’ of what I’m looking for, and what I need to do,  and then to recommend tips on the things I’m interested in and which will help me, and obviously that’s not currently happening.”

This is a clear move from organisation-led to consumer-led behaviour as economies and organisations evolve. People today expect technology to be proactive and to prompt them with what they need to know in order to ‘do’, rather than having to seek it out themselves. However, there is a balance for organisations to strike between the user’s desire for just-in-time learning and changing the direction of behaviour effectively. People need the information and tools to do their jobs, but there is also a cultural element in what L&D needs to do. It is our job as L&D professionals to ensure that learning is constructed to be engaging, persuasive and responsive to workers’ needs, not dictatorial, and that we help support our workforce to a common purpose and culture. Charles believes that the 70:20:10 model is an effective way to ensure that this happens.

“I spend a lot of time with organisations looking at the 70:20:10 model, and talking about how the model itself is a change process that helps shift mindsets and practices. The closer to the point of work we learn, the more effective the learning will be. That’s a simple fact. Therefore we need to think about enabling learning just before, or at, the point of need rather than developing and delivering set learning experiences outside the context of the workplace. This means that learning resources must be available all the time, with L&D professionals working to ensure people have the right tools to help them learn effectively.”


Reshaping our approach to high performance

“We get better at doing what we need to do when we take some time to reflect on our experiences, and when we get feedback from other people,” said Charles. “ We should reflect on our own behaviour, then ask others about whether what we’re doing is having an impact. Then we need to act on those insights and that feedback.”

Charles also shared a joke: “How many HR people does it take to change a lightbulb? The answer is “Only one, but it usually takes the entire department to determine the process”. What does this say about L&D? Much of what L&D professionals do is around processes, but process is just part of the picture, and it’s around inputs. We need to flip our thinking, and instead be focusing on the outputs, not just on how we get there. What do people need to be able to do? What does success look like? What elements of this already reside in our people? How can we help build that knowledge and those skills?

Discussing skills, Charles mentioned a recent study from the US Midwest. The US Government has put the problem of jobs in the area not being filled down to a skills gap, but this study found the problem wasn’t a lack of skills at all, but that in fact, people simply were not prepared to do the available jobs for the money being offered, leading to rising unemployment. The knee-jerk ‘skills’ reaction was wrong. People had the skills, but the environment being offered for them to use those skills was the inhibiting factor. Situations like this, which are increasingly common, present a real challenge for L&D. The idea that helping people develop skills alone will lead to high performance is a fallacy. L&D needs to look and work beyond ‘skills’ if it is to have an impact. Knowing what to do and how to do it are two important ‘bricks’ for high performance, but if we stop there people will never fully achieve it.

“There are several things which set high performers apart from other employees. First, like others, they usually learnt the basics of their role in a structured way. Second, they have taken as many opportunities as possible to practise under the guidance of a mentor or manager. Third, they are well embedded in their professional community - better connected people are better performers. Fourth, they have access to performance support at their fingertips when they need it. Finally, they make the time to practise.”


The inertia issue

“Research suggests that engagement in most organisations is very low. But engaged people deliver more and are more productive. It comes back to workforce capability - if L&D spent more time thinking about what it can do to help stakeholders and their organisations, then L&D professionals could significantly increase the level of engagement,” said Charles. One study found that the teams reporting to managers who were focused and effective at developing their people were around 27% more productive than other teams. They were also significantly more engaged and satisfied at work.”

“If L&D practitioners thought less about knowledge and skills and more about keeping people engaged and motivated, we’d see a huge change in results. Learning is a key engagement motivator, but behaviour change only comes about when learning is ‘deep’.

A key issue in the battle to play their part in developing high performing people, teams and organisations  is that often, despite their best efforts, L&D professionals are dragged back by people asking for a specific course to tackle a specific skills challenge. This often doesn’t take into account the bigger picture, and usually results in L&D doing more of the same. Instead, we should be thinking in terms of how to motivate people effectively to do their jobs, and whether or not our motivation tools are designed to help us achieve our objectives. So what’s the answer to the inertia issue? Charles has a suggestion of his own.

“L&D needs to think about how they can help the development of metacognitive skills. Instead of teaching detailed material up front, make it available to people when they need it. We’re better off spending time helping people develop better acuity, critical thinking, creativity and communication capability. Then they can apply those capabilities in the context of their specific needs. We should also make sure people take time to reflect and share their experiences.”