Learning transfer is a hot topic among development professionals. The idea of measuring ROI or “return-on-people” is closely tied to whether people are applying what they learn, in real time, when it matters most.

Instructional design, adult development and neuroscience all play into the best practices for making learning stick. Technology, too, can be part of the equation. Here, we offer some basics about learning transfer and leader development.

1 Idea

Leadership skills are challenging to learn and apply — but organizations that invest in leadership development gain tremendous benefits. Research from the Human Capital Institute found that organizations that spend more than 31 percent of their annual training and development budgets on leadership development are 12 percent more likely to report increased revenue than those who spend less — and most organizations spend way less!*

3 Facts

What happens before and after the formal part of a program or training is just as important as the content and delivery. This is true whether the course is long or short, in-person or virtual, ongoing or one-off. CCL takes the “Prepare, Engage, Apply” approach to helping individuals and organizations get the most out of leadership programs and initiatives.

Leadership development, or managerial training, is about learning and applying “open skills” — skills that require the ability to adapt ideas and guidelines to their context. These require discernment, judgment and presence of mind, as well as the willingness and motivation to practice what was learned. In contrast, “closed skills” are directly replicable in the work environment, which is why computer training or technical skills “stick” much easier after they are introduced.

Learning is a social process — and so is learning transfer. Learning — and the desired performance that comes from learning — does not exist in a vacuum. The work context, including the level of support from role models, mentors, peers and bosses, has a powerful impact on turning lessons learned into leadership in action.

5 Tips

Leverage on-the-job learning. Research shows that senior executives attribute 70 percent of their career learning to on-the-job challenges. And experience tells most of us that learning-by-doing seems more “real” or permanent than classroom or theory alone. But many embedded opportunities to learn (or to accelerate development) are overlooked. Make plans and create systems to seek out and learn from experiences that teach people what they need to learn.

Seek out developmental relationships. Excellent bosses (and difficult ones) teach valuable lessons. Other people can also play important roles in helping to clarify what is important to learn and keep employees working toward those goals. A learning partner, mentor, coach, peer, boss, teammate or direct report could be part of an “accountability system,” and also provide opportunities to practice new skills or behaviors.

Extend coursework. Create an add-on and blended approach to learning. Experiment with what works in your organization. Some ways to help learning stick include:

  • Create a feedback-rich workplace by teaching everyone how to give (and ask for) honest, helpful feedback.
  • Take advantage of apps and mobile learning.
  • Keep learners connected through social media.
  • Offer related or targeted courses, workshops or online learning.

Be real about readiness. Not all employees will be ready and interested in learning at the same rate or at the same level. Employee attitude — including motivation, willingness to take risks, ability to push through a struggle — will affect learning transfer. They also want to know that any new knowledge, skills and abilities will be noticed and valued.

Clarify expectations. Be sure organizational needs and expectations are factored in when developing or identifying a leadership program. Everyone is disappointed if leadership training doesn’t seem to have a positive impact. Learning won’t last — or at least won’t show up in your organization — if it isn’t aligned with organizational priorities or expectations.

Curious about CCL’s strategies for better learning transfer? Check out our on-demand webinar, Making Learning Stick.

Thanks to CCL’s Rie Ingold for her research and unpublished paper, “Learning Transfer is Important to Leadership Development Training.”

*Wiete, Aubrey, K. “Leadership and Emotional Intelligence: The Keys to Driving ROI and Organizational Performance.” Human Capital Institute, 2013.

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