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How to talk to the C-Suite about learning transfer

Practical advice for L&D on how to align with the C-Suite's goals for learning, and how to talk to them about skills transfer. All from the latest episode of Mind the Skills Gap!

How to talk to the C-Suite about learning transfer
March 7, 2023
How to talk to the C-Suite about learning transfer

If you pour money into a training course and there’s no operational change afterwards, it’s money wasted. That’s the frank assessment of Paul Matthews, CEO of People Alchemy.  

He and I share a passion for putting that right.  

Here’s an overview of our recent conversation on the importance of learning transfer. Plus some pointers to help you improve learning transfer in your workplace, and how to talk to the C-suite to align with the goals they really care about.

Listen to the full episode, here or on your player of choice

The case for learning transfer

Like many things in life, the case for learning transfer is simple. It’s about making sure people can do their job. But when research shows that around 15 per cent of what is learnt during training is actually applied back in the workplace, it’s time to for L&D teams to take notice – and action. ‍

How to encourage learning transfer

Paul Matthews recommends we try this: think of the learning environment as a garden. Your employees are the plants. Your role as an L&D professional is to feed them (with knowledge), support them (by enabling a culture of collaboration and encouragement from their peers and managers), and allow them to grow (with chances to practise their new skills back on the job).  

Read our guide to learning transfer for practical tips on how to boost and measure it.

Take a new approach

“Learning is a process, not an event,” Paul says. To explain this, he returns to the gardening metaphor. “It’s no good feeding a plant just once and then leaving it to wither. If it’s to flourish, you’ve got to feed that plant a few times. The same is true of your employees.” To help them blossom, it’s better to approach learning as a continual process rather than a one-off event. “That’s where a lot of people fail to join the dots,” Paul says.

Use the levers of transfer

One way to “join the dots” is by applying the 12 levers of transfer effectiveness. Pioneered by Dr Ina Weinbaeur-Heidel, the method focuses on three areas: trainees, training design and the organisation. Each area contains small steps – or levers – to help L&D professionals make training really stick.  

It has been designed to help boost the effectiveness of all training programmes. And, like any worthwhile endeavour, it takes time – which is often a bone of contention between the C-suite and L&D teams.  

Get time on your side

No one expects to improve at a sport or get better at playing a musical instrument without putting in time, effort and lots of practice. But somehow when it comes to the things we learn at work – whether it’s compliance training, cognitive skills or technical knowledge – it’s hard to get the C-suite to recognise these things take time.  

So how does L&D make the case to the Board for the need to spend not necessarily more money, but more time taking people from knowing to doing?  

How to talk to the C-suite

“Talk to them in the language they understand,” Paul says. Focus on the bottom line and organisational strategy. These tend to be the metrics the C-suite use to judge whether a programme has been successful or not – so hook into these measures.

Measure success based on behaviours

Ask the execs to agree on the set of behaviours they need to see – the behaviours that will result in the strategy execution and bottom-line results they’re after.  

“Start with the end in mind and work backwards,” Paul says. “That takes you down a really good road to say: ‘There’s the set of behaviours we have agreed our people need; now how do we underpin those behaviours?’” And that’s the moment you bring in the importance of learning transfer.

The back-in-the-workplace challenge

Now’s the time to help the C-suite recognise the importance of what happens after training. Underline the need for support from line managers and peers; the value of ongoing feedback and opportunities to allow people to put their new skills and knowledge into practice.  

“Leadership has a massive impact. And so does culture,” Paul says. “Quite frankly, culture can untrain people faster than you can train them.”

With that warning ringing in our ears, it’s clear that learning transfer needs a collaborative approach. But with the right tools, you can help your people take their new skills and behaviours out of the training environment and into the workplace.  

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