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Training intervention and training transfer: Have trainers really grasped the importance?

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Written by John Berry on 4th May 2017. Revised 16th November 2020.

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The Nature of Training

Training SeminarTrainers work on behalf of managers to effect change in the workplace behaviour of trainees (Aguinis & Kraiger, 2009) through training intervention and training transfer. Many publications on training presume that trainer, manager and trainee work within the same organisation but employment statistics illustrate that of the 23.6 million employees in the UK, only about 41% work in firms or organisations large enough to support a training department (Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, 2011). Training interventions are commissioned or purchased; sometimes from internal training departments, sometimes from bespoke training consultants but more often by picking from a list in a course vendor’s catalogue. The training industry has many structural forms. Despite this diversity, there are three common players: manager, trainee and trainer. The manager is the sponsor, the trainee is the object of the training and the trainer (whether internal or part of a vendor organisation) is the subject.

Trainees are employed as workers in organisations. They are components of organisational systems running processes that deliver goods and services to beneficiaries. In this sense the organisation is like a machine with inputs, processes and outputs. The effectiveness of the machine depends on its ability to convert inputs to outputs. Training aims to make changes to that effectiveness by changing the knowledge, skills and attitudes (the KSAs) of the workers in the system (Goldstein & Ford, 2002). But how can we be sure that a given training intervention will indeed change the system? Training has to be transferred from the learning environment of trainer and trainee to the work environment of manager and worker. A suggestion key to the answer outlined in this paper is that transfer of training is less than 30% efficient (Robinson & Robinson, 1995; Holton, 1997).

The efficiency of transfer of training depends on a huge number of variables, each associated with the characteristics of the manager, trainee, trainer and the work environment. This essay focuses on the trainer, but these variables interact and discussion about the role of trainer alone is meaningless without due consideration of the trainer’s context. This paper looks at the importance of transfer to the whole business unit and specifically whether trainers really understand this transfer system. It also looks at the key issues that all parties should be aware of in order to optimise transfer and it specifically reports on those central to the trainer.

This paper has implied above that transfer of training is some measurable parameter but there is a problem with how transfer of training is defined and at what point it should be measured (Ford & Weissbein, 1997). This alone makes transfer of training a very inexact science. Ultimately what matters is whether learned KSAs are used in the workplace and used repeatedly to the benefit of the organisation in both short and long term (Cheng & Hampson, 2008).

Transfer and the Economics of Training Interventions

Training is a form of investment. Investment is a payment made today in the hope of a greater sum paid back some time in the future. In economics there are three methods of appraising the attractiveness of an investment in a trading firm: return on capital employed as a measure of the earning power of the changed KSAs; payback period as the length of time it takes for the spend on training to realise a corresponding marginal improvement in the cash flow; and discounted cash flows determining the rate of return on the investment to those providing the finance for the training (Johnson et al, 2008). On the face of it therefore, appraisal methods for transfer of training are available. Normally however, a firm measures profit and turnover (a firm’s KPIs). Other organisation types will have their own unique KPI forms. Training works at the margins and incremental changes make incremental improvements in these KPIs (Mankiw & Taylor, 2006). It may therefore be a long time before small changes are discernible in this imperfect transfer system.

Any investment must always be considered against what the firm forgoes in making it. This is the economic principal of opportunity cost (Black, 2002). Opportunity cost applies to training but, more significantly, it also applies to any measurement of transfer of training. Measurement costs are significant and these costs need to be balanced against other demands. Transfer of training is difficult to measure and arguably the risks and opportunity costs outweigh the benefits of knowing how bad transfer really is (Blanchard et al, 2000).

The Nature of Training Transfer

Training is interesting to a firm. Applying the firm’s ‘make or buy decision’ (Coase, 1937), the organisation decides that it can develop its people more cheaply than buying new labour in. It's the ‘make or buy’ decision applied to its human resources.

The training cycle begins when the manager asks what organisational performance is to be changed and how that change might be measured. Training is a tool of performance change (Holton, 1997). Having decided that the change can be made through training and the training completed, measurement of the new performance can be made. The manager sets the objectives and the trainer translates these to training design. In a markets system for off-the-shelf courses, the manager’s objectives become market needs and product managers in vendors design training products to satisfy. The trainee, through their assumed readiness and motivation to learn, converts the taught KSAs to learned outcomes. The characteristics of trainer and trainee marry with those of the work environment and the manager to realise the transfer outcomes of KSA generalisation and maintenance (Goldstein & Ford, 2002).

Central to the idea of transfer and the ability to measure the effectiveness of that transfer is the evaluation of the training. Kirkpatrick (1959) posited four levels rising in complexity: reaction (to the training), learning, behaviour (change) and results. Kirkpatrick noted that it becomes increasingly difficult to evaluate training as one strives to evaluate behaviour and results. The result is that trainers seldom attempt higher level evaluation and settle mostly for assessment of trainee reaction as a measure of how they've done (Blanchard et al, 2000). This is inadequate considering the ‘normal’ business expectation for measurement of return on investment already outlined. To assess the link between the training intervention itself and return on investment, the application of the learned KSAs to the job and the maintenance of these over a period of time must be known (Goldstein & Ford, 2002). This suggests that trainers are not providing their client organisations with the right information for adequate ROI assessment. Given also that only 10% of revenues spent on training lead to a positive transfer (Cheng & Ho, 2001), and considering the other calls on finances in a firm, it's quite surprising that managers consider investing at all in training.

As Holton (2010) asks “why is it that transfer has not improved much (over the years)?” As he posits, it may be that trainers don't have the skills, don't have the time and aren't given the money by managers to measure transfer of training and to optimise this in training interventions. Research studies over the past twenty years or so might yield answers to some of these questions.

Exploring Current Transfer Research

To complicate matters, differentiation may be needed between training in hard and soft skills. Laker & Powell (2011) suggest that soft skills learning (such as on interpersonal relations) impacts more deeply on values and beliefs than hard skill learning (on say machine operation) and hence may take significantly longer to have an effect. Transfer is also more difficult to measure in soft skills. This suggests that cross-sectional studies on training are less useful than longitudinal: training affects the long run and research approaches must mirror this.

Expanding on the picture so far, Mathieu et al, (1993) and Tennenbaum et al, (2001) identified four critical stages in the transfer process: pre-training motivation, learning, training performance and training outcomes and these match the Kirkpatrick ‘levels’.

Cheng & Hampson (2008) point to Aizen’s (1991) theory of planned behaviour and suggest that trainee buy-in is a good predictor of transfer. Conceptually if the trainee buys in, they will give energy to the learning. Cheng & Hampson also note that it is the trainee’s decision to transfer. If the trainee perceives that the learning will result in reward and recognition, there will be increased likelihood that they will use the learning in the workplace. As Holton (2010) also notes, the trainee might believe they can transfer but if nobody cares, transfer is unlikely. This illustrates the importance of the manager and the work environment.

Significant other research points to the trainee having substantial influence over whether or not new KSAs are applied to the job. Colquitt et al (2000) point to strong relationships between transfer and the individual characteristics of valence, pre-training self-efficacy and cognitive ability and also with manager support, peer support and organisation climate. Cheng & Ho (2001) note the significance of trainee personal factors of locus-of-control and self-efficacy, motivational factors around the job, organisational commitment and the opportunity to practice as significantly affecting transfer. Noe & Schmitt (1986) coin the term ‘trainability’ to describe this collection of factors particular to the trainee. With this weight of evidence, it’s clear that the trainee carries significant responsibility for transfer of training.

Holton (1997) argues that manager support, peer support and indeed manager sanction (in event of return to the old ways) are important. He suggests that there must be some consequences for not transferring the learning. Whilst a supporting work environment is essential, managers must make expectations clear in the pre-training phase. Taking this a step further, Burke & Huchins (2007) suggest strong links between the work environment, organisational goals and the effectiveness of transfer. It’s certainly by no means the trainee’s fault alone when poor transfer occurs. As Chaiburu et al (2010) suggest, perceived organisational support (defined as the amount that the manager cares about the trainee’s welfare) is important in the transfer process and hence much responsibility lies with the manager.

So trainee, manager and the work environment are all important. But what of the trainer?

Hutchins et al (2010) note that trainers themselves play an important role in determining if trainees transfer what they know onto the job. They speculate that the way trainers learn about transfer may possibly contribute to the transfer problem. Training practitioners tend to learn from one another or from websites or lightweight practitioner journals. These researchers did not specifically explore the link between learning methods and actual transfer but their results suggest that there is a gap between trainers’ understanding of transfer and transfer itself. Cheng & Ho (2001) note that trainers usually adopt a trial-and-error approach to managing training transfer. Cheng & Ho claim this can be costly and time-consuming. They further claim that trainers do not have a thorough understanding of the underlying principles of transfer. These assertions together strongly suggest that trainers have not grasped the importance of transfer of training and that they are centring instead on delivery (Zenger et al, 2005). Arguably trainers are relying on the trainee, manager and work environment to overcome trainer deficiencies. This is all completely understandable if they are, like most trainers, detached from the work environment. Indeed, why would they do anything different if they are not part of the manager’s organisation? Their objectives and those of the manager are not automatically in concert.

It's worth looking finally at studies that provide less clear conclusions. Tziner et al (1991) suggest that a supportive environment alone cannot not drive trainees’ use of trained skills. Rouiller & Goldstein (1993) found that the transfer climate of the work system was not significantly related to learning. Axtell et al (1997) found that trainee motivation was the key predictor of transfer within the first month and transfer in the longer term. Locke et al (1981) claim that using goal theory and setting clear transfer goals does help trainee, manager and trainer focus expectations. And Tracey et al (1995) found that shared perceptions and expectations of learning are important in transferring learning to the work environment.

Together these show that whilst it’s difficult to blame one party alone for poor transfer of training, the trainer appears to have the most influence.

So It’s the Trainers’ Fault?

In defence of the trainer, Longnecker (2004) and Zenger et al (2005) posit that training professionals often claim that they have insufficient time, support, accountability and priority. Indeed this would be completely understandable for trainers in vendor organisations where their organisation and the trainee’s firm are separate. In this case often trainer and trainee first meet at the start of the training intervention itself. It's less understandable and a weaker excuse where both hail from the same firm.

Hutchins et al (2010) supported Cheng & Ho (2001) and proposed that the degree to which trainers can influence training transfer depends on how they themselves develop their knowledge on practices that cause transfer. How trainers come to know about transfer may be contributing to the root cause of low transfer rates. As already noted trainers prefer to learn about transfer through informal and self-directed methods. Trainers are not learning from research (Sanders et al, 2008). Baldwin et al (2009) claim that to have greatest impact, trainers must develop beyond the basic training design knowledge to understand the entire training and performance improvement process. They state that trainers need to clearly understand the enablers and barriers to training transfer unique to their organisation. As already noted, this might be possible for 41% of trainees but for those where managers procure externally provided training, it seems that trainers will never achieve this: for the other 59%, the necessary relationships don't exist. Perhaps it's not all the trainers fault.

Avoiding the Problem: the alternatives to training

So far this paper has concentrated on the closed system of the training cycle. If this were the whole story then trainers need only be aware of the various linkages between pre-training, training and post training and variables in each. The environment is however somewhat larger. Trainers are under threat. Because transfer of training is so inefficient, the opportunity costs are high and as a result, arguably, managers are seeking alternatives, either exploring electronic methods or returning to work-based learning.

‘Electronic methods’ are still in their relative infancy. These break into three forms: self-work programmes, Internet-based training and computer-based-training including simulators (Goldstein & Ford, 2002). In many cases the trainer is replaced by a product manager and the classroom by a virtual environment.

Work based learning seems particularly attractive with its close link between organisational goals, transfer and learning outcomes (Beattie, 2006; Clarke, 2005; Elkjaer, 2004; Smith, 2003). Billet (1992) added further to this with the theory of vocational practice centred on the idea that workplace experience is the primary source of trainees’ professional development.

Taken to limit it would seem that if trainers don't embrace transfer, they will soon be redundant. Supporting this, Enos et al (2003) reported that 70% of all managerial skills in a Fortune 100 firm were acquired through informal methods. One might logically pose the question ‘are trainers needed nowadays?’


Efficiencies in transfer of training from the learning environment to the work environment are very low and whilst trainee, manager and the work environment must all share a part in the cause, it seems that the trainer shoulders the greatest burden of responsibility. Patently trainers have not grasped the importance of transfer or they would have surely done something as a profession to tackle the problem. Because there are so many things on which transfer depends, trainers must ‘up their game’ and become aware of the causal relationships between variables and transfer in order to raise the transfer rates.

This paper has proposed that trainers have insufficient knowledge about transfer. This stems largely from the way in which they continue their professional development and they must therefore change this to rely more on evidence-based research than peer discussion. Because the business cases for evaluation of training and measurement of transfer of training are so weak, trainers must discover methods that allow transfer to be measured cost effectively both just after the training and once the trainee has returned to implement the learning in the workplace.

Summarising these conclusions, it seems that trainers are going to be under increasing pressure to improve transfer of training efficiency and to do this they need better measurement methods and improvement in their own KSAs. Trainers need to be aware that if they don't improve the return on investment they won't be trainers any more. Markets always find alternatives to inefficiency.

Training Intervention and Training Transfer

Many studies have been cited here but the story is not complete. Many of these are cross-sectional in nature and yet, as noted, transfer of training spans a significant period. In order to perceive the effects trainers are having on transfer of training, methods are needed to discern improvement in trainer effectiveness over time. There is a paucity of research on this and future work must focus on longitudinal study. The results of such studies may provide a much needed counter to the poor regard for trainers in most research so far.

There have been some studies (Button & Matthieu, 1996; Stevens & Gist, 1997) on concepts from cognitive and instructional psychology. These looked at the adoption of challenging training tasks and the conditions under which competence was retained. They identified the difference between performance oriented and mastery oriented trainees. These studies give potential for greater understanding of the trainee. Perhaps this link to other branches psychology will lead to strategies for higher transfer rates and hence should be investigated. Likewise, since 59% of employees are in small to medium sized firms (SMEs) and therefore not under central training departments, research needs to look at the real question: have SME managing directors really grasped the importance of training transfer? It would be surprising if the average managing director of an SME had any the idea of the concepts discussed above. Better understanding by MDs would allow them to better plan, procure and measure training intervention from the disparate group of training providers in the industry today. Such demand-side action would surely change the industry.

And finally this paper has discussed training as if it is a single homogenous idea. The needs of a manager considering an MBA programme that will re-focus their career are very different from the needs of a transitory employee learning how to use a point of sale machine in a supermarket. One is soft, the other hard. One has a very long time horizon and the other short. One trainee has high self-efficacy, the other low. More research is needed into the nature of the KSAs to be learned across a diverse set of organisations, large and small and at all levels, rather than reporting simply on single cases of transfer and generalising.

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