Sustaining Learning & Development Initiatives

BUSINESS LEADERS and human resources professionals are aware of the challenges of sustaining the impact of learning and development programmes. Time, ownership, resources, and preference for the old way of doing things, all conspire to undermine the success of a training initiative. 

Learning and development teams are under pressure to do more with less and rarely have the resources to design the ideal programme. On top of this, measuring the impact of learning and development initiatives is notoriously hard. Despite the challenge of measuring the results, leaders have a good idea of when a programme is working, even if hard numbers are not available.

An important measuring stick for success is the degree to which the participants apply what they have learned if the workplace. If desired behaviours are sustained, the impact on the business is highly likely. If the desired behaviours are not sustained, the chance of a positive impact is low. 

Research-Based Solutions

So, what can leaders do to improve the learning transfer of knowledge and behaviour into the workplace? The work of Mary L Broad and John W. Newstrom has shed light on the subject. They asked leaders to rank the most important factors (before, during, and after the workshop) that positively impact the learning transfer. 

Greatest Impact on Learning Transfer.png

According to the respondents, the single most important factor was the involvement of the participants’ direct supervisor both before and after the workshop. Direct supervisors see the participants regularly, directly support accountability, tie the learning to the day-to-day working culture, and assign projects that apply what they have learned to the workplace.

Facilitators, for their part, play a critical role before and during the workshop. However, even the best facilitator can only do so much to ensure that the participants apply what they have learned once the programme has ended. In fact, facilitators were described as the least impactful after the training programme.

Sustaining learning and development programmes work best when there is a shift away from delivering workshops, towards building a sustainable learning culture that involves senior leaders and encourages application. Here are some practical tips that help to make this happen. 

1. Get Senior Leaders on Board

Arguably the most crucial factor in building a sustainable learning culture is the involvement of the organisation’s senior leadership. Having senior leaders on board will bring tangible benefits:

  • The programme is more likely to get the resources and attention that will make it a success.
  • The learning objectives and topics will better align with what senior stakeholders really care about, which means more buy-in throughout all levels.
  • The programme messaging will connect deeply to the most current mission vision and values.
  • Senior leaders will better understand how they can help remove barriers to learning application.

To show their support, a senior leader can comment on the programme at a company event or through internal communications. They may also join training sessions as a keynote speaker, have lunch with the participants, or even facilitate a portion of the workshop. The more direct the involvement, the more the senior leader can influence the participants to embrace the company strategy and visualise their own role in the future growth of the company.

2. Create Multiple Touch Points

It may come as no surprise that workshop participants generally forget most of what they learn in a training session. This is due in large part to how the brain takes in, organises, and stores information. Humans simply do not retain theory, facts, and figures well, especially during the first exposure. 

Instead, we learn through repetition, social reinforcement, and application. This is why education systems around the world tend to be organised in a similar fashion, with daily classes reinforcing the learning topics through repetition and practice. 

Organisations are shifting the focus away from a single training event in favour of multiple sessions that are shorter and spaced out over a more extended period of time. More focus is placed on experiential learning, case study application, coaching, and action learning projects. Online portals and apps open up new opportunities for review, follow-up activities, micro-learning, case study assignments, and social learning.

Learning and Forgetting Curves.png

Changing the pattern of forgetting requires a shift away from one-off events towards regular culture-building touch points. This also means allocating budget towards sustaining the programme, not just delivering the programme itself.

3. Involve Direct Supervisors Early and Often

Make sure the direct supervisor has a clear understanding of their role in the process. This is as critical before the programme as it is after. Here are some steps an organisation can take to ensure that the direct supervisor is involved:

  • Before the workshop, assign a meeting between the supervisor and participant to talk about what each hopes the participant will get out of the programme.
  • After the workshop, have the participants schedule a meeting with the supervisors to review their action plan. What did they learn? How do they plan to implement it? What support can the supervisor and team provide? 
  • Provide coaching toolkits that are tailored specifically for the programme. These can act as guidelines to help the supervisor lead pre-workshop and post-workshop conversations, with essential talking points to be covered.
  • Share workshop materials so that the supervisor knows what was taught and how they can apply the concepts within the team.
  • Enrol the supervisor in any online learning portals, apps, and notification lists so that they see new content and assignments that are given to the participants.
  • Promote accountability between the supervisor and participant, as well as between the supervisors and their own next level managers. This requires leadership from the top.

Direct supervisors are not encouraged to join the workshop as doing so may cause their team members to withhold critical information from group discussions. However, it is crucial to involve the supervisor in pre-workshop and post-workshop activities as much as possible. 

4. Remove Barriers to Application

The programme must fit into the broader company culture and way of doing things. This means occasionally stepping back from the programme and asking the simple question – “why are we doing this?” Training programmes need to show a clear connection between what the participants are learning, what they need to do day-to-day, and how it will impact business results and their success within the company. If that connection is not clear, then the development team should go back and make the necessary adjustments.

After the programme, the team environment needs to support, and not discourage, application in the workplace. Leadership from the top, the involvement of direct supervisors, and regular follow up will help remove those barriers. Business leaders can help to identify which company policies, cultural and bureaucratic tendencies might get in the way of application. These tendencies need to be eliminated as much as possible.

More than anything, sustaining learning is about company culture. If the right conditions are in place, many of the required steps will happen naturally. But engagement needs to come from the top. Otherwise, development teams may end up swimming against the current and lacking the resources to implement full measures.