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Kevin Lovell

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Stop wasting training


According to a study which found that a quarter of all training fails to yield a significant performance improvement, UK organisations could be wasting an estimated £9.5bn on training each year. Kevin Lovell outlines why this is the case and, more importantly, what you can do about it.

The best training course in the world is worthless if learners do not apply what they learn. The business benefit from training comes from the greater productivity that results when people use the new skills they’ve learned. Sadly, too many line managers assume that when the training finishes, that’s the end of the process.

In a three-year evaluation study, KnowledgePool has analysed the ‘learning outcomes’ of over 10,000 learners by questioning them, and their line managers, on the transfer of learning to the workplace and performance improvement.

The results show that 69% of learners use what they learn and experience significant performance improvement. In fact, we found a positive correlation between the transfer of learning to the workplace, line manager support and performance improvement. In other words, performance improvement occurs when learners use what they learn; and learners use what they learn when their line manager helps them to do so.

What about the others?
While this is good news, it does of course mean that three out of 10 learners do not experience significant performance improvement from training. When looking for the reasons for this, we found that:

  • 6% of learners don’t use what they learn, yet they experience performance improvement anyway. While this may seem an anomaly, it can happen when training is relevant to a small part of someone’s role; the training is relevant to the staff they manage; the training is not relevant to their role but it offers some unexpected benefits or results in a feeling of ‘increased confidence’
  • 9% of learners use what they learn but their learning does not lead to significant performance improvement. Perhaps the learning did not sufficiently address the challenges in the workplace or maybe it tackled aspects that were not the root cause of low performance levels? It could also be that there was no real need or scope for performance improvement or that the training was for compliance purposes: the box was ‘ticked’ but there was no noticeable change of outcome in the workplace
  •  16% of learners don’t use what they learn and don’t experience performance improvement either. This represents one in six learners and gives the greatest cause for concern, not just for the lack of performance improvement but because it is avoidable
  • By combining the 9% and the 16%, we get 25%, so the alarming conclusion from this is that a quarter of all training fails to deliver a significant performance improvement

Putting this into context, figures from the Learning and Skills Council* show that UK organisations spend around £38bn on training annually, so that means they could be wasting £9.5bn of training investment each year.

Four reasons
Our analysis shows that there are four main reasons why learners are unable to convert their learning into performance improvement:

1. Lack of support from their line manager. We found that when learners do receive line manager support, 94% go on to apply what they learned. This underlines the importance of actively involving line managers to ensure that learners get the opportunity to apply their learning.

2. They attend courses that are ill-suited to their needs. We found that this is true in around 10% of cases. If learners are attending courses that are not well-suited to their needs, how can they be expected to achieve behavioural change? This underlines the importance of robust training needs analysis and course selection.

3. They attend courses knowing they will not use what they learn. We found this to be true in around 3% of cases. Typically this happens with expert or specialist workers who select expensive courses that take their fancy. While it may help to keep these individuals motivated, surely this is not the most effective way to invest in your top talent?

4. ‘Bad timing’. We found this to be true in around 5% of cases. The learners may have been well-matched to a highly-rated course but either the training was too late (the work requirement came and went before the training took place) or too soon (they’d forgotten what they had learned before they had the chance to apply it). Sometimes a change in work circumstances prevents learners from applying their learning. For example, they may attend a selection interview course but then the organisation puts a halt on recruitment.

So what can be done?
We have three recommendations to help you ensure that your learning results in performance improvement:

1. Capture and analyse post-training data. Kirkpatrick Level 1 (happy sheet) evaluations are the full extent of most organisations’ training analysis but they’ll tell you nothing about what actually happens after the training finishes. Unless you gather data on the impact of the training back in the workplace, you won’t know what’s working or not working. The data can help you to spot trends in particular courses, or specific areas of your business, and target areas of concern.

2. Encourage line managers to support learners after training. Without this support, it’s difficult for learners to be more productive.

3. Encourage line managers and learning and development teams to work together closely, to ensure that training is properly targeted. As mentioned above, around 15% of learners attend training that is either ill-suited to their needs or badly timed. Both situations result in a waste of the training investment because learners cannot convert their learning into performance improvement. Closer working between learning and development and line managers would have significant mutual benefits.

None of us can afford to waste our budgets. Act now to enhance the performance of your learners and gain 25% more value from your learning spend.

Kevin Lovell is learning strategy director at KnowledgePool

A free whitepaper on KnowledgePool’s learning outcomes evaluation study (called ‘They think it’s all over: why what happens after the training is as important as the training itself’) can be downloaded from KnowledgePool’s website:

* The £38bn figure, for the annual training spend, comes from The National Employers Skills Survey (NESS), a study of over 79,000 employers which was published by the Learning and Skills Council on 7 May 2008. The 2009 NESS study is currently in development.

2 Responses

  1. A little more to it than that?
    “The best training course in the world is worthless if learners do not apply what they learn.” Who wouldn’t agree with this statement? Brace yourself …

    I read Kevin Lovell’s article with mixed feelings. On the upside, I am delighted that there is even more evidence to support (for example) the assertion that line manager involvement contributes to higher rates of learning transfer and return-on-investment. On the downside, I am saddened that this evidence can be added to the approximately 44,000 available papers on learning transfer – and yet nothing much seems to have changed in the twenty years since the seminal papers in this field were published.

    So what can be done? Lovell makes three recommendations, each of which is noble in its own right and which we support. But, in our opinion, they are also insufficient. The very “best training course in the world” is, we doubt, the training that was measured in this three year study. The best training course in the world is designed from the very outset with a focus on business outcomes, not learning outcomes. The best training course in the world is designed to support the attainment of those outcomes by rigorously focusing on the application of learning before, during and after the training intervention(s). Picking apart this simple sentence might hold one clue as to why organisational learning and development has not made progress in twenty years. The notion that “best training” can be provided without designing for transfer and application is a nonsense.

    And by the way, none of this detracts from the need to involve line managers. (Indeed, the statistics we are privy to indicate that line managers have more impact on the success of learning & development than anyone else; an impact that is positively enhanced where HR and other functions support both the manager and the trainee in their role). By way of example, I can’t tell you how frustrating it was to speak to a potential new client who is running Performance Management workshops and whose delegates have had no prior guidance on what is expected of them when they return to work from their line manager. Irony wasted; sense of humour failure.

    From our experience, I am not surprised to read that £9.5bn is wasted on training each year. What seems unacceptable to me is that organisations allow this to happen, when doing so is as needless as it is expensive. If organisations want to see a return on their L&D budgets, they would benefit from embracing development strategies that will actually and actively support transfer and application rather than leaving it to chance. We think this requires an even more rigorous approach than Lovell’s three recommendations suggest.

  2. Timely reminder

    What a super article. Whilst I don’t think any of the information is new, it does serve as an important reminder that training is an investment, and we should do all we can to get a return on that investment. The role of the line manager is crucial, and I have seen for myself that when the line manager takes an interest in learning pre event (to discuss expectations) and post event (to discuss and support application) the result from training is far superior than if the individual is left to reflect alone. Training is much more than the workshop!

    Point 2 about why people are unable to use what they learn particularly struck a chord. I’n my occaisioanl role as an associate trainer, I’ve run many courses where one (or more delegates) arrive as a last minute replacement for someone else. They don’t know why they are there and have done none of the pre-course work. Is it a suprise that they take little away with them? I feel that sometimes companies are better leaving an empty place that filling it with someone inappropriate and (potentially) leaving staff shortages in the workplace.

    Sheridan Webb


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