Training is not the “magic” formula but the line manager is

8 February 2018
Faye Ekong

by Faye Ekong

Faye Ekong is the Director for Human Resources, Learning & Development at Action Against Hunger USA.

What actually makes training stick after the curtains have closed, the certificates are issued and the participants have departed? How come some trainings have more of an impact than others? Faye shares the magic formula in this blog.

What makes training stick: The trainee, the training and the workplace environment.

Commitment 8 of the CHS emphasizes the importance of supporting staff to implement their work effectively. Organisations generally agree that competent, well managed, motivated and engaged staff are crucial in ensuring the communities and populations we serve receive the assistance they need. However, the question arises on how to ensure that staff are able to develop necessary competencies and more importantly succeed in applying and transferring them to their daily work.

Frequently, the default reaction by many organisations, HR practitioners and managers is to view training as the solution to address performance and competency issues within their teams. At the same time, our workforce is increasingly demanding and expecting a formal training to come their way now and again.

But what actually makes training stick after the curtains have closed, the certificates are issued and the participants have departed? How come some trainings have more of an impact than others and how come some people are able to apply their learning back in their jobs and others aren’t?

As a trainer, facilitator, learning and development practitioner and HR Director, these are all questions I have asked myself many times. How do we make sure we identify the right people for the right training and invest time and other resources in the right learning and development initiatives? How do we determine if training is at all a viable option for a perceived capacity gap in the first place?

After having spent countless hours delivering trainings, worked with numerous different participants from all walks of life, designed curriculum after curriculum, written up training reports with follow up actions and recommendations, spoken to hundreds of line managers and HR staff to determine progress post training, I have come to realise (as have many of you I am sure) that training alone is very seldom the solution to any organisational problem. So if training is not the magic formula then what else is there?

Much research has gone in to the factors that influence training transfer. Perhaps the most widely cited research is the framework developed by Baldwin & Ford (1988). The framework identifies three factors that are critical for training transfer to take place. Let’s explore each one of them in a bit more detail.

The characteristics of the trainee – here we are looking at an individual’s cognitive ability in general, as well as the motivation of the individual to attend a training and the perceived utility of the training. Cognitive ability can be considered as a sunk costs since once an individual has already been hired, there is very little an organisation can do about his/her cognitive ability. Motivation and perceived utility on the other hand can be addressed. Naturally, we would expect someone who has been forced to attend a training by their line manager to be less motivated to transfer their learning to the work environment than someone who genuinely perceives the training to be useful for their own professional development. At this stage an HR practitioner can provide technical advice on the participant selection criteria, but for the most part, it is the line managers who need to take the lead in this pre-training stage. Taking the lead involves pre-training discussions with the trainee to explain why they have been identified for a given training and what is expected of the after the training.

The training – of course the actual experience of the training itself has huge influence on training transfer. Thus a badly designed and executed training cannot hope to have fantastic post training results. Respecting adult learning principles, following an interactive design, mixing of different methods to engage different learning styles, engaging qualified trainers and creating a conducive atmosphere and comfortable training environment are all key in establishing and maintaining a positive transfer climate. Thankfully, the area of training design is well researched and much is known about how to design and implement effective training programs.

The work environment – this is pretty much the holy grail of training transfer. The American Society for Training and Development estimates that employees spend an average of 33.3 hours in training (ASTD, 2013). With the average staff working over 2500 hours a year, a basic calculation reveals that our staff spend 2400 more hours surrounded by and interfacing with their line managers and peers than they do in training.  Thus it is perhaps not surprising that line manager and peer support are key determinants of successful training transfer. In fact, the transfer of learning to the work environment is arguably not possible unless trainees receive proper support from their line managers and peers. Again, the HR practitioner can play an advisory role in the post-training phase but the crucial actors are line managers. Learning from a training has a significantly higher chance of being transferred to the work environment if line managers show an interest in what their staff have learned and discuss ways to apply the learning. Similarly, a work environment where peers encourage each other to use newly acquired knowledge and skills enhances learning transfer.

So, next time we are looking for a magical training that will address and solve all manner of capacity gaps, organizational or departmental issues, the good news is we don’t have to worry about the training. Designing and delivering a great training is the easy part! But if we want our staff to transfer their learning to their jobs and ultimately provide better quality assistance and programming to populations and communities in need, we do need to work on creating a conducive work environment. Otherwise, we risk investing resources and time with very little chance of a return on those investments.


Baldwin, T. and Ford, K. (1988) ‘Transfer of training a review and directions for future research’, Personnel Psychology, 41: 63 – 105.

Miller, L. (2013) ‘ASTD’s 2013 State of the industry report: workplace learning’, American Society for Training and Development, 67(11): 41 – 45.