Maximizing Learning Transfer

It is a fact that organizations are spending billions of dollars annually on their learning and development (L&D) activities. Paired with this fact, is the belief that no more 20% of this investment results in the transfer of the new skills and knowledge back to the job. Current research in neuroscience (Neuroscience Part 1: What Was Old Is New Again; Neuroscience Part 2: Spacing Effect; Neuroscience Part 3: Microlearning) is identifying new ways to maximize learning, but if the new skills and knowledge are not getting transferred to the job and improving performance, it is a waste of time and money.

Maybe its time to pay attention to the concept of a Learning Transfer Strategy. The idea was introduced by Mary Broad and John Newstrum in their book, Transfer of Training, published in 1992. There is an easy-to-implement and cost-effective way to leverage existing programs and improve their impact on work performance – develop and implement a Learning Transfer Strategy.


A good starting point for this discussion are two definitions*:

  • Learning Transfer: The degree to which learners retain the knowledge and apply the skills achieved during the formal learning program to the workplace. Transfer of learning is affected by: the learners’ motivation to apply the skill and knowledge, the effectiveness of the program + transfer activities, and the degree of support in the workplace.
  • Transfer Strategy: A set of activities developed to ensure all skills and knowledge learned during a formal learning program are transferred back to the job. It should include: a plan to reduce or eliminate barriers to the transfer and the roles and responsibilities of the learners, the learners’ managers and the learning organization.

*FKA maintains an online glossary of learning terms.


The transfer strategy must include the three key players that influence the learning. This transfer “partnership” is made up of: (1) managers (including executives, supervisors, team leaders, etc.), (2) L&D professionals (instructors, designers, developers, etc.), and (3) learners who have a strong interest in a particular learning program and who have agreed to work together to support the full application of the new skills and knowledge on the job. The only true requirement for a transfer partnership is for all partners to be committed to making the learning investment pay off.

What stops learning transfer? Nine barriers!

The transfer strategy must consider what needs to be done to overcome any barriers that might be blocking the new learning from being applied on the job. In 1986, John Newstrom, a professor of Human Resource Management at the University of Minnesota, conducted a study that identified nine common barriers.

ranking learning transfer barriers

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This list was developed over 30 years ago and yet every one of these barriers is still relevant today.

When do these barriers have the most impact?

Given we are talking about the transfer of learning, its easy to assume our focus will be on what occurs after the formal learning event. The truth is you also must consider the issues before and during the learning event. Each one of the nine barriers could impact the transfer at different times. Consider the first barrier, “Lack of reinforcement on the job”; its impact is after formal learning. But when you consider barrier 3, “Non-supportive organizational culture,” its obvious that it can impact learning well before the formal learning event.

The table below classifies each of the nine major barriers to transfer into the most-likely (“1”), and the second-most-likely (“2”) time period in which that barrier would arise.

potential barriers to learning transfer

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There are a couple of conclusions that can be drawn from the Timing of Barriers. First, an organization cannot wait until after a learning program is over to address the transfer-of-learning problem. Second, the top two barriers occur after the learning program has been completed. This second conclusion suggests L&D should not consider their work done when the formal learning program is finished.

Learning Transfer Matrix

An effective transfer strategy must bring together the key players at the critical points in time with action plans to combat the barriers to learning transfer. To maximize the transfer of learning, all three stakeholders—managers, L&D and learners—should be actively involved before, during and after the formal learning program.

This matrix outlines a strategy with some simple actions for each player during the three time periods.

graphic explaining the roles and time period of learning transfer

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Learning Transfer Strategies

establishing an action plan to ensure proper learning transferSuccessful learning transfer strategies should target two levels: the systemic organizational barriers and the learning barriers.

Organizational Barriers

Organizations must remove the obstacles that interfere with a positive learning culture or climate. Long before a learning program starts the organization must take the lead and promote the value and benefits of learning.

Managers and learners should all work on reducing resistance to change and embrace change as a positive force for both the individuals and the organization.

Learning Barriers

During each formal learning program, L&D must strive to provide programs that are practical and relevant to the needs of the learners and deliver them effectively. Each learning program should demonstrate that learning is a core value of the organization. The learners’ managers must not let immediate job requirements distract learners during the program. The learners must strive to develop their ability to learn. There might be an opportunity for L&D to provide some learning-to-learn resources. The strategies should help the learner maintain a positive attitude to acquiring new skills and knowledge.

After the learning program, L&D should provide spaced retrieval practices and work-based activities to reinforce learning.
Managers can take the lead to reinforce the new learning on the job and coach the learners to reduce their discomfort with change. They can provide the positive support the learners were getting from the instructor and ensure the learners’ peers are also supportive of the new skills and knowledge. Finally, the learners play a key role in the transfer and should be encouraged to seek out opportunities to use their newly acquired skills and knowledge.


There are key ‘take-aways’ for each of the players:

The organization must:

  • Continuously and actively promote the value of learning
  • Make learning outcomes a performance measure for managers and learners

The Manager must:

  • Become an active participant in the transfer process
  • Have an action plan covering before, during and after the learning event

The Learner must:

  • Maintain a positive attitude to learning new skills and knowledge
  • Have an action plan covering before, during and after learning

L&D must:

  • Strive to design, develop ad deliver quality programs aligned with learner needs
  • Provide a transfer plan to direct the post-program transfer activities
  • Provide coaching and mentoring skill-development for managers
  • Provide learn-to-learn resource for the learners

Contact FKA for a comprehensive list of over 230 activities to maximize learning transfer.

Jim Sweezie
VP Research and Product Development