Turning learning into action, with Emma Weber

What's the point of running training programs? That may seem like a dumb question but, often, the purpose of corporate training - boosting productivity by developing people's skills - gets lost somewhere along the way.

Written by Rachel Salaman
Published 20 February 2015
Turning learning into action, with Emma Weber

What’s the point of running training programs? That may seem like a dumb question but, often, the purpose of corporate training – boosting productivity by developing people’s skills – gets lost somewhere along the way.

In fact, research shows that less than 20 percent of learning is actually transferred back into the workplace and used to deliver positive business results.

In this interview we hear from Emma Weber, a consultant based in Sydney, Australia, who’s developed a methodology called Turning Learning Into Action (TLA).

“I am passionate about behavioral change and I had trained as an executive coach, and I really felt that some of those coaching skills could be useful in this area,” Weber told me, explaining how and why she developed TLA.

“So it has the coaching focus at its core and it’s really about holding the individual accountable to change in a very supportive way.”

TLA is built around conversations between the trainee and a learning transfer coach, who could be his or her line manager, a colleague, a training facilitator, or an external consultant.

Weber outlines the practicalities of TLA in this audio, including designing an effective learning agreement, managing the follow-up conversations, and why the telephone is a crucial tool in rolling out effective learning transfer.

Listen now: Click here to download the podcast

Interview transcript

Rachel Salaman: Welcome to L&D Insights from Mind Tools, with me, Rachel Salaman. When you’re running a training program, how much do you expect the participants to use what they’ve learned once they’re back in the workplace? Is it something you keep on top of after the training finishes? Seeing the learning in action is, after all, the main point of doing training in the first place but, remarkably, research has shown that less than 20 percent of learning is actually transferred to the workplace after a training program.

So what can we do about it? My guest, Emma Weber, is the founder and director of the consultancy Lever Learning and she’s the creator of a methodology called Turning Learning Into Action, which does exactly that. She’s now written a handbook to guide L&D professionals through this process, also called “Turning Learning into Action” and subtitled “A Proven Methodology for Effective Transfer of Learning.”

Emma joins me on the line from Sydney, Australia. Hello Emma.

Emma Weber: Hi Rachel.

Rachel Salaman: Thank you so much for joining us today. Now, you heard me say there that only 20 percent of learning is actually transferred to the workplace after a training program, and you take this up in your book, asking the question quite early on, “Wouldn’t it be better to reduce the amount of training and increase the transfer of learning so that the training that is invested in makes a measurable difference to performance and results?”

That makes a lot of sense, so why don’t people do that?

Emma Weber: Well, Rachel, you’re right, it is a really sensible question and I’ve been asking that question as I’ve been perfecting and building this methodology, and I think there’s a couple of reasons. One is habit, and our way of thinking about learning and development as it is currently is that we have typically a program or an event, and I think people have got used to those now being spread out over a period of time, but very much everything that we do is about getting the content or the information to the learner and developing their skills so that they can use that new content. But I think we’re just not used to really supporting people in transferring the learning and I really do think it’s just a historical reason that we’re in that paradigm at the moment And I really hope that that paradigm starts to shift so that companies can start to really realize the value from what they’re already investing in.

Rachel Salaman: So how did you develop your methodology, turning learning into action, which I guess we’ll shorten to TLA?

Emma Weber: It was really through the passion and frustration that I’d experienced when I was working in the corporate world, and you may be able to tell it’s a bit of an English accent, when I was working in the corporate world in London, I’d go on training programs myself and find it really difficult to implement and to change, and I also came across the report, as we talked about earlier, about the percentage of learning that is transferred, and I really wanted to tackle that problem within the industry.

I don’t have a learning and development background, I am passionate about behavioral change, and I had trained as an executive coach and really felt that some of those coaching skills could be useful in this area. Now, what’s transpired is that coaching as a core is fantastic, but we can actually tailor that to really support people when they come off learning or training programs.

So really that’s how I developed the methodology, through seeing the problem, wanting to do something about it, and then actually just getting in there and making it happen.

Rachel Salaman: So how would you describe it to an L&D professional? What does it look like?

Emma Weber: So I would say that it has the coaching focus at its core and it’s really about holding the individual accountable to change in a very supportive way. Some of the nuances are that what we’re really trying to do is to get the individual to have a conversation with themselves, so that they can propel themselves forward. And typically it’s a series of conversations that run post a learning or training event.

Rachel Salaman: And how much does the person who is facilitating the TLA need to know and understand the training that the participant has gone through?

Emma Weber: The less they understand and know about the training, in many ways, the better, and I know it sounds counter-intuitive but, when an individual needs to take ownership for behavioral change, the more they can take ownership and be driven through what they have learnt and their experience of the program, the higher level of ownership they will take for implementing it.

And the process really is about the individual having the conversation with themselves and not the TLA facilitator, so, if the TLA facilitator is really close to the contents and absolutely wedded and thoroughly believes in the content, it’s very hard to then let the participant find their own way with what it means to them and how it means to them, because the TLA facilitator would have preconceived ideas.

So what I say is, you need to understand the content to the point where you can have a sensible conversation, if there are key models or key takeaways, but really not be so attached to it that you’re the expert in the content.

Rachel Salaman: That makes a lot of sense, actually. What level of success have you seen in your own work with this methodology?

Emma Weber: What we’ve seen is that people will actually change and be supported if they are communicated with through the process. Often, I think, after a training program, people will try something and it won’t work exactly as it did on the program, perhaps in the role play or the supported discussion, and they then immediately think, “Well that doesn’t work with my team” or, “Well I gave that a go but it wasn’t successful.” When they can really be debriefed on that and work out why it wasn’t successful, what they need to do differently, they will actually take those actions and run with them.

So, we’ve seen people that have changed their relationships with their team, we’ve seen people increase their sales, we’ve seen people improve communication skills, improve business outcomes, all sorts. So individual change within an organization, when that starts to happen, you have whole teams that are changing and you have cultures that are changing, so we certainly see that we can achieve cultural change and behavioral change across organizations using this process.

Rachel Salaman: You mentioned coaching a little earlier. How important is coaching to your TLA approach?

Emma Weber: So I think coaching is really at the essence of the TLA approach, but coaching has so many different variations, different descriptions, it can be executed really well, it can be executed really poorly, but for me the heart of coaching is keeping the ownership with the participant, asking a lot more questions than talking, having reflection at the core, but there’s more to it that will actually create the results.

Rachel Salaman: You talk a lot about the importance of reflection in the TLA process. Now this would be on the part of the trainee or the person who has gone through the training process. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Emma Weber: I think reflection is absolutely essential. I think it’s important within TLA and I think it’s a skill which we kind of lose in our busy lifestyles. People rarely take time out to reflect what’s actually working well, what needs to be done differently because we’re so busy going from task to task and what needs to happen.

What’s amazing is that, actually, in a very short period of time of reflection, you can gain huge insights, particularly if someone is holding up that mirror of reflection for you, and I really believe that reflection needs to be structured. So structured is one thing as to how you structure your time and space within reflection, but also specific. So when you go into reflection, it’s really important not to just think “right, I’m going to sit here and reflect.” Well, what are you reflecting on? What is the challenge that you’re looking at? What do you want to be different as a result? And as you start to ask yourself those questions, your reflection can really become honed.

Then the final point that I think is important within reflection is holding people accountable to the reflections that they have, whether that’s finding a way to hold ourselves accountable or to have a buddy system. But once you’ve had that reflection and that insight, it’s not enough to have the insight, you need to follow through. And, often, because it’s a behavioral change piece, it really helps to have people held accountable to put the changes in place.

Rachel Salaman: One thing that comes up a lot in this area is the role of line managers, who can make or break the transfer of learning process. So what’s been your experience in this area?

Emma Weber: I think it’s a really common view, Rachel, that line managers can make or break the learning transfer process and, possibly quite controversially, I’m not convinced whether that’s true or not.

I really think that we need to get used to putting the emphasis on the individual because it’s the individual that is going to create the change and create the buy-in, and if it comes down to their manager or it’s the manager’s responsibility to create the change, the ownership then is on the manager and they’re trying to drive it rather than it being driven by and through the participants.

So, absolutely, the two are linked and we need to get the two roles working together, but I often feel that line managers cop a lot of the blame for learning transfer not happening and results from training programs not coming to fruition, when we really have to ask ourselves the question, “Have they been given the correct tools and skills to help the participants and have they been given permission to make it a priority within their everyday activity?”

Rachel Salaman: In your book, you go through some of the options for who should be doing the rollout of the learning transfer, who should be managing it if you like. Could you talk us through what those are?

Emma Weber: Absolutely, and I think these are the four most common options, but again it does depend on the organization and their situation because there may be other pockets of people that can support.

So, obviously, the manager of the participant is one option, and if it’s a mature culture and they’re very adaptable and they have a high level of skill, willing and they have the time, then absolutely the manager of the participant could be a good candidate to have the TLA conversations.

Secondly, there could be an internal specialist that’s given the role of TLA and I think there’s a few ways we could think of this creatively. I think we could think about maybe there’s a cohort of high performers or high potentials within an organization that the company is trying to increase their skills and develop them quickly. It could be that they’re taught the process of learning transfer and that that’s added to their day-to-day role and it’s given to them as a specific responsibility, and that would create some fantastic cross-functional conversations and insights into the business, so that could be one way of doing it. It could be that there’s a particularly large learning and development team and there could be, say, three or four people within the learning and development team that take on the responsibility for transfer of learning. It’s really about where do we have the resources internally to create that specialist team. It could also be considered in the way that you may consider a mentoring program rollout where you may actually have a group of managers from around the organization that are upskilled in learning transfer. One of the benefits of that approach is that the participant will often speak more freely with someone that isn’t their direct line manager about their challenges, because obviously the direct line manager has the ability to promote, works with them on a daily basis, so it’s often much easier for them to be more open, transparent and really look at what’s holding them back with someone that they are not working with on a day-to-day basis intimately.

The third group of people that we can look at is the trainer or the facilitator. This can be a challenge, though, if the facilitator is wedded to the content and often the facilitator is seen as the expert, even though obviously on most programs the facilitator will stand there at the front and say “I’m not the expert, you’re here to learn off each other, you’re closer to the company.” I still think there’s an element of that facilitator being seen as the kind of holder of information, holder of knowledge, and that’s really not helpful in a learning transfer scenario because that takes away the power from the individual to think and talk for themselves, work it out for themselves and keep that ownership for accountability.

And, finally, the fourth option which I’ve listed in the book is the external specialist. Much as you would bring in a facilitator to maybe run a two- or three-day program for you, why not consider actually having specialists in the field of learning transfer come and contribute to your business success and outcomes?

Rachel Salaman: You say that the TLA process needs to start before the training finishes, which is interesting because I’m thinking that, if the training providers and the TLA facilitators, whoever they happen to be, are from different companies, I’m trying to think how that would work in practice. What’s your experience of that?

Emma Weber: Rachel, that’s a good point to highlight because what it really requires is collaboration. But what I love about people that work in learning and development is that they really care about learning outcomes, they care about the people, and they care about getting the results. And often what we find is, when we work with facilitators, they’re really excited that someone else is going to help them get a fantastic result.

And one of the great facilitation teams that we have paired with around the world, in fact, they say, “What we love, Emma, is that your team comes in when our energy is going down.” So a three-day facilitation, and I’m sure facilitators will say this the world over, takes a huge amount of energy to hold that space and create the learning. And as you get to the end of that process, really that energy is down and the energy is complete; what we then do is come in and take that energy and keep it really high and move it forward.

So, really, it’s about being clear on logistics and what’s required with the facilitators. With companies that we partner with, I go through a train the trainer process of how do we actually integrate with you, what is required to come out at the end of your programs that will enable the part that we deliver in terms of learning transfer to be a success. So what do the action plans need to look like, what’s the briefing that needs to be given, how do we book the session times, so they just have a really clear idea of what the expectations are, and I find, because they want the company to succeed and because they want their program to succeed, they’re really happy to do that.

You’ve got happy participants and even happier clients.

Rachel Salaman: You talked about setting expectations with the training facilitators but, of course, it’s important to set expectations with the people going through the training as well, and you say this should happen at the very start of the learning transfer process. So could you tell us about something called the TLA learning agreement that you talk about in your book?

Emma Weber: Yes. The learning agreement is really about getting buy-in and setting expectations. Often, at the end of a training process, even if it’s just a day, the person’s mind is very full, hopefully it will have been stretched, they will have had new information. We’ve all had that experience where we’re at the end of a training day and we’re slightly spinning. And so the learning agreement needs to be documented really clearly because they’re probably not going to take that information in at that stage, so they need something that they can take away to read through, to recap as to what are the key elements of the learning transfer process that they’re going to go through.

So we really confirm with our learning agreements expectations around confidentiality, we confirm about the role of the TLA specialist to support and encourage, we ask people to be honest with themselves and to keep their appointment in high priority, and we also detail the physical environment that will be useful to them, I really encourage people to get away from their desk and, if they really can’t get away from their desk, I literally encourage people to turn their chair round and work with a clipboard. What you need to do is to get your mind out of your day-to-day thinking process, so away from your laptop, mobile, get into that reflective state wherever you can.

So all of this is covered in the learning agreement, and you can actually download a copy of the learning agreement from our website or certainly it’s available in the book as well, so it’s www.leverlearning.com.

Rachel Salaman: So after the learning agreement comes a plan for the transfer of learning. What should that plan look like?

Emma Weber: So I actually think, when instructional designers design a training program, typically they put together quite a good action plan in most cases. The challenge is, when you are physically in the room, that plan is never a priority and, often, it’s left, “oh we’ve got a quick five minutes to complete our action plan” or, “we need to document these action plans” and it’s done more as an admin process than as a real process to kick start behavioral change. Yes, it’s important what the plan looks like, but it’s also really important how that plan is executed in the room, and that’s where the bigger win generally is.

The distinction I make on our action plans that are not on your sort of everyday action plan is I get people to include a calibration score of where they are now with that particular activity. So we’ll ask them to document what are they looking to implement after the program, what will success look like, why is it important to them, and why is that important to them. The more you actually think why is something important to you, the more motivated you will be to follow through on it because it becomes less of a technical concept and idea and something that you can really relate to emotionally.

So we have the why as quite important on the action plan, and the other column, as I was just mentioning then, is that we get people to calibrate on a scale of one to 10 where they are with a particular goal now, so that, when we check back in at the end of the process, we can see how that has moved. Now it’s a self-rating and it doesn’t matter whether someone thinks they’re a four and their manager thinks they’re a six, what’s important is that we either shift them from a four to a seven or from a six to a nine. It’s the shift, not the number itself.

Rachel Salaman: Now, as you mentioned, this TLA process, the learning transfer oversight if you like, is through a series of conversations and, in the book, you provide a framework for these which you call the TLA ACTION conversation, and ACTION is an acronym. So can you just talk us through that acronym?

Emma Weber: So the A is for accountability. And accountability is absolutely at the heart of the process because you can have a really great reflective conversation and insightful conversation, you can have a very exciting conversation, but what’s important is that actions come out and people are held accountable to those So the whole process has a framework of accountability around it.

The C within ACTION stands for calibration, and the calibration is that score I was just referring to on the scale of one to 10. So constantly, throughout the process, we’re using that calibration to see where people are moving along their goals. Calibration is also a really fantastic tool for getting people to assess a situation without getting into the story And when we’re being really efficient with our learning transfer, the story isn’t what’s important, the outcome and what people want to do about that is. So that’s the dual benefit of calibration, it makes your conversations really efficient and it gives you a before and after to measure against.

Moving on from the C within ACTION, we then have the T for target And target is where on the action plan people clarify what is it they want to implement from the program, so what is the target they’re moving towards. And typically we get people to create three different targets from a particular program. So that’s the T within ACTION.

I is the information. So when you’re having the conversation, once you know what the target is, you need to then gather information, information about where they are now, information about where they’re trying to get to.

And then options come in, the O within ACTION. And options is about finding the options for moving forward, what’s the options of closing that gap between your two calibration numbers, where they are now and where they’re trying to get to.

Then the N stands for next steps, and that’s getting people to clarify what are the action steps and the next steps that they’re taking away from the conversation, that they’re then going to be held accountable to.

Rachel Salaman: You point out in the book that there are three must-have skills for ACTION conversations, and I suspect this goes back to what you were saying about coaching a little earlier. So could you just tell us what these skills are and perhaps how difficult they are for people to develop?

Emma Weber: So the three key skills for the ACTION conversation. I really believe in the importance of being able to ask powerful questions, being able to step into the space of what I call “being listening,” and also having a real balance between structure and flexibility within the conversation.

Asking powerful questions, it is a skill and it’s a skill that I think people underestimate. Now the interesting thing with a powerful question is it’s often a very simple question, but it’s a question without agenda, and often the most powerful questions are the questions that you, the question asker, doesn’t know the answer to.

Another tip with powerful questions that I think is really useful to consider is trying to avoid the why question. The why question often puts people into a state of defensiveness. We were taught as children, when someone asks us the why question, it’s because we’ve done something wrong and it’s something that we shouldn’t do, and I really think that is hard-wired into us.

So if you really do need to ask the why question, we really need to come from a real place of genuine curiosity and make it a very soft why. So “why did you do that” or “why did you take that action” isn’t going to be that helpful, whereas if you ask the question, “I’m really intrigued to understand from your point of view why you took that action,” just to keep it really soft and really enable that person to reflect, rather than somebody saying “ooh, does Emma think that’s the wrong action to take” or “ooh, maybe I shouldn’t have taken that action.”

So there’s a lot of subtleties behind asking powerful questions.

Rachel Salaman: The second skill you said was important for ACTION conversations is what you call “being listening.” So how is that different from active listening?

Emma Weber: I really feel that “being listening” is when you’re truly present with that person and when you actually sit with them and genuinely listen. They will get that and you don’t need to say anything, because you’re actually with that person. It’s a level of presence, whereas with active listening you’re often so busy trying to actively listen and give those cues that you’re listening and play back what that person has said, you’re kind of quite in your head.

For me, “being listening,” and this probably sounds a little bit too soft and fluffy for some people, you’re absolutely in your heart. You can get yourself in that position where you’re just really connected with that person because you’re genuinely listening and you’re with them in their energy in that space. You’re not trying to actively listen to them.

Rachel Salaman: And what about the third skill that you say is important for ACTION conversation?

Emma Weber: So the balance between structure and flexibility, I think, is fascinating in the process. Particularly with coaching at its core, you need to be flexible, you need to be following the participant, you need to go with what comes up for the participant and what happens.

Some of the problems with regular coaching is that people will have a really insightful fascinating conversation because they’ve been so flexible and so fluid, but actually they come away with no actions or no outcome, and sometimes those flexible conversations can take up to 90 minutes. So there’s a real balance between the structure and flexibility.

Absolutely we don’t want to lose that flexibility, that heart, that intuition and being with the person, but we need to have a structure to the process and we need to have structures within the process that enable us to cut to the heart of it in a very short period of time, and that’s where the real development of the skill of TLA comes in.

Rachel Salaman: So the TLA process involves three phone calls over a period of time What kind of results should a coach expect by the final call, or does it just vary case by case?

Emma Weber: It’s back down to the individual, absolutely, Rachel. What I say is that, by the end of the third call, the individual will have implemented what they had set the intention to do at the beginning, particularly as part of the action plan briefing process is to get people to set goals that are achievable, say, within a three month process. So people have set themselves something that they believe is achievable within that time frame, they’re supported through that process and, at the end of that support, nine out of 10 times they will have got there.

Now, obviously, sometimes there’s things that happen within a business, roles change, people are no longer working on those specific goals, but what we then do is get people to refocus on how the learning and knowledge could be applied in the new role, how it can apply to the new circumstances, or if they’ve got a particularly big challenge that has come up during the process that they didn’t have at the time they attended the training, how can what they have learnt on the program help them in that scenario.

And we also have a whole impact dashboard process which, quite frankly, you and I could talk about for another hour, because that’s quite interesting in itself. That’s how we tie the whole picture together.

Rachel Salaman: I was interested in the book that you say that the telephone is the secret weapon to productive learning transfer rollout. So how is that the case and is it always the case given that, sometimes, the TLA is being rolled out by an internal person in the same building as the participant, the person who has gone through the training?

Emma Weber: You’re right, it does sound completely crazy and, if I didn’t really believe it got superior results, I wouldn’t keep that as our process because it takes a lot of convincing. But when people have been through the process and got that reflection with themselves and that it’s much more important to have that reflection with themselves, and that there’s a direct link when you have either a phone headset going into your ear or a phone handset going into your ear, as opposed to loudspeaker, it’s almost as if you’re talking directly into your brain. And what we’re trying to do is create new neural pathways to create behavioral change, and the phone is just fantastic for that, way better than a video conference call or a Skype or a face-to-face. It’s fortuitous that it means you can be more flexible with locations, but even in the same offices I encourage people to stick to the phone and really utilize that to get the result.

Rachel Salaman: So what’s the best way to evaluate turning learning into action?

Emma Weber: Valuation is such a hot topic and it’s such a broad topic, it’s almost a separate conversation of itself. The calibration is important, the self-rated score; there’s also the option of getting the manager to review those self-rating scores and get the level of confidence that the manager has that those self-rating scores are accurate.

One of the other things that we do is we group together all the actions that have come out of a particular program and put them into themes, so that the facilitator and the learning and development partner can see what were the key themes that people have taken away. For example, there was a program that we were collaborating on and they had half a day out of a three-day program working on finance and no one took away any finance actions. And so, when they reworked the program, they took out that half-day and did a separate program for those that needed it. But they’re the type of things that come up when you really start to analyze what’s actually been put into practice.

It’s also important within evaluation to start really planning from the beginning what are the behavioral changes that we want to see in the business, and then you can correlate that at the end, and of the progress review forms that come in from the participants, did we get those outcomes that we were looking for. So I really encourage people to collect data. Not only at the end of the face-to-face but three months later, really get people to share what they implemented and also consider using Brinkerhoff’s case study methodologies.

So that’s another good one to bring in, to actually interview people and get case studies from a program as well.

Rachel Salaman: Emma Weber, thanks so much for joining us today.

Emma Weber: My pleasure, thank you.

Rachel Salaman: The name of Emma’s book again is “Turning Learning into Action: a Proven Methodology for Effective Transfer of Learning,” and you can find out more about her and her work at leverlearning.com

About the author

Rachel Salaman

Rachel Salaman

Freelance Podcast Producer
Rachel has been producing MindTools.com Book Insights and Expert Interviews, the latter of which she also hosts, for the past 14 years. She is also the Founder and Creative Director of a media production company, advising on all forms of online audio and video content, and offering full production and post-production services, as well as training and consultation.

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