After two years of almost exclusively online learning, L&D leaders are navigating the new normal in training and figuring out how to maximize the blend of online and in-person learning. According to Learning Consultant Ian Townley, the learning journey exists now in multiple locations. In this episode, we discuss where learning goes from here and how best to transfer learning to improved performance.
Practical Training Transfer is a global company that helps translate learning into behavior and results. Co-founder Ian Townley shares his thoughts from years of research on learning transfer and retention. Some of his key takeaways include the following:
Resources mentioned in this podcast:
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[00:00] Speaker 1: This is Powered by Learning. A podcast designed for learning leaders to hear the latest approaches to creating learning experiences that engage learners and achieve improved performance for individuals and organizations.
Speaker 2: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. For more than 25 years, d'Vinci has provided custom learning solutions to government agencies, corporations, medical education and certification organizations, and educational content providers. We collaborate with our clients to bring order and clarity to content and technology. Learn more at dvinci.com.
Susan Cort: Hello, and welcome to Powered by Learning. I'm your host, Susan Cort. Today I'm joined by d'Vinci CEO Luke Kempski, and our guest Ian Townley co-founder of Practical Training Transfer, a company that helps translate learning into behavior and results. He joins us from his office in London to talk about learning design for hybrid working environments. Welcome, Ian. [01:03]
Ian Townley: Hello everybody.
Luke Kempski: It's great to see you, Ian.
Susan: Ian, start out by telling us a little bit about your career journey, and how it led to where you are today.
Ian: Sure. I've been in the L&D space for about 20 years. I started out as an English teacher in Tokyo, Japan. After a while I was headhunted by a corporate training company. That's where I met the person who I developed all these ideas and concepts with. His name is Jason Durkee. He started his own company in Tokyo, and I switched to work with him there. Around 2008 I joined ATD just to get more immersed in the whole L&D scene, and to try to upgrade myself really, and to get better qualified. I learned a lot about HPI, and got an introduction to learning transfer from the '60s breakthrough learning guys.
That was helpful, because we'd run into people in the corridors of the clients' offices [02:01] months after we'd met them to do their training, and we'd say, "How is that training going?" They would say, "Oh, it was a great training session, but we're not doing anything with it." Which was very unsatisfying. We wanted what we could try to do to overcome the problem of training not getting used. Anyway, around 2012, I moved back to London and took that opportunity to take a year out to do a whole literature review of everything to do with Learning Transfer.
While that research itself was a little bit, let's say, underwhelming, it was useful to try to apply all of those techniques to the existing programs and really through a lot of trial and error and just perseverance, we eventually discovered how Learning Transfer can really work. We call that idea designing for application. Since that time, I've been working on creating learning journeys with Learning Transfer for companies in Europe, US, Asia, and still working with Jason even though he's based in Tokyo. [03:00]
That's a very short introduction about me, but there's a lot more information on our website which is practicaltrainingtransfer.com. You can find a lot more stuff about what we do there.
Luke: That's great. Thanks for sharing more about your background, Ian. As this is all being figured out as people who are responsible for designing learning experiences for hybrid employees, how do you think this should change our approach? What new considerations should we be thinking about these days?
Ian: Yes, I can think of a few things that people need to develop. The first is that, we don't really know yet how things are going to play out in the next two to three years regarding this whole hybrid working scheme, or whether some companies will say, "Okay, everybody comes back to the office now, or everybody stays at home. We don't want you here." Increasingly, most people are thinking about a mix and we're calling that hybrid working. I think one of the skills that we're going to have to develop as learning designers or key learning people, is to get into the conversations where companies are deciding what they're going to do. [04:01]
A lot of the time, learning people complain about not getting enough business experience, but this is a really good opportunity to do that. To get into those conversations, to make sure that you have a voice and make sure that you can explain your need for hybrid learning, and also to try and get the budget that you require for the changes that you need to make. The second thing is that, we talk a lot about learning transfer, but not all learning actually requires that. There's a lot of learning that is created in companies, which are basically just staff benefits. If you can think about a company that has a good wellness program, they might produce a lot of videos about things like mindfulness, which is great for the employee, but doesn't really change the direction of the company so to speak.
There's a lot of training that you already do that you won't need to change. If you think more about business critical things like improving talent pipelines or enabling current job performance changes, those are the areas where learning transfer is very important. [04:58] So I would say, the second step is to don't do anything with the learning that doesn't seem business critical, but focus on how to adapt learning transfer for the other stuff.
Finally, I think people are going to have to think about where learning happens. In other words, the location of that learning, and the really obvious thing is that there's some stuff that you can do at home by yourself or preparing for a flip classroom or something like that. Whereas other things are much better done collaboratively in an office with other people. I think that another design consideration will be, the when and the where of training as a big departure from we're just going to do it where we're at right now in our offices.
Luke: Yes. That's great. Can you elaborate a little bit more on that? I noticed you talk a lot about learning journeys which implies that there are learning touch points that happen over a period of time and space. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?
Ian: Sure. Yes. I think much like the idea of hybrid learning, which the definition for that is still up for grabs, [06:00] is it some people in an office, some people online at the same time, or is it everybody in one location or everybody at home? I think people are still trying to figure out what that is. It's the same thing with a learning journey. For this discussion what I'd like to move away from, is the idea that learning journey is what we call lifelong learning, which just goes on basically until you retire from your employment. Instead, I'd like to define it as something that has a very definite start and end point. But people can see mapped out against not just the business needs, but also by personal basis as a learner to make sure that all those goals are visible throughout the journey.
Also of course, the idea that the journey itself doesn't exist in one location, it exists in multiple locations now. I think that the main benefit of a learning journey is that unlike standalone learning, it really does fit the way that we like to learn as humans, which is that you can stretch over time, [07:00] you can do it through different dimensions, et cetera. And so it really does match how we like to learn. I think they're useful, because you can embed learning transfer throughout the journey, and make sure that, like you said, the touch points really focus on the barriers where learning should be applied and doesn't get done, and learning transfer tries to solve those problems.
I think overall, if we think of a learning journey as having a start and endpoint that has goals mapped to the organization and the people, and has embedded in it those touch points that solve the problems that learners come up against, I think that's a good step in the right direction.
Luke: That's great. I know in your intro you mentioned that you and your colleague Jason Durkee have done research around learning transfer and retention. How do your research findings influence how you approach learning design?
Ian: Yes. I'm going to hang on that word retention for a moment, if that's okay, because I think that almost all learning, let's say, probably [08:00] 70% plus of learning done around the world in a corporate environment is about how to retain information, because there’s so much information fly around and stuff like this. People know from experience that if you repeat something again and again get reminded by that, there's more chance that you would remember it. That's the basis in what you would call a learning transfer strategy, but in fact what we've discovered was, and through our own experience is that, there's actually only five types of learning that you can do in the world.
One of those is trying to remember information, that's called knowledge. Then the others are honing a new skill. Like a specific skill that fits into only one situation such as giving a presentation, or creating efficiency in work through habits which you can apply to general situations. Another one would be changing people's mindset or perception about how to approach a particular piece of work. [09:00] The last one would be to plan for future application of learning when it's done through something like scaled learning which is not immediately applicable.
What we discovered was that, if you boil everything down to just those five pieces, you start by looking at what type of learning content you have, and then trying to think about or to experiment about where the barriers to those applications might be. The obvious one is, if you're trying to implement a new skill in your work, but you haven't had time to practice it with a trusted advisor and you just go live, you most likely fail, or the trial and error part will happen in real work, which was not very good for the business. So, you design something into your learning journey that overcomes the problem of not having the right practice level, but that's good for skills, but that's no good for knowledge at all. You have to have a different mechanism for knowledge retention and knowledge application.
That's why I say, if you can put your types of learning into those five different buckets [10:00] or a combination of them, it's a really good starting point for using all of the existing research about how to overcome learning transfer barriers when you start thinking about your design.
Susan: Ian, when you look at locations, you were mentioning about the importance of thinking of where the learning happens. How does that tie into what you were just speaking about? Give some examples of when that in-person learning would be more effective for retention versus learning in a home office for example.
Ian: I have an example, maybe I could talk about this a little while, but if we're thinking about just personal study, then that's much better done by myself at home using the computer.Aand I can deliver a lot of information to and from people using the internet, which is way better than before, where you'd go to a classroom and people would print off reams of paper and hand them to you and expect you to read them in the time when you're doing your training.
One of the main benefits of having remote locations is that, [11:00] I can take care of all of that knowledge-heavy stuff by myself, as long as I design it properly so that it does not overwhelm somebody. At the same time, if I want to know how to use that knowledge better in a situation, then I might want to talk to somebody about that. I might even want to, if I'm doing say, pitching or sales and stuff like this, I might want to role-play that. Again, that's much more likely to be done in a live environment, so I want to come and meet people to do those kinds of activities mainly in the space, somewhere like an office, I'd say.
Luke: When you were talking about the five methods or applications to help with retention, are there any experiences that you've had facing a real-world problem or an opportunity with a client that you're able to share with us, that show how you apply that?
Ian: Sure. Oh, I should caveat that by saying that I'm a vendor, so I can't talk about specific client or name them, but I can talk about an industry and a before and after example I hope illustrates that point forward.
Luke: That would be great. [12:00]
Ian: The example that I'm going to talk about is, about new product knowledge for salespeople in the pharmaceutical industry. This particular client had developed a groundbreaking cancer drug. It was a chemotherapy drug, and this could be widely used for many different applications in hospitals up and down the country, but what they didn't have at the time was enough people to explain the benefits and the efficacy of these drugs to the various different customers. So they decided that they needed to hire a bunch of new salespeople to promote their drug.
They did that. They hired a lot of people in a very short amount of time, and they said to themselves, "Okay, we need to produce some training that's going to get them up to speed very quickly, and then out into the communities and talking about our products." Anyway, what they did was they made a training that looks like this. It was some pre-work about 300 pages of texts and 10 hours of interviews with doctors, which was given to them 48 hours before [13:00] a two-day formal training, which included plus 400 slides of texts.
Within four days they were supposed to go from zero to hero, and then go out and sell this drug to various audiences. Of course, as you can imagine, it didn't work very well. The really obvious problem was that, people would forget the information, but other hidden problems that people hadn't thought about was that, if I'm a salesperson for a pharma company, I might have a completely different type of client base than another salesperson. I could be working with community doctors to tell them about the primary care and the efficacy of a particular drug and choices people could make, compared to say a manager of a large hospital running an oncology department.
How you speak to those customers is very, very different. The training was so generic and so general that people just didn't know how to handle it in their own situation. Of course, because there was so much information, the salespeople [14:00] are just very, very nervous about using it in the real world, ask themselves a question, is it even useful or relevant to what I'm doing?
Luke: I could see them like ruffling through papers trying to find…
Ian: Yes. It's a very typical example where somebody's sitting in a car with a couple of manuals. They're trying to cram information before they go and see somebody. It's not very useful, not a very nice way to work either. So what we did is, we tried to re-engineer it for them.
We said, okay, of course, people are going to forget information. You can't just dump it on them two days before the training. What we're going to do is, we're going to break it out into segments and to feed it to people at the right point and the right cadence before they actually meet anybody. This means that they can do as you were asking before, all that personal training at home, and then they could also have things embedded in that which helps retention like quizzes or little activities and et cetera, rather than just reading a manual.
Then what we did was to, of course, follow up the training with reminders, [15:00] interactive reminders rather than just pushing text. So that people could say, okay, here's a small situation as a video clipper, what happens between you and your customer? How would you change that? How would you evolve it, et cetera? Here's a sample answer for you. That's what I would call Learning Transfer 101, how to segment and distribute information of the time dimension.
Second thing we did was to have people take a pre-training survey, and this is really directed towards how you think you're going to use the information when you go back to your real work. This helped us a lot to create cohorts where we could say, okay, all of you, community doctors, salespeople in one group, and all the managers of the oncology departments in a different group, and we'll just tweak or tailor the information inside the training so that it's really much more beneficial for you. We'll talk about it from your angle only. People find that surprisingly very, very useful. I would say it's not rocket science, but it's really useful. [16:00]
Luke: I imagine too, you're removing a lot of extraneous content, so it can be just the applicable content that's being focused on.
Ian: Yes, that's a good point. A lot of the time it's messaging rather than information. Framing how to do some of this is really important for most people. Another thing we did was obviously, everybody had to create an action plan. That's again standard stuff. There's nothing really to be said there, but one thing that we found that we repeated in this program that we tried several times before, which is very useful is, that when you are a new person in a new company, what you want is nothing more than just success and quick success is better than anything else. So we created something called happy cards, where we asked people to tell us about their successes and write them down and share them.
This is a very, very unusual thing for salespeople to do because they're usually in competition with each other, but what they found was that sharing this information was invaluable to them. They would send these cards in, [17:00] we'd put them to different cohorts, walls, or rooms, and they could come in and read that, and really use that as a launch pad for their own success.
In the end, I think that the client was pretty happy with the changes, even though the information and the content itself was largely the same. That's a good example about how to re-engineer something, turn it into a journey, make sure you overcome the barriers that stop people from applying learning.
Luke: Excellent. Are there any new technologies that you think will help organizations improve the transfer of learning? Are there technologies that really support learning journeys that you're excited about in your work?
Ian: Yes. Everybody is now doing this online meeting. We're using one right now, aren't we? If I cut back five years and try to do the same thing or do a class online, it would just have been a disaster really. I've experienced that pain, I think. Just using these online meeting rooms has been a big game-changer, [18:00] especially during the time when nobody could meet each other, but I think it’s coming to the point now where it's a little bit too much, and people want different versions of learning that they can access themselves.
The two things I would advocate is first, learning experience platforms. There's a bunch of them out there. The one I like is called Promote, that's promoteint.com. The reason I like it is because you can build your own program in it. There's lots of interactivity, hosts resources, and stuff. There are other programs that do the same thing to be honest with you, it's just a question of taste. But I think moving away from learning management systems to learning experience platforms is how people will travel because it just feels a lot more immersive and connected and then a better exchange of ideas. That's one area I would really advocate.
Another one is that, a lot of the time people want to do practice [18:59] and they want to have it checked by other people. I said before, it's good to do that when you're in the same room, but that's not always possible, especially when you're doing very small hits of something like habit retention. Say, if you want to, like in the example I gave, you want to practice your sales pitch to a doctor, you should have some mechanism where you can record it, share it with your friends, have them comment, rank it and tell you what you should do to change that. There are a couple out there that are really good. The one I like is called Rehearsal, rehearsal.com, and they do a really great job of just using your phone to share content with your peers and have that checked.
I'd say, yes, learning experience platform, and some kind of rehearsal or practice software is really useful.
Luke: Yes. It's really that collaborative learning part, and as you were talking earlier about cohorts and recognizing successes and having those successes be shared to reinforce learning and the transfer of learning?
Luke: Good stuff. [20:00] Before you leave us, Ian, talk about what's next for you in your personal journey as a learning designer and presenter.
Ian: Right now, I think that basically at the crossroads of a big change in how learning is done. We've talked today about learning journeys and hybrid learning and things like this, but it's still not fully defined and the road is not clearly laid out for us just yet. So I think there's a lot of work still to be done in this era of change that we're going through right now. I think for me, my challenges personally will be to try to figure out whether this hybrid work or hybrid learning will actually stick, or whether we'll just eventually creep back to the office that will fade off into the distance. I think personally, it's here to stay, if people have a willpower to enact the change that they're going through right now, hopefully they will.
It's also a good idea for us to think about the last two years. [21:00] What's been happening to us and to try to take all the positives from those experiences. At the very beginning, we were thrust into throwing everything online and creating content libraries and stuff like this. Now we're coming out the other end and we're thinking well, we kind of suffered through this, but is there anything positive that we can take from that?
I think making learning and the application of learning much more agile and responsive in almost like a business setting, is our challenge going forward now because we've learned that we have to adapt quickly to changing needs in this particular last two years of societal need, but that's impacted our business learning as well. So I think that for me personally, learning how to create that very fast agile change to learning is something I'm pretty excited about.
Luke: Yes, me as well. Exciting times ahead and we'll all keep evolving in how we're approaching learning in the environment that is also loaded with change in how people work, and the boundaries between [22:00] work and other parts of their lives. Thanks so much for joining us today, Ian.
Ian: Thank you for having me.
Susan: Thank you, Ian. Now I love focusing on the positive because change can be good. These are exciting times for L&D and if we look at it as a positive, maybe the way we learn and train will just continue to get better. Thank you for sharing your insights with us today.
Ian: My pleasure.
Susan: Luke, that was a really interesting conversation with Ian. I was really interested to learn about his focus on the location for learning, on the learning journey as what was the technology associated with learning. What were some of your takeaways?
Luke: Yes, Susan. It really was fun to hear Ian's global perspective on learning resulting from his experience in Japan, the UK and other parts of the world, as well as the research that he's done. He placed a lot of emphasis on viewing learning as a journey and integrating learning experiences based on learning location and across time. You want to get the most value out of in-person experiences by having [23:00] them include the types of activities that can be done best in-person and make it so other types of learning experiences can be done remotely and asynchronously.
While you're designing a learning journey, you're also thinking about aiding retention by giving learners the opportunity to apply the knowledge and practice the skills. I also like how Ian mentions that when designing learning that is not business critical, you don't need to invest in full blown learning journeys. It's okay to leave those courses as is in order to focus on the learning that drives business.
Susan: So what's new at d'Vinci, Luke?
Luke: Yes. Lots going on at d'Vinci here in 2022. I know we've developed a new Protecting Human Research Participants course, or phrptraining.com. PHRP as we call it, is a specialized training course and certification required for any person or organization who participates in research involving human subjects. I love this project because [24:00] it's a comprehensive solution including a website, learning management system, and e-learning course. There's a lot going on behind the scenes too because we have both individual and institutional customers. The site includes e-commerce, a scored assessment and certificate, and the ability for learners to earn and purchase continuing medical education credits. It's also available in different languages and we serve customers from all over the world. With thousands of learners taking the course, we're always upgrading the administrative backend, the data capture and reporting capabilities, as well as the website and learning experience. It may even be worth doing a podcast about PHRP sometime in the future.
Susan: I think we could make that happen. Thanks for sharing, Luke. For our listeners, we'll put a link in the show notes if you're interested in learning more.
Thanks for joining us today, Luke, and many thanks to Ian Townley of Practical Training Transfer for joining us. If you have any questions about what we talked about, [25:00] you can reach out to us on d'Vinci social channels through our website dvinci.com, or by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Speaker 1: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. For more than 25 years, d'Vinci has provided custom learning solutions to government agencies, corporations, medical education and certification organizations, and educational content providers. We collaborate with our clients to bring order and clarity to content and technology. Learn more at dvinci.com. [25:31]