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Transfer of Learning in the Workplace

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Transfer of learning in the workplace can increase employee performance and productivity. In this lesson, you'll learn more about this skill, why it's important and how to encourage it in your workplace.

Applying Skills in The Real World

BestDeal Warehouse recently hired three new managers to oversee their assembly, packaging and supply chain teams. As part of their training, the company paid for each manager to attend courses on how to manage difficult employees. In the course, managers learned about communication styles, the power of persuasion and how to defuse challenging situations. Feeling confident in what she learned, one of the managers, Marsha, had been on the job for two weeks when her team was confronted by workplace violence. Marsha struggled to implement what she had learned in her earlier training, due in part to the uniqueness of the situation and her lack of skills in handling it.

This fictitious scenario is not all that unusual. It's easy to take something you learned in a previous job, such as replacing an engine or designing a magazine, and apply it in a new role. It can be more difficult to transfer what you've learned in a past job and apply it in a new setting when the situations involved are not that similar.

In either situation, this ability to take what you've learned previously and apply it to the current situation is called transfer of learning.

What is Transfer of Learning?

Transfer of learning simply means that the learner can take education, ability or insight gleaned from a prior setting and use it effectively in a new setting. That may mean a student who has learned how to take X-rays in a college setting can use those skills to take X-rays of patients at the hospital. It could also be a skill you acquire in a previous job, such as workplace coaching, that you're able to put into place at your next employer.

The whole purpose of learning something is to be able to use it in real-world application, right? No one picks up a new skill - such as learning a new language - without intending to be able to use it in real life. Employers, especially, hope that things employees have learned in a classroom or on the job will translate into valuable skills in an employee's current role. The purpose of learning transfer is to be able to adapt what you learn in one setting to new environments.

Two Types

There are two types of learning transfer: near and far. Near transfer happens when a skill is applied in two similar situations. An IT professional, for example, learns how to remove a virus from a computer at one job and should be able to do the same in a similar situation with a new employer. Far transfer, on the other hand, presents a more difficult challenge. This occurs when the learning environment and the current situation are dissimilar. For example, you may learn how to do math problems in a classroom setting, but cannot apply what you've learned in order to calculate a sales percentage in a retail environment.

Importance

Transfer of learning is particularly important in a business setting. Take, for instance, your resumé. When you submit a resumé for a new job, you like to be able to tout all of the things you've learned that you can bring to a new role, right?

The significance of this for businesses is that employees who bring a usable knowledge base with them into a new role provide a strong return on investment for the company that hires them. They acquire an employee with significant skill and ability that likely leads to greater productivity and performance. This is particularly useful in today's more global workforce, which requires employees to be able to adapt and shift to new trends and demands. A broad range of abilities is a useful trait in employees for the organizations that employ them.

How to Facilitate Transfer of Learning

So, what can a manager do to better facilitate the transfer of learning among colleagues and team members? Consider some of these strategies:

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