Enabling learning transfer for soft skills: Why is it Crucial?
Is learning transfer the weak link of training’s effectiveness? Unfortunately very often yes, as our evaluation results confirm. However, not all training courses are equally impacted. “Soft skills” programs particularly result in weaker learning transfer. But why is a leadership course trickier to apply than a software training?
Learning Transfer Naturally Happens after a Technical Training Course
Let’s say that you’re attending an Excel training course. You know that you need it. You are aware that you have difficulty using Excel’s spreadsheet functions. The trainer, who is an expert in this field, will certainly provide you with the necessary techniques to use this software effectively.
During the training, you easily identify the link between exercises and your professional tasks. You learn and practice the techniques, and see that they work. At the end of the training course, you already feel more competent and confident in your ability to apply what you have learned.
Now, back at work, you need to use your spreadsheets. When you have trouble using some functions, you refer back to your notes from training and resolve the problem. There you go: you’ve just transferred learning, and in doing so have acquired a new skill.
Transferring “Soft Skills”: A Bumpy Road
This time, you’re attending a training course in interpersonal communication. You’re not sure you need it: after all, you have been communicating every day for decades. What could a trainer possibly teach you that you don’t already know? Why change now?
During the training, you sometimes disagree with the trainer, it’s his/her point of view versus yours. Nevertheless, you do the exercises, even though they do not match the complexity of your daily professional life. You are probably convinced that there are aspects of your behaviors that you should change based on what you have learned, but you are uncertain how to proceed.
Back at work, you are confronted with a difficult interpersonal situation. You turn to your old reflexes without even noticing. Maybe it is force of habit, or maybe you didn’t even notice that your training could be applied. And, after all, things didn’t turn out so bad; would the result have really been better if you had used the approach proposed during your training course? Not to mention that your manager also has an opinion on the subject.
Boosting the Impact of Soft Skills Training
These two scenarios illustrate the difficulty of transferring learning for soft skills: opinions and old habits stick, identifying a link with one’s professional context is difficult, assessing the consequences of one’s behavior is not easy, defending your new point of view in front of your manager …* In the end, the participant chooses whether or not to apply his/her training. But the consequences of the participant’s choice won’t be as clear as for hard skills where technical constraints naturally impose different ways of doing things. If not especially addressed, the risk of failure is higher. As we pointed out in a previous article, soft skill training courses are just a seed that one plants into the ground. You should then make it grow by accompanying the practice that will follow. For that purpose, instructional design of the course, post training evaluation, and learning transfer actions and tools must be designed to encourage and nurture the application of soft skills: we will see how in a forthcoming article.
* For an in-depth analysis of the differences in learning transfer between technical and behavioral training courses, see Laker, D. R., & Powell, J. L. (2011). “The differences between hard and soft skills and their relative impact on training transfer.” Human Resource Development Quarterly, 22(1), 111-122.