Understanding learning transfer as a journey of individual behavior change
Carmichael, Deidre Hardwick
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Improving learning transfer in organizations remains a theoretical and practical challenge despite previous research efforts, expectations from organizational leaders, and the best-intentioned efforts from practitioners. The traditional view of transfer as a product or outcome measurable at a pre-determined time following training ignores the change process learners go through to reach the outcome and has contributed to gaps in the learning transfer literature. This study adds to the learning transfer knowledge base by examining transfer through the lens of individual behavior change and taking a long-term approach to the study of learning transfer in organizations. A supervisory training program served as the case for this single instrumental case study. Data collection methods included the Learning Transfer System Inventory, a validated instrument designed to assess the factors believed to influence learning transfer in organizations, and three semi-structured interviews with each study participant conducted over the course of one year. Thematic data analysis revealed themes across three phases of time related to the process of change and the factors that influenced this process. Themes related to the change process included: transitioning into the new role, testing the change for fit, evolving, and integration. This change process moved participants closer to transfer and the adoption of desired work behaviors. Study findings also identified a path leading away from desired change that included stagnating and becoming disillusioned. Factors that influenced the change process included relationships with supervisors and peers, having the personal capacity for transfer, opportunity to use knowledge and skills on the job, personality traits, and job attitudes. Conclusions drawn from the study include the applicability of individual change theories to transfer, identification of additional factors that influence the transfer system, readiness to engage in the change process as a pre-requisite for successful navigation of the transfer process, and identification of volition as an important but overlooked concept in the transfer literature. Study findings led to a proposed model of learning transfer as an individual behavior change process and implications for learning transfer theory, how researchers operationalize and measure transfer, and how practitioners intervene to improve transfer outcomes in organizations.