Why most training programs are doomed to fail

| November 22, 2013

A lot of training programs don’t actually lead to a better performance back at the workplace. Michael Stuer explains how organisations can encourage a transfer of training to the work environment.

Psychologists have identified it a long time ago, training companies prefer to keep quiet about it and many organisations simply don’t know better.

Most training programs fail to elicit actual improvement in workplace performance. Whether it’s leadership, teamwork, communication or sales, participants come back full of praise for the presenter and the entertainment value just to quickly disappear into their old routine again.

Most traditional evaluation frameworks are focused on the immediate learning success or the gain in knowledge. However, the crucial success factor in every training intervention is the transfer of training to the work environment.

Psychologists have been researching the transfer of training for decades. Back in 1988 Baldwin and Ford published an extensive literature review and presented an initial model of the transfer process. In 2011 Grossman performed another literature review and adapting Baldwin and Ford’s model identified three key areas that are essential for the successful transfer of training.

Participant’s Characteristics

Is the complexity of the training content appropriate for the group of participants? Cognitive ability is a key factor in processing, retaining and generalising of skills and knowledge.

What do participants know about the training? If they don’t perceive the training as useful, the promotional strategy should be reconsidered. Good promotion will also raise participants’ motivation to attend, which is an obvious factor.

Lastly, what’s participants’ level of self-efficacy. Do they believe in their ability to change or will they throw in the towel at the slightest hint of a problem?

These are factors that are best addressed during the lead-in or the first few hours of training. Often, this involves training organisations working closely with the business as managers have more influence on these factors than an external facilitator.

Training Design

Make it or break it. The training design is what separates the sheep from the goats. A professional facilitator with thorough understanding of learning principles (not just different learning styles), group dynamics (not just icebreakers), and actual facilitation skills (more than teaching) will implement effective training strategies that will be the catalyst for the transfer of training.

One such strategy is the psychological training intervention called behaviour modelling training (BMT).  Emphasizing four component processes – attentional, retentional, reproduction and motivational processes – it is proven to enhance transfer of training to the workplace.

Another effective strategy is error management. It’s based on the concept that participants are to anticipate situations that are likely to go wrong. The facilitators will then explore these situations with participants identifying best practice but also highlighting the negative outcomes if they are dealt with badly.

The last strategy in training design is based on the principle of identical elements or realistic training environment. Good training organisations will explore the environment participants are working in and apply some of the characteristics they find to training simulations, if on-the-job training is not an option.

Work environment

Largely neglected, as it is often perceived to be outside the control of the training organisation, is the actual work environment training participants will return to, once the workshop is over. Yet, this is arguably the most important area that influences the successful transfer of training.

A training needs analysis will have guided the development of the training program content. Participants have learned how to close skills gaps, but when they return to the workplace will they find enough opportunities to apply their new skills? More often than not participants of training interventions succumb to their old routine. To avoid this, the work environment needs to encourage the use of newly acquired skills and knowledge; a good transfer climate has to be created. Supervisors and colleagues must be supportive of the new behaviours. Underlying norms and traditions need to be addressed or will stand in the way. Training aids, workplace cues, follow up meetings, internal support and supervisor support are all ways that training organisations can support participants after the workshop.

If we take a step back and look at the different factors at play, it becomes quite obvious why training so often fails to transfer competencies into the workplace. Only a few organisations bother to measure long-term training success because they know this data might not look so pretty as the smile-sheets at the end of the workshop. But those who really make a difference to the workforce know that successful training interventions continue beyond the steps of the training venue.



  • Baldwin, T.T., & Ford, K.J. (1988). Transfer of training: A review and directions for future research. Personnel Psychology, 41, 63-105.
  • Grossman, R. and Salas, E. (2011). The transfer of training: what really matters. International Journal of Training and Development, 15: 103–120.