Failure to prepare for learning – Where most corporate learning and development programmes go wrong

Where most corporate learning and development programmes go wrong

Globally, organisations spent $359 billion on learning and development (L&D) in 2016. It’s an eyewatering sum of money invested in corporate L&D, yet it seems that for the most part, the return on such investment amounts to nil. In fact, a McKinsey survey showed that only a quarter of respondents believe that training measurably improved performance and only 12% of employees actually applied new skills learned in L&D programs in their work environment and job roles. It would seem that the majority of corporate L&D training is ineffective.

So where is it going wrong?

A key factor in having a successful L&D programme that has real impact for the learner and employer, is the preparedness of the learner BEFORE the learning intervention takes place. It is at the pre-learning stage where most L&D programmes fail to lay the foundations for successful during- and post-learning.

The lack of a structured pre-learning phase means that employees don’t get the answers to their who, why, and what questions. For a start, there is very little alignment between the needs of the employee and their development objectives, the needs of the business and providing a clear view of what the expected outcomes are for the individual and business in terms of impact and performance. Being mandated to learn, versus wanting to learn because the benefits and objectives are clearly laid out are vastly different. Too often, already busy employees are mandated to attend training, often at the worst possible time, that has very little relevance and context for their needs and challenges at that time. In an article published by Harvard Business Review, author Steve Glaveski states that people learn best when they have to learn. Applying what’s learned to real-world situations strengthens one’s focus and determination to learn. Today’s employees often learn uniform topics, on L&D’s schedule, and at a time when it bears little immediate relevance to their role — and their learning suffers as a result.

In an extract from ‘The influence of pre-training factors on motivation to transfer learning at the post training stage’ research study², the authors state that learning readiness, which is the extent to which individuals are prepared to enter and participate in a training event, is a significant predictor of motivation to transfer training – in other words transfer and apply learning at the post-learning stage.² It is the neglect of this pre-training preparation of employees that sees learners disengaged, unreceptive and simply not motivated to attend or actually ‘learn’ on these programmes – which companies are spending Billions on each year. It is commonplace to find employees arriving for training who don’t understand why they were selected or nominated for a particular programme, they don’t know how they will benefit from the learning programme and they don’t see the connection between the training and their role and objectives. There is also a complete disconnect between them and their line managers in terms of ‘what to do’ with ‘what they have learned’ back in the workplace. Its one of the key reasons why what is learned in the training room never evolves further to be transferred and applied in the business and employee’s role – and the hefty company investment in L&D never pays dividends.

In terms of ‘learner readiness’, the candidate needs an understanding of how the training program affects their performance and whether they can really apply the new knowledge or skill on the job. Trainees and managers should communicate prior to training to establish a common goal of training. It is only when they understand the aim and objective of the training, and most importantly how this training corresponds to their current challenges, that they will be motivated to transfer the skills acquired in any L&D programme.

In addressing this fatal flaw in so many L&D programmes, SA Business School formulated an intentional approach to how learning and development of employees should take place – and the importance of getting the pre-learning stage right:

  • In a bid to tick boxes and earn credits, we often see L&D managers throwing as much as possible at their employees by way of training programmes in the hope that something will stick. We recognise that sometimes, learning and development is NOT always the solution and on its own, it is not a CHANGE strategy. The objective and justification for every L&D programme should be thoroughly interrogated and fit for purpose in the bigger picture of the business strategy and mission.
  • Effective and sustainable learning always happens from the “inside-out” and starts with preparing the learner.
  • Learning must be human-centered and cater for BOTH the individual development and career growth aspirations of the employee and organisational capability building and transformation.
  • Learning is about CHANGE, STRETCH and TRANSFORMATION – in particular it’s about delivering the appropriate amount of stretch or challenge for each learner.
  • Our learning is based on activity–centric design, in other words, practical, business-driven action learning that can actually be applied straight away and has relevance and context.
  • Learning is a journey NOT an event.
  • Using Agile Learning Design, we seek input from participants to build into their learning program so that there is ownership and accountability.
  • We integrate multiple stakeholders – from the participant, line manager, facilitators, HR business practitioner – across all three phases of learning namely Pre-Learning, During-Learning and Post-Learning.
  • We use real-world, business-driven metrics to measure and demonstrate the impact of learning.

‘Transfer of learning’ is the ultimate aim of training investment and the key to maintaining competitive advantage in today’s rapidly changing operating environment where organisational success often depends on the motivation with which employees can learn and apply new ideas and information. The motivation to transfer learning is influenced by:

  • Learning Readiness – the extent to which learners are prepared to enter and participate in the training / learning (pre-learning).
  • Performance Self Efficacy – can I do the job or will this training help me to my job better?
  • Perceived Content Validity – how does this content link to my Key Result Areas and my business strategy?
  • Organisational Openness to Change – can I apply this learning in the business? Even well-trained and motivated employees cannot apply their new knowledge and skills if they return to business units which have an entrenched and established way of doing things and is unable/unwilling to change tack.

Our learning design and delivery philosophy focuses on all aspects of the Learning Engagement Matrix – pre-, during and post-learning. Where so many L&D programmes will focus solely on some sort of follow-up and reinforcement post-training to ensure the new knowledge is being transferred and applied, we believe that setting the groundwork right upfront during the pre-learning phase is key to ensuring maximum transferability of learning. It means that there’s no wastage of L&D investment, that employees are engaged in their learning journey and take ownership and accountability from the outset, and finally, all role players and line managers are involved in the process, so that ‘what is learned’ can actually be applied in a business that is open to change and embraces the new found knowledge and skills that are key to business competitive advantage.


  1. Harvard Business Review. Where companies go wrong with L&D. – accessed 25 July 2021.
  2. Celestin, Bekolo & Yufen, Shao. (2018). The Influence of Pre-training Factors on Motivation to Transfer Learning at the Post Training Stage. Human Resource Research. 2. 1. 10.5296/hrr.v2i1.12483.
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