How Does Prior Knowledge Impact Training Transfer?

Training transfer would be relatively straight forward if all of your employees started as blank slates. You don’t hire for lack of experience, so this almost never happens. Actually, given the variety of human experiences possible, even a staff of totally inexperienced and uneducated people would still have the same problem (plus a lot of other problems). So how do you implement a specific program with staff of widely varying backgrounds?

Let’s say you are starting a new strengths-based, family preservation program, and you have three new employees:

Anne is brand new to the workforce. She has a lot of theoretical work fresh in her mind from school, but she has no experience to fall back on when things don’t work the way she thinks they will. She believes passionately in people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and sees addiction and failure as moral issues.

Susan has been doing traditional case management for a decade. She knows about all the resources available, and what kinds of families do well with each. She is used to planning for families, and has the personality to make most of them fall in line. She sees disagreements as non-compliance, and writes off non-compliant families quickly.

Adam was a youth pastor until last year. He has a compassionate heart and wants to give endless second chances. He sees Jesus as the only true way for families to heal and grow. He shares his faith freely and at every opportunity.

All three staff member have strengths and weaknesses, and all three have their own styles. However, you aren’t running any of the programs they are prepared for – you are trying to implement a specific evidence based practice that you know will help the families in your community.

How do you get them all to do the work according to the principles and values of your program? They have to make the change all of the time – not just when you are there watching them, but when they are on their own, the work is getting tough, and they feel pressed for time. Under those circumstances, it is human nature to fall back on what we know best. But that actively undermines your program goals and outcomes.

In addition to the basics of the process you want all three staff members to follow, you need to teach Anne how to work with real families, and to do so without writing them off for being different than her. You need to teach Susan how to plan with families instead of for them, and to understand that her goals are not necessarily theirs. Finally, you need to teach Adam how to separate his personal beliefs from his work.

The answer is training. But not just any training. We are only interested in the kinds of training that produce training transfer. Training transfer happens when the new things taught in training actually change the way people do their work.

You need a training program that builds on what they already know, while making it clear that they are learning something new. What you are teaching them might share a lot in common with case management, but it isn’t that. It might require a lot of faith, but it isn’t a missionary role.

You also need to get them so excited about the differences this new thing they are learning can make in the lives of the families that they work with that they stick to it even when it gets tough.

And you need to do all of this in classes with 10, 20, or even more other staff members, all who have their own strengths and weaknesses. How do you create a program that takes such a varied group of people to the same conclusions?

This is a tall order, but it is well within the scope of a carefully crafted, skills based training program. The first step is to engage your staff or volunteers with the process they will be learning. I’ll start there next time.

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