We are wired to learn, yet most people are not great learners. But it’s not entirely their fault. Most of the current methods used in executive leadership development are based on old patterns of thought and have done little to prepare people with the necessary abilities to adapt.

Leadership development consultants creating custom learning designs, who should be at the forefront of innovation, often fall into the familiar “teach to the objective” approach. This reduces the leadership development process to linear chunks of information laced with knowledge checks and bound by pre- and post-assessments in hopes that learners will eventually “get it.”

Recently, many organizations have jumped onto the technology and gamification bandwagon, adding badges, gifting, virtual goods, and leaderboards to spruce training up. The good news, for the most part, is that these instructional technology tools have improved completion rates. The overall result, however, is still the same: learners may know a bit more, but they are not capable of doing more.

As learning and development consultants, my colleagues and I built the first technology platform optimized for developing how-to-think workers, yet we struggled with falling back on habits and using traditional approaches to design training simulation software. We received rave feedback from participants, but in fact this approach was too shallow. In the end, we realized that we could do a better job at creating environments that allow people to advance their thinking.

The underlying driver is that we want to create positive and lasting behavior change that helps business simulation participants and, ultimately, organizations perform better.This only happens if what people learn in the classroom can be applied to different situations.

“Transfer,” when used in executive leadership development, is the Holy Grail. Transfer of learning refers to learning in one context and applying it to another. It is associated with the volume of information that is actually absorbed during leadership development training that can be applied back to the workplace. We define two levels of transfer:

  • Situational transfer occurs when learners can apply what they learned to similar situations.
  • Adaptive transfer occurs when learners can adapt what they have learned to a variety of situations.

There is another dimension to transfer called capacity. Capacity is the amount of information that an individual retains and is capable of applying after the learning and development training. If, for example, an individual can apply many newly learned skills to different situations, then the program is said to have a high adaptive transfer capacity. Part of the goal for training, then, is to increase each learner’s capacity for transfer.

Organizations that are trying to get the most out of their executive leadership development participants should note that learning that has a high adaptive transfer capacity is the most desirable for improving each learner’s value potential. When it comes to developing how-to-think employees, this level of transfer is also imperative.

Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of custom business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business.

Mike Vaughan

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