Republished from Chief Learning Officer magazine Learning is just facts and figures without managerial support. Like a great baseball coach, a supportive manager can ensure learning events produce the equivalent of a home run. Great baseball managers extract more from their players than others have. They manage the egos of franchise players, guide team dynamics and manage resources - putting the right pitcher in for middle relief and another in as closer. To generate offense, they shuffle the line-up and insert designated hitters as needed. Assembling a winning baseball team - not unlike putting together an effective, performance-driven corporate team - can be a bit of a gamble. But organisations cannot afford to gamble that their managers could be great. Like great baseball managers, they must actively develop managerial talent.

Transferring Learning

In Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare wrote, "Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them." The playwright's sentiment rings true in the modern workplace. Through rigorous recruiting and hiring processes, an organisation attempts to identify the next great line-up, those who are born with great management skills. Other organizations take raw talent and develop it with extensive training, on-the-job experiences, intensive coaching and mentoring. With either approach, development is the critical element to create successful outcomes. Managers typically align to either projects or people. The former adds value by controlling quality, cost and time on individual projects. The people managers make organizations more effective by making their direct reports more productive. They play a specific role before and after learning: providing appropriate tools, strategic direction, guidance regarding project tasks and helping to solve problems. Many factors other than managers influence performance after a learning event. Ed Holton, a human resources professor at Louisiana State University, developed the Generalised Learning Transfer Systems Inventory (GLTSI), a tool to assess whether the post-learning environment supports or hinders learning transfer and skill application. The original model consists of 16 transfer factors that align with three main areas that influence learning transfer: the ability to use learning, motivation to use knowledge and skills, and the work environment. Managers' direct and indirect actions play a substantial role in these factors. For example, a direct action by a manager is to provide support through encouragement and feedback after the employee returns from a learning event. Indirectly, a manager can influence readiness, the extent to which a person is prepared to participate and learn during that event. While readiness is a mental state controlled by the learner, it can be influenced by the manager who provides inspiration. Certainly, all factors do not have equal impact. Some, such as manager involvement, exert greater influence than others. It's up to the manager to determine which support areas to emphasise to have the most impact on individual employees' performance, and learning leaders can help.

The Manager's Role in Learning

The people manager's role in learning encompasses formal and informal activities. Formal learning includes classes available within the organisation such as instructor-led, self-paced Web-based or facilitated online courses. Informal learning could involve a broader set of experiences including knowledge portals, Web searches, communities of practice, on-the-job coaching, mentoring, job aids, performance support and other tools that contribute to knowledge and skill acquisition. A manager can't be involved in every aspect of learning, but he or she can be involved at critical points. Here are a few things managers can do:
  • Provide guidance: During new situations, an experienced manager can provide an employee with guidance by identifying resources such as experts, tools or experiences and sharing them. Offering a specific roadmap can make a significant difference in performance. A manager might say, "Talk to these people. Read these websites, and join this community of practice."
  • Capitalise on events: Being involved at the right time and place is critical to make learning stick and ensure lessons are transferred back to the workplace. The right time and place is often before or after an event. Events could be conferences, new projects, failed projects or a breaking news story. Meetings with learners before events should focus on anticipating what will be learned. Expectations can be set. After events, the manager can revisit expectations and adjust goals, provide resources, assign projects and offer support.
  • Check in regularly: Because meaningful events cannot always be anticipated, it is essential for a manager to check in regularly. Managers should be the trusted advisers team members rely on to help solve problems before they arise and provide solutions without blame when problems sideline a project. Managers can facilitate learning support and new skill application by asking simple questions: "What is the current status?" "Do you anticipate any barriers?" "What resources do you need?" "What can I do to help?" Then, the manager can reintroduce recent learning and how those lessons may be relevant to the current situation.

Making Managers More Effective

In the 2008 research study "The High-Impact Learning Organization: What Works in the Management, Governance and Operations of Modern Corporate Training," Josh Bersin said, "One of the most important factors in the success of an L and D program is the underlying 'culture' surrounding a program. Does the manager support it? Does the organization value it? Will the attendee find reinforcement of the program when he/she returns to work?" According to Bersin, manager support is a critical component in creating a performance-driven culture. Research supports the idea that managers can positively influence learning application. In a 2010 Training Industry Quarterly article, "Manager Engagement: Reducing Scrap Learning," KnowledgeAdvisors analyzed a diverse set of courses evaluated by more than 2,000 learners and found manager support accounted for 17.5 percent of performance improvement. There are several key behaviours managers can adopt to promote employee learning and performance:
  • Learning should incorporate organisational goals and employees' personal and career goals to encourage engagement and increase the likelihood of success.
  • Tactically, the manager should engage the learner before formal learning events to set expectations and align the learner to specific learning events. If there is no alignment, the employee should seek different learning.
  • The manager should provide opportunities and resources for the learner to apply new knowledge and skills. This could mean assigning new project work or providing new software tools.
  • A manager should monitor direct reports' performance and provide feedback that relates to learning goals and expectations. Reinforcement can be as simple as a word of congratulations or as substantial as a monetary bonus.
Motivating managers to actively support learners is not easy. They must see the value in it, know how to perform the tasks effectively and actually execute them. In their book, The Chief Learning Officer: Driving Value Within a Changing Organization Through Learning and Development, Tamar Elkeles and Jack J. Phillips describe four types of managers based on their support styles: destructive, non-supportive, responsive and supportive. The first two do not contribute to effective learning transfer and may hinder it. Responsive managers are only slightly better than those who do nothing. However, managers can be motivated to be more supportive. Supportive qualities often come from the manager's own manager because support is cyclical. In their book, Elkeles and Phillips offer several tips learning leaders can use to improve managerial involvement in learning.
  • Awareness is critical. Some managers are not aware how much they can influence employees' success post-learning event. If a manager is aware that support is helpful, but still does not care, other motivators may be necessary. Begin by communicating the performance value of manager support.
  • Discuss and document goals for both manager and learner before the employee attends an event.
  • Set clear expectations that managers will provide support. Offer specific instructions so the manager will know what tactical actions to pursue.
  • Encourage managers to attend programs designed for their direct reports.
  • Conduct follow-up discussions with managers to review learning program success.
  • Encourage managers to create a feedback loop with learning teams to let them know what is working and what is not with regard to programs.
Managers can guide their employees toward right actions and support them even when their attempts fail as part of the development process. And, there is a certain level of joy managers will experience when their direct reports outperform expectations simply because they were involved. Author John R. Mattox II is director of research at KnowledgeAdvisors. Image: Kevin Burkett - Flickr