From theory to practice: how can we make sure that what we learn at school is useful at work?


An organization knows what the people who make it up know. What differentiates one university from another are its professors. The fundamental role of training for the development and growth of individuals, organizations, and society as a whole is indisputable.

A student is trained at an individual level with the expectation of a better job and future salary; an organization invests in training its workers with expectations of improving their productivity and results; and States invest in education policies to improve the well-being of their citizens.

However, investments in training do not always have a direct impact on job performance. In Spain, for example, the percentage of overqualification is 35.8% , one of the highest in the European Union. That is, a third of university graduates occupy jobs below their level of education.

One more fact: despite the fact that more than 40% of students reach the EBAU with an 8 or more in Baccalaureate , the overall rate of dropout from the Spanish university system and change of study by new students exceeds 30% .

Finally, the latest PISA 2022 report (OECD Program for International Student Assessment) did not provide optimistic data either. Already in 2018, Andreas Schleicher, creator of PISA, stated that in Spain “a lot is memorized, but what is learned is not applied” and criticized the succession of education laws in a model “almost like the 19th century” that “has not had impact” in the classrooms.

Training in the workplace

Companies make significant efforts to train their workers (for example, for the digital transformation of the company), but only a small percentage of these expenses actually result in transfer to work , that is, there is no visible return on the organization’s final result.

This means that investing in training can often be as useless as flipping a square figure in a game of Tetris. Much of what is taught in the classroom is “worthless” – that is, it cannot be successfully applied in the workplace. This is what is known in the academic world as the “training transfer problem.”

So how or by what mechanism is training transferred to performance? What is the real relationship? Despite evidence of the benefits of training for individuals, teams, organizations and society, the question of how this transfer of training occurs remains unresolved.

Training transfer problem

The truth is that much of what is learned during training does not apply to employment . We call “training transfer” the degree to which the skills and behaviors learned in the training environment are applied, generalized, and maintained in the work environment.

The OECD recognizes that, although changing the way teachers teach is a challenge, education leaders and governments must try to find ways to make teaching more effective. The latest reform in Spain of the Vocational Training for Employment system establishes in its principles the importance of training for competitiveness and improving the performance of organizations.

Training evaluation

Kirkpatrick’s model for training evaluation, also known as the four-level evaluation model, offers a standard in this field: reaction, learning, behavioral, and results evaluation.

To determine whether training produces real benefits we must investigate the effects it has on performance. A new line of research based on the so-called dynamic absorption and innovation capacities has emerged in recent years, opening a new horizon with disturbing findings that offer novel knowledge.

Dynamic capabilities

In this line, recent research focuses on higher education (management of the quality of university teaching, active educational methodologies and teaching innovation, competitive debate and gamification, cultural competence and communication); on secondary education (impacts of information technology, business development of smart cities); and, of course, on business management (impacts of human resource management practices and types of training in multinational companies, effect of high-performance work systems on organizational performance, innovation in organizations at three levels: individual, work team and organization).

A multi-sector study in Spain distributed to 1,560 senior managers of companies with 50 or more employees, on a final sample of 112 companies throughout the country, determined that training does not directly affect results, but rather does so through a chain of intermediate variables.

The study concludes that training is indirectly related to performance through absorption capacity, followed by innovation capacity. More than 75% of training results are explained by the contribution of absorption capacity and innovation capacity. Although the study was carried out in a business environment, the authors affirm that it can be perfectly extrapolated to the educational field.

Absorb and innovate: dynamic capabilities

Absorptive and innovative capabilities are part of the so-called dynamic capabilities . Dynamic capabilities have been defined as the ability to integrate, build and reconfigure internal and external competencies to quickly address changes in the environment. In other words, it is not enough to have capabilities, but they must be put into action.

Absorption and innovation are the key capabilities involved in the positive transfer of training. Absorption capacity is the process of acquiring, assimilating, transforming and exploiting knowledge that occurs in the training context. Acquisition and assimilation are part of a sequential process very similar to what is known in education as “meaningful learning-constructivism”, and make up the potential absorption capacity. Transformation and exploitation complete the process of successful absorption.

In this way, training does not end when the training action ends, it does not end with learning. When a training action is carried out, the student acquires a potential capacity (acquisition and assimilation) to obtain expected results. However, to carry out the transfer of training, it is necessary that the process continues towards the transformation and exploitation of the knowledge acquired in training (realized absorption capacity), and that it culminates with the expression of an innovation. Innovation involves applying that knowledge and skills creatively to achieve meaningful results.

These findings have important practical and theoretical implications in the field of training and education.

The future of training lies in dynamic capabilities

The path of training passes through absorption and innovation capacities. Training and dynamic capabilities are two sides of the same coin that directly affect performance. The mere introduction of training is of no use if these capabilities are not involved.

How to incorporate them? We must take them into account when designing curricula and training programs, also when we evaluate training: we must not only analyze to what extent specific knowledge has been acquired, but also whether it has been absorbed and used in an innovative way. , introducing these variables into the learning outcome metrics.

In this way, the content learned would have an impact on future professional performance, and the educational system would be more aligned with the productive system.

Author Bio: Benito Yanez Araque is Associate Professor | Deputy Director of Culture, Sports and University Outreach at the University of Castilla-La Mancha