70:20:10 – beyond the numbers

When used well, 70:20:10 is an important constituent in increasing agility, Charles Jennings says 

The 70:20:10 model is being used by an increasing number of organisations across the globe. Many find it resonates with their experiences and their desire to extend the focus on learning beyond the classroom. Others are finding it useful as a model or framework to help build more resilient people development strategies and to help create cultures of continuous learning.

One of the initial challenges that needs to be faced when deploying 70:20:10 is to move beyond the ‘numbers’. This can sometimes be a challenge. Especially as the model description is only numbers (plus a few colons).

The numbers in the model originated from a relatively small study carried out at the Center for Creative Leadership in the USA more than 30 years ago. A sample of successful managers was surveyed. These managers were asked what key development factors led to their personal success. The consensus arrived at was that lessons learned by this group of successful and effective managers came about roughly in the following way:

  • 70% from tough jobs
  • 20% from people (mostly the boss)
  • 10% from courses and reading

These results were reported in the 1996 publication The Career Architect Development Planner, an excellent and practical book by Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger. Lombardo and Eichinger had collaborated with Morgan McCall and his colleagues at the Center for Creative Leadership.

Clearly, if another group of successful and effective people were surveyed we would expect to see different ratios, although evidence suggests that the skew would remain towards experiential and social learning being dominant.

Although this study is generally accepted as the source of ‘the numbers’ in 70:20:10, a body of research over the past 40 years or more supports the fact that informal and workplace learning is not only the most important way that high performers develop their capabilities but also that it is increasingly pervasive and central to organisational learning and performance generally.

In other words, most learning occurs as part of the workflow rather than away from work.

Studies have produced varying figures of the amount learned in these ways, as would be expected. However, the vast majority have found that the main place adults learn to do their jobs and progress in their careers is in the workplace and the main way they do this is informally.

The high-level findings across a range of studies are listed below. This shows the percentages of learning that was found to occur informally in the workplace:

70% (Tough, 1971, 1979); 70% (Bruce, Aring, and Brand, 1998); 62% (Zemke, 1985 and Verespej, 1998); 70% (Vader, 1998); 85-90% (Raybold, 2000); 70% (Dobbs, 2000); 75% (Lloyd, 2000)

70:20:10 is not a rule

It cannot be stressed strongly enough that 70:20:10 is not a rule.  It is a reference model or when used strategically, a framework. It is a way to help organisations extend their focus on learning and development beyond the classroom and course-based eLearning to build more resilient workforces and create cultures of continuous development.

When engaging with a 70:20:10, approach questions about how to best support learning in the workplace (the ‘70’) and to encourage learning from others (the ‘20’) are raised. And need to be answered.

The exact numbers will be influenced by a number of factors, including the nature of the work (learning is always dependent on context) and the nature of each individual (some of us are naturally more reflective, some more procedural, some more biased towards ‘learning by doing’). People working in a highly innovative environment, for instance, may find their development opportunities and practices heavily skewed towards the ‘20’ – learning from (and with) colleagues and team members – with much less focus on structured development. On the other hand, people working in highly regulated environments are likely to spend more time in formal learning environments because regulators usually need evidence of attendance and test-oriented achievement to satisfy compliance, certification and verification requirements.

Additionally, organisational culture and other specific circumstances – the nature of tasks, prevalent level of mastery, pressure to innovate and change, and so on – also contribute to determine a unique profile of workplace, social and structured development opportunities within any organisation, or part of an organisation.

[pullquote]Put simply, the 70:20:10 model describes learning as it naturally happens. It then offers means to accelerate and support that learning in a number of ways[/pullquote]:

  • as part of the daily workflow;
  • through working and talking with colleagues and experts;
  • through structured development activities.

The 3Es – Experience: Exposure: Education

A number of organisations which have deployed the 70:20:10 model have taken the decision not to use ‘the numbers’ beyond their HR/L&D departments, but to adopt a ‘brand’ that either reflects the change/transformation journey they are embarking upon or use terms that are more meaningful for their specific circumstances. ‘3Es’ (experience: exposure: education) or ‘3Ps’ (practice: people: programmes) are two examples. Others simply deploy 70:20:10 under a wider change initiative. Danone, the French headquartered global company, has successfully embedded 70:2:10 into its One Learning a Day campaign.

So, why the numbers?

Although the 70:20:10 model is primarily a change agent, the numbers serve as a useful reminder that most learning occurs in the workplace – through experience, practice, conversations and networks, and reflection – rather than in formal learning situations. The model also stresses that learning is highly context dependent. However, don’t make the mistake of quoting the numbers as a mantra or as fixed percentages.

It is also important not to put the three elements in the 70:20:10 model into separate boxes in practice. They are interdependent. For instance, coaching, mentoring and courses work best when they support on-the-job development (McCall, 2010). Often it is difficult to separate the ‘70’ from the ‘20’ – and futile to try. There are other trip-wires to be avoided in the effective use of 70:20:10.

However, I have found the numbers are useful when explaining the importance of workplace learning to senior managers. Most managers ‘get it’ with the briefest explanation. It usually reflects their own learning experiences.

Re-thinking learning 

With its emphasis on learning through experience and with others, the 70:20:10 framework helps push the understanding of what learning really means. It moves us from ‘know-what’ learning towards more effective ‘know-how’ learning and helps change the focus from learning to performance – from input to output.

In summary, 70:20:10 helps change mindsets and extends learning opportunities. When used well, it is an important constituent in increasing agility and lowering time to capability. It helps constrains costs and improve impact. These are the things to focus on, not the numbers.


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