So you think you know 70:20:10?

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Written by Paul Matthews on 18 June 2014
When I speak with people about informal learning, which is often, I ask if they know the 70:20:10 model. More and more people are answering that they do know it, but then it often becomes apparent in the conversation that they don't really know it at all.
Sometimes they have simply heard of it. Some can recite "70% of learning is experiential, 20% is social, and only 10% is formal" almost like a mantra. Some know a bit more because their organisation espouses it as a good thing to pay attention to when designing learning programmes. It is part of their 'strategy'. In some cases, they really do know about it because they have read up on it from information freely available from leaders in the field like Charles Jennings.
What I find a little concerning is how many people think they know it, but clearly have misunderstood what it means in theory, and also what it means in practice. This leads them to focus on the wrong things.
One of the common mistakes is to use it as a recipe. That is, to assume that all learning at work SHOULD be done using this ratio. I even saw a blog the other day which said "70% of learning SHOULD be experiential". (My capitals)
Another common mistake is to think it refers to learning time, or learning activity. It doesn't. It refers to how much people have learned.
In part, this is due to the various ways that the word 'learning' can be interpreted. The word learn started life as verb. In recent times, the present participle has been used as a noun. This process of nominalisation makes a verb into a concept, and then we use it in ways that make the language purists squirm. We even talk about 'delivering learning' as if you could put learning in a wheelbarrow. No wonder there is confusion over the meaning with a word that can be both a verb and a noun.
Just reflect for a moment... How much of all the stuff you know how to do, in order to do your job, did you learn in a formal setting?
To better understand what the model is and how to make best use of it, an understanding of the original research from the Center for Creative Leadership in the 1980s is helpful.
The researchers asked a pool of successful senior executives to look back and reflect where they learnt the things that made a difference in the way that they managed and that led to their success.
Other research has been done and if you care to look for it, you will find it.
One thing that occurs to me about this research is that we will tend to remember the experiences that taught us life's hard lessons, and the people we interacted with along the way. We are likely to remember those more than what we learned in a classroom.
From my perspective, the figures are something of a red herring. They are a catchphrase, and if taken literally, a distraction from the real message within the model. The message is simply this: a huge proportion of what people learn in order to do their jobs, they learn outside formal channels.
That means, as L&D practitioners we should be paying a lot more attention to what and how people are learning outside our classrooms because that non classroom learning is important.
How can we influence the informal learning that is already taking place?
How can we leverage and harness the obvious power of informal learning?
How can we measure informal learning?
How can we convince others in the organisation that we should be paying attention to learning that happens where the work is happening?
By the way, people outside of L&D usually don't refer to informal learning. They use the word 'experience' instead to mean pretty much the same thing.
So here's a thought...
How can you generate experience for people more quickly than simply waiting for the universe to haphazardly provide the right situations that help them learn what they need to know?
Start thinking about delivering experiences and delivering social interactions rather than just thinking about delivering content.
About the author
Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy. He can be contacted via

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