Posted On July 5, 2018

When we speak to clients about the 70:20:10 learning model we get two reactions, sometimes both at the same time.

One, they nod their heads and say, “Yes, it’s something that’s really, really important.” And two, clients roll their eyes, almost imperceptibly, and I can hear them thinking, “Too hyped, too ethereal and too hard.” OK, maybe not “ethereal” – my word, not theirs, but certainly too hyped and often-times way too hard.

Why the mixed emotions?

It’s because even though 70:20:10 is a great guide, the devil is in the detail, and details about how best to design, implement and measure 70:20:10 in a corporate learning environment are sketchy for the majority of would-be users.

So let’s have a quick look at the pros and cons of rolling 70:20:10 out across an organisation, but first revisit what 70:20:10 is and what it isn’t.

70:20:10 is not a prescriptive model. It’s used to describe what many believe are the optimal sources and weighted proportions of workplace learning. In essence, it says employees receive:

  • 70 percent of their work-related knowledge from challenging experiences they face in the workplace – gaining experience, making mistakes and learning their job by doing it
  • 20 percent of their learning from coaching, feedback, interactions and relationships with others, particularly their manager, supervisor and closest colleagues
  • 10 percent from formal instruction, such as classroom or online learning interventions and reading.

The model was created in the 1980s at the Center for Creative Leadership, a US non-profit educational institution. If you’d like the good oil, it can be found in the subsequent 1996 best-selling book entitled The Career Architect Development Planner.

Why 70:20:10 works

The 70:20:10 model makes sense because it largely reflects reality. That is, learning comes from many sources but experience is the best teacher, and the best learning comes about from doing – not simply knowing.

The model also fits neatly in the now-universally accepted blended learning approach.

When done well, 70:20:10 helps employees recognise and, importantly, use their experiences (and each other) to improve performance. This in turn can lead to more agility, adaptability and innovation right across the grassroots of the organisation – a very good thing. Reports from organisations that have embraced the 70:20:10 framework say they’ve experienced 70 percent improvements in process and efficiency, and more than a 60 percent boost in productivity. According to recent Brandon Hall Group research, 88 percent of organisations that have implemented the model reported improved team performance.

Why it doesn’t work

Brandon Hall research notwithstanding, criticism of 70:20:10 typically starts with a lack of empirical supporting data. In a world driven by black-and-white evidence, there’s just not enough hard data on the success or otherwise of 70:20:10-based programs. It may be coming, but it’s not all here yet.

The model’s use of perfectly even numbers, and even the nature of the survey researchers used to formulate the model, are often cited as drawbacks. (In their defense, the Center for Creative Leadership researchers themselves said that 70:20:10 “is neither a scientific fact nor a recipe for how best to develop people.” They also stressed that percentages used were approximate guidelines and not a strict recipe for success.)

I’ve also heard it said that 70:20:10 is “a solution looking for a problem.” That’s because as well as proof, the business world also places high value on packaged plug-and-play solutions – and this is what 70:20:10 most definitely is not. Instead it’s a guiding principle, and businesses don’t buy principles. They buy features, functions and proven outcomes and tangible benefits to fix problems that need fixing.

Being a broad strategy and not a colour-by-numbers tool, 70:20:10 suffers at the executive level because for decades business leaders have made substantial investments in the highly structured 10 percent of the 70:20:10 equation. This is where learning outcomes could be found in framed certificates or ticks in boxes. Informal learning, however, doesn’t work that way and can, as a result, be seen as less credible. For that reason, any change in emphasis from classroom to self-directed, real-world workplace learning can be a seismic shift in senior management’s thinking, planning and, let’s not be sensitive, appetite for investment.

Another reason 70:20:10 is cloaked in ambiguity is the fact that while it’s framed in a learning discussion and sits squarely in the remit of the L&D department, it’s really about performance, and that’s where the disconnect begins and implementations of 70:20:10 begin to unravel.

Who owns 70:20:10?

Answer: everyone.

The biggest mistake organisations make when implementing the model is when L&D is singled out and told to push 70:20:10 out across the enterprise. Most of these organisations, however, still operate as an array of “command and control” centres, and L&D can neither command nor control when line managers – responsible for making the workplace the primary source of development – push back.

And they always push back. Strategy is fine, but it’s hard work and effort at the coal face that get things done. The 70:20:10 model requires that managers at all levels accept that coaching, mentoring and facilitating learning are not just add-ons to their role, and often times unwelcome ones at that, but a critical component.

Meanwhile, L&D must ensure these managers have the skills and tools needed to do this well, in particular the coaching skills.

Added to this, senior executives have to allow for the fact that line managers who often don’t have time to peer above their day-to-day organisational duties need the time and space to deliver on their developmental ones with meaningful learning experiences for their workers. This can be a bridge too far for organisations where “doing more with less” is the order to the day and the bottom line trumps a well-intentioned L&D program every time.

70:20:10 is also about informal self-direction and real-world experiences that take place organically, freely across departmental boundaries. Very few L&D departments have the organisational clout to make that kind of learning freedom fly, or – to put not too fine a point on it – the wherewithal to design, deliver and manage the many development plans, systems, processes and tools needed to get 70:20:10 off the ground.

But perhaps the biggest shift in thinking is the requirement for learners themselves to take responsibility for their own development by becoming networkers and learning- and advice-seekers who never stop learning. For most high performers this comes naturally, but for others it can be like pulling teeth. To overcome this, HR needs to pay close attention to the hiring, induction, training and promotion processes, and senior management has to ensure that continual learning is prized, rewarded and embedded into the very fabric of corporate culture.

70:20:10 programs are difficult to implement successfully because they are team efforts. No-one, not senior leaders, L&D, managers or employees, can drop the ball.

When successfully implemented it’s also a wonderfully simple, inspirational model. However, making it work systematically and at scale across the enterprise is not only a training effort, but a very large, complex change effort in which every member of the team has a starring role.

NEED HELP? We know blended learning and we know 70:20:10. We also know about giving managers the coaching skills they need to facilitate knowledge transfer, and executive teams the tools to successfully execute enterprise-wide change. Call us today on 1300 768 550.