Warning, Will Robinson! The 70:20:10 model is failing!

I’ve been considering the 70:20:10 model of learning. The basics of it suggest the following: 70% of what we learn is done on the job / via our own methods. This has been galantly called ‘social learning’ or ‘informal learning’. 20% of what we learn is via coaching/mentoring/good management. 10% of what we learn is via formal learning methods inlcuding learning sessions, e-learning and online learning.

It’s a pretty damning indictment of the state of L&OD. It suggests that the focus of the corporate L&Der should be about supporting and finding ways to enable the social learning that people are already doing.

It suggests that all the coaching programmes we invest heavily in as corporate entities are a waste of money because people aren’t really learning that much through that method anyway.

It suggests that the formal learning activities we engage in are useless.

And I have a fundamental problem with it. Not least because I’m an advocate of formal learning.

My problem with this formula/ratio is that it also suggests I am a useless learning professional. It suggests that it actually doesn’t matter how well designed or how well facilitates any of my learning sessions are, because the learning will take place back in the workplace regardless of what I helped to enable.

And breathe, Sukh…

Can L&Ders encourage and support informal and social learning?

By definition, social learning is happening anyway – regardless if I’m involved or not. So what should I be doing to remain relevant support this more?

There are an increasing range of ways people can share information at their pace enabling learning to happen when they want:
– setting up an internal social network such as Yammer or Jive
– having a wiki environment to allow knowledge sharing
– Using systems such as Sharepoint (spits in disgust) to upload and share videos or documents
– ‘Lunch and learn’ sessions
– team meetings having an element of learning or development set up by different team members
– town hall type presentations open for anyone to attend and listen to insights / knowledge / information from other parts of the organisation
– internal ‘Fun’ distribution email lists
– being allowed to access social networking sites in organisations at all

I’m totally on board with all these things, and advocate them massively. I think they help build and create a learning culture that so many organisation are trying to achieve.

Is coaching really ineffective?

In the main, I’m going to say no.

What’s important is that people going through this form of development actually change their behaviour. That means having a skilled coaching practitioner available – and that’s part of the problem. Far too many organisations embark in coaching programmes because it’s ‘best practice’, but what they’re not doing is providing careful and guided support to the practitioners. I remember a case study from Siemens and Diageo who explained how their coaches got together themselves to support one another. That’s a good example of social learning in action. It’s not a great example of fully supporting a learning intervention.

Also, coaching tends to only happen when there’s a performance issue. Too many managers don’t take the time to spot coaching opportunities and practise their skills. Instead they use coaching principles and bypass the actual aim of coaching.

And lastly, only those in senior positions tend to receive coaching from practitioners who are skilled and able.

Are formal learning activities actually useless?

You know, I’d really hope they’re not, but it’s hard to say that they’re all really well executed / facilitated.

I think the important thing here is for the learning session – be it online, e-based, or face to face, to be well designed. Learning sessions should always be about raising awareness, and provoking you into further action. If we can’t get that right, we’ve failed. Even if you’re going through compliance training, you still need to do something with that knowledge once you have it.

Worringly though, if these learning sessions are only generating about 10% of useful learning and development, this suggests we aren’t designing good learning sessions at all.

There is a solution

There are a good many L&D practitioners who are making money off the back of the 70:20:10 model claiming their models and interventions are the panacea to organisational learning.

In reality, this just means the skill set of the L&Der is now broader than it ever has been. We need to be good at designing learning sessions, we need to understand how to cultivate effective coaching and mentoring programmes, and we need to understand how to encourage and enable social learning to happen.

That’s a big move away from stand and deliver and e-learning provision.

It also presents a huge challenge to the likes of Reed Learning. Why would you commission them to deliver learning sessions which are only going to yield 10% of useful learning? I think this also presents a big opportunity for true and proper collaboration with corporates and suppliers in the L&OD space.

Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

19 thoughts on “Warning, Will Robinson! The 70:20:10 model is failing!”

  1. Hi Sukh,

    I think you are right to interrogate the 70:20:10, but I don’t agree with many of the assumptions you have made about the framework.

    70:20:10 is not pro-informal or anti-formal. The framework simply suggests that our most significant learning generally happens in the workplace through challenging experiences and the people around us. Formal or structured learning still has an important role, but it is not a solution in and of itself.

    You’ve suggested that 70:20:10 is a formula, but Charles Jennings is the first to say that the framework is a reference model, not a recipe. Learning is contextual and the specific balance of experiential, social and formal development will be different for each situation/context. The numbers simply serve to prompt us to focus our efforts on where most learning occurs and to create performance solutions, rather than training solutions.

    I like the simplicity of 70:20:10 and that when you talk to people about it, they pretty much agree with idea. They will tell you it fits with their own experiences. Although the numbers might be useful for L&D, they can be a distraction or cause unnecessary contention/confusion. For these reasons, I like the idea that many people have taken, to remove reference to the numbers and speak instead of:

    3E – Experience, Exposure, Education
    3P – Practice, People, Programs
    Experience, Relationships, Formal

    I also believe in a broader view of the framework. Experiential learning covers a range of solutions that support new experiences, challenging experiences, and reflective practice. Social Learning of course includes coaching and mentoring as you’ve mentioned, but extends to line leaders developing others, the role of communities and sharing and of course, feedback.

    Formal development is not removed from the equation, but instead is a key element and enabler of workplace learning and performance.

    I agree with you that experiential and social learning is already happening every day. The reality however, is that it is often left to chance. This means it is not as efficient or effective as it needs to be. L&D has an exciting role as you’ve suggested in supporting a more holistic view of how employees learn, perform and improve. The 70:20:10 helps organisations make informal learning intentional and deliberate.

    L&D can’t and shouldn’t manage informal learning the way it manages formal learning (training calendars, LMS etc.). Our role instead is to build the scaffold that guides, enables and supports it in practice and makes it deliberate.

    There is no such thing as the perfect model, but 70:20:10 has been the most holistic and simplest one I have found to work with. We do however, need to challenge ourselves to adopt a broader view of how it can be applied as a strategic framework.

    I would very much recommend Charles Jennings’ publication, ’70:20:10 Framework Explained’. It is an easy read and explores many of the issues you have raised. You can explore the publication here:


    Thanks for your post and for prompting me to review my own thoughts around the framework.

    1. Great comment Andrew! Agree with all that – it’s definitely about L&D’s role changing to look at how transferral of formal learning is thought about in the design process.

      And the broader context to that is crucial – Will line managers coach employees to transfer their learning? Will people be ‘allowed’ to take risks to learn more & faster when they get back to work? Will their new skills/knowledge be practiced over and over to embed new pathways in their brain and change old habits?

      The extra challenge this brings, to the point you make about Reed Learning et al, is showing return on investment from less tangible interventions over which the L&OD’er has potentially less control. And how do you measure that?

      1. Measuring the intangible is the bane of my life in L&OD. Our very purpose is about behaviour change and measuring behaviour baffles scientists at best, and we’re meant to have the answer?

        The piece about getting it right once the training is complete is the challenge. We’ve known this for years, this is not new news. Our challenge isn’t about deeper understanding of memory processes and behaviour change, it’s practical solutions that support the required change. Maybe that’s where the 70:20:10 model can help.

    2. This is an excellent reply to the post, Andrew, thanks. And welcome to the blog!

      I understand that the model isn’t meant to come across as a formula, it’s just worrying that it can easily get interpreted in this way.

      I think Charles and others work in this area is fascinating and helps to ensure that the role of L&D doesn’t become stagnant or staid.

  2. As a lifelong learner and die hard educator, I’d like to think that all staff pursue L&D opportunities that benefit both their personal and professional growth, and that all organisations support them in this pursuit. Unfortunately, it is my experience that this is the exception rather than the rule, particularly in the government departments I work in. Until L&D can shift the balance on these paradigms we will always be on the back foot, trying to prove our relevance.

    1. Ooh L&D shifting paradigms. I would love for us to have that level of influence. The funny thing is I think we can, but it depends largely on the capability of the L&Der to know how to make those arguments to the powers that be.

  3. I think it’s too easy to look at L&D as an isolated part of how we lead and manage people. I don’t think the 70:20:10 principle is wrong but I think the way it’s generally interpreted is. That 70% of learning is made up of things outside the usual remit of instructional design and that’s where I think it falls over – when L&D people design learning interventions that don’t consider the business as a whole. What I’m talking about is the culture, leadership, values, and purpose of the business. What’s that got to do with learning? Well, bucketloads when the environment that people are learning in doesn’t motivate them to learn or give them the opportunity to apply their skills. That’s where the investment is wasted.

    1. I think you’re right, Amanda. Again, this is not new news. We’ve known for years that the best L&Ders are those who consider how the change happens through the whole system, not just as an isolated event.

      And I think that happens best when internal and external practitioners truly work in collaboration.

  4. A very well written piece, Sukh.

    You’re right to interrogate 70:20:10 – as we with should many other approaches to organisational learning and development – but I also think yours is a very fair assessment.

    I too am a believer that formal learning won’t disappear or that it’s less effective than it used to be. I do agree that the role of the L&Der is broader than ever and that we need to understand what’s going on outside of our profession and be able to respond to values shifts and technology advancements (among many other things) to remain relevant to our learners.

    One point I will add is that far from ‘the formal learning activities we engage in [being] useless’ – our capacity to learn in everyday settings (on-the-job) is insatiable – we can’t help but learn.

    I think it’s inevitable that we’ll tie more and more learning experiences into the job itself (over time and technology permitting). And that’s a different dimension all together.

    You do a great job getting us all talking about this stuff, Sukh, Thank you.

    1. Hi and welcome to the blog, David. Yes the potential for designing learning into job roles is truly interesting and presents a real challenge. Many HR pros would argue it’s already built in. It may also be the case that the recruitment process made it a factor in some way. It is about the holistic approach which will start to make the big changes in L&D.

  5. Interesting little side comment about Sharepoint. I’m interested to understand more of your reasoning behind it. Bad experience?

    I ask as we are about to embark on a project to use Sharepoint in our organisation, replacing a few different internal sites and systems along the way.

    I had my annual appraisal last week and was very keen to make it known that I wanted a 2014 objective to be to be in the thick of the project.

    To be clear, I’m not a passionate sharepoint luvvie (yet, that might change). In fact, the words I said to my boss was “this project is very likely to fall flat on its arse” (verbatim). But I also think it has many potential wins and am attempting to collect as many observations and experiences that people have had with it (and similar systems) as possible.

    1. Oh to be fair it’s a useful system, I just don’t like it simply because it’s an Enterprise solution by a big multi-national beast! It can support informal learning brilliantly, have fun 🙂

  6. I agree with your conclusion, Sukh, that the skill set of the L&Der is now broader than it ever has been. A trainer is a trainer (nothing wrong with that), but an L&D professional facilitates and supports the learning process – which is a very different role. At the very least, the 70:20:10 lens helps us see beyond the classroom.

  7. Thoughtful post and raises the concerns I believe of many learning professionals – I’m useless? I agree that only 10% is effective and honestly I think its due to the fact that its often the wrong solution for the performance problems. L&D, as business partners, must be sure that formal is the answer to fill the gap. Today I see more learning professionals doing what they think they should be doing and where they placed the greatest emphasis of their study; designing and delivering training. Critical thinking and analysis take time but must be done and L&D must do it. Clark Quinn wrote an excellent piece on this and said “you shouldn’t be throwing formal learning at a problem unless you’re willing to do it right.” It’s expensive and should be. See his full post here http://blog.learnlets.com/?p=3378

  8. This is a very interesting discussion. Sukh. Your ‘tabloid headline’ does a slight disservice to the 70:20:10 framework, but has certainly caught the attention.

    Andrew Gerkens rightly points out that 70:20:10 is a reference model and not a ‘rule’. It’s best to think of it as scaffolding. I usually explain 70:20:10 as ‘an approach to extend learning and improve performance’ – nothing more than that. It gets us building coherent strategies and thinking outside the programme/course/module box. That’s not to say programmes, courses and modules are not sometimes the right answer, but they’re not always the answer – or even the main answer, it seems.

    I’ve found one major benefit of the 70:20:10 model is that the many hundreds of senior organisational and business leaders to whom I’ve explained it almost to a person immediately ‘get it’ – they know that most of their deep learning experiences occurred whilst they were in the workflow.

    Of course that’s not to say that formal, structured learning is not important. Sometimes it’s vital, but as Mark Britz says above far too often a programme, a course or a structured eLearning model is the knee-jerk reaction to a performance problem when some other solution will be more effective, often faster, and cheaper. The key here is for more L&D professionals to acquire better performance consulting and business analysis skills so more of the right solutions are are matched to problems.

    As you know I’ve written quite a lot about the potential of the 70:20:10 framework. I disagree with the statement that it’s failing. If there is failure, it’s the misinterpretation of the model by some L&D practitioners that’s the problem.

    I’ve worked with more than 100 organisations helping them with the implementation of 70:20:10 – large, medium and small, global corporations, government agencies and third sector bodies – all have found it useful. Many have found it difficult to implement, but most report significant increases in the outputs and effectiveness of their workforce development efforts.


    1. Hi Charles, thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the post.

      You’ll forgive the tabloid headline of the writing. It was to attract people to the piece, which I hope wasn’t as flippant as the title.

      The various comments on the post, and reading more of your own writing has helped me to understand better the pieces of the puzzle that I wasn’t connecting.

      I don’t doubt the model is effective in helping to understand the range of activities and efforts required to create a learning organisation. What I find challenging in the main is the ratio’s at all. Although I understand we shouldn’t be tied into the numbers, they do present as a fait a complit.

      The key thing behind all this is the changing skillset of learning and development practitioners. I’ve been facilitating these very conversations and activities in organisations I’ve been part of for the last 5 years, and it’s a regualr challenge to find better ways to support learning.

      Appreciate your comment, it’s good to debate.

  9. Hi

    I have read this chain with interest and felt the need to comment.

    No one is or ever has been in doubt about the multiple, various and inter-connected ways in which we learn. Collaborative peer to peer learning, but within a formal context and framework, has always been one of the mainstays of both school, university and vocational learning. This is a necessary symbiosis of appproaches and is very effective. Duplicating this on-line has proven its case as it is just as effective there. In addition, interest driven personal investigation and research is the core behind advanced degrees and higher end vocational qualifications. This is a mix of informal within a formal context.

    Organisations and those who undertake learning and development within them, as well as their senior executives, need to appreciate how important the many types of learning there are; formal, informal and the many hybrids of those two. Self-directed learning related or connected to both formal and informal learning activities features importantly in both/all.

    One of my concerns about the expansion of 70;20;10 as a way of thinking about learning and more importantly what it has evolved into, is that although it is obvious we learn in multiple ways (hence people “get it” as they self reference) it has resulted in people “bucketing” learning into one of three formats. There are many more and they are interconnected not discrete.( I accept that the detailed 70;20;10 approach does not divide them this clearly…but many advocates of it do.)

    Moreover, one of the implications of putting numbers against any model which is what 70;20;10 does is to imply that all learning is somehow equal – in value and quality – and volume is what matters. We all know that is not the case. It is essential that volume and quantity are not seen as the measure. Most further learning is either not possible or valid if not underpinned with more “formal” approaches and it is usually essential that those formal learning requirements are deeply validated for accuracy .

    This “amplifier” effect is well researched and forms the basis of how many subjects are taught in all areas of learning and educatin. For example. Failure to study and understand logic ihibits almost all other forms of genuine philosophical study – which is why they teach it first. Similarly, understanding of statistics is essential to being able to genuinly evaluate psychological experiments and most experiemental forms of psychology – without it most of the rest of the subject is unapproachable. So it is taught first. This does not not take a large amount of time for either of these – the “volume” is low and would fall into the “10” category in many people’s view – but the value is huge as without it the rest of the subject cannot be engaged with.

    The value of the publicity and debate over the 70;20;10 approach is that it has pushed the understanding of the many ways learning takes place (whether at work or not) to the front and moved us away from thinking learning is only formal and “class structure” based. This is both important and very valuable. The sad downside is that it has for some taken on a semi-religeous tone as “being the answer”.

    I know that Charles Jennings has not promoted the “this is the answer” element and I respect him for valiently pushing that back when it emerges and reminding everyone that it is an “approach to improver performance”. It is, however, in too many conversations on learning, seen as a mantra and a “silver bullet”.

    My encouragement to all those in learning within organisation would be to invest in being certain what outcomes and transformations are needed as a priority – and once those are in place then look at all the various ways of either achieving them or supporting them and match that design to their ability to give you the outcome rather than focus on the delivery method from the start. Unfortunatelty, 70;20;10 has pulled too much of the debate in learning departments back to the “how” over the what and the why.

    70;20;10 is neither right or wrong – this is too extreme in either case. It is a genuine addition to the expanding debate around how we learn and in that way is a significant contribution. It is, however, only that – an addition to the debate not an answer. Human learning is significantly more varied and complex and in that is the reason why so many people are fascinated by it as a subject.

    Charles Elvin

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