What’s wrong with 70-20-10 in learning and development?

In my view the whole concept of 70-20-10 for learning and development is fundamentally flawed. What this says about anyone in the development field is that they are in the 10% team and if you are lucky enough to be able to stretch into coaching on the job, you may even make it to a 20 or 30% team, but the mother load of all learning in this set-up falls on supervisors, team leaders and manager for the on the job bit. Now I don’t know where the inventors of this idea have been hiding, but in most organisations doing more with less is the order to the day thanks to the economic conditions, heavy restructuring etc.; which effectively translates as follows managers don’t have time to look up from their day duties for long enough to go and explore and engage in meaningful learning activities for their team, the bottom-line is more important.

Jut in case you haven’t heard of this concept before this model suggest that 70% of our learning is on the job through experience, 20% of our learning is informal and 10% of our learning is formally done either in classroom or on courses. I am not sure where this concept was floated first, but I guess in the need to portray a soft industry into hard figures, someone must have thought this was a brilliant idea and a multitude of providers have jumped on the bandwagon to be your 10% provider of learning services. I agree with the base idea that most of us learn to do our job best by doing it, the whole 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration works for me.

Where this model starts to be a misfit, is when you look at the profiles of leaders. Every single leader I have worked with as a coach or trainer, has been an avid reader, course and learning seeker. Every biography of world and business leaders I have ever read always mentioned who their mentors were, the fact that they had great teachers or were once again readers or experimenters, who learn from their projects. The one thing leaders have in common is their hunger for learning and they actively seek these opportunities.

I don’t believe many days go buy without some form of informal learning for me personally and I would class myself in the learning geek category of exploring new courses all of the time in order to share more knowledge and gain more skills to serve my client base better. So my % of informal learning is probably a lot higher than a mere 20%, my levels of formal learning are also way above 10% at any given time. When I look at my coaching client base, they would be the same and granted maybe like attracts like, I haven’t met many high achievers who don’t beat these odds pretty much all of the time.

When it comes to the 70% of on the job learning, I would agree in the early days of a new job this figure may well be accurate, but if this ratio stays over a longer tenure, then I would start wondering about the ability of the individual. In my working life there isn’t a day that goes by where I haven’t picked up a nugget from a colleague or tested out a new way of working for myself, but most of the time my habits tend to be quite solid and the same. It is through actively seeking new information and skills that I learn best, so for me the model is probably upside down and I would even say 60/40 with 60% actively seeking new knowledge and 40% on the job implementing.

Maybe I work in a learning bubble and have surrounded myself with like minded individuals, but most people I know of my own generation and younger tend to be life long learners of some kind. The way in which we learn has changed and is definitely edging towards fun and experiential sessions but the balance in the 70-20-10 model is definitely questionable and in my view outright unfeasible.

Blank canvas for learning and development

Blank canvasIf I had a blank canvas to equip a forward thinking global organisation in terms of learning and development here is what I would ensure we put in place. My first starting point always when working on learning and development for an organisation is understanding the culture as well as the strategy and direction going forward. A strong culture is what makes organisations great and helps retain employees once they feel a fit and congruence with both culture, themselves and corporate strategy. I believe learning and development and continuous improvement ought to be part of this culture, because this day and age we are continuously learning new skills, new technologies and our environment keeps changing more and more rapidly.

Once I have an understanding of strategy and culture, I would ask management teams to perform a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) on their teams and organisations, this in my view is a powerful way of identifying gaps in behaviour, skills or other. Based on the responses, then a priority list to resolve threats and ways to reinforce strengths should form the basis of goals towards a relevant and business supportive learning and development plan. The role of the learning and development manager is to listen and facilitate the process, only once there are clear goals planning for interventions makes sense.

Each organisation has a few core elements it should include in terms of setting the learning agenda and in my view these are:

  • Induction or on-boarding training where strategy, culture and very practical day-to-day and role related things are discussed
  • Social learning through thought leadership sharing from management as well as peer-to-peer, best practice sharing and also failure or big miss sharing so the organisation keeps learning. Technology for social interaction should be seen as the enabler, but really people sharing and encouraging to learn from each other is what drives this strategy, which is how we already do it on Facebook or LinkedIn with groups and comments as well as articles etc.
  • Leadership development for all levels of leaders. The key to employee engagement and retention lies most often with their immediate leaders, so to have the best for everyone have a great support program for newly promoted leaders, one for middle managers to keep up-skilling them and a stretch your thinking style program for senior management, where possible I recommend to include coaching so leaders have the chance to explore new skills in a confidential and personalised setting.

All of the above in my view is best implemented through a facilitator success framework I designed called STER which is short for strategic, timely, engaging and relevant (Coppens, 2013).

STER facilitator success framework (Coppens, 2013)

In order for successful training work to take place all 4 elements of the framework need to be included otherwise you lose effectiveness and miss out on the exponential behavioural transformation required as a result of your training investment.

Training content needs to have strategic value and when you followed the SWOT analysis approach, you will have a clear understanding between the corporate strategy and operational reality, so I would encourage all HR and L&D professionals to steer clear of course menu’s but rather to only accept training requests when priorities beyond learning have been identified.

In business time equals money and often skills gaps need to be resolved instantly as opposed to when possible, which is not the same as when the trainer is available or when we can afford to invest in it. I believe that when the student is ready, the teacher will come and this is where a well stocked social learning and e-learning may create a great foundation or even where the L&D can be the filter for adequate resources even though this role could just as well be carried out by an up-to-date manager or peer. When we encounter a problem, most of us have become accustomed to search for a solution straight away and to a large extent through online searches, books, video etc solutions to common problems can be found. When the problem is company specific the facilitator adds value with their knowledge.

In instructional design and adult learning research tells us we retain more when the learner is actively engaged and as adults we are consistently encouraged to do this, so lecture style training is totally outdated and ineffective. Engagement is created through discussion, skills practice, scenario’s, games and simulations as well as questions, quizzes, etc. Engaging and entertaining in my view are radically different, engagement is an active process where entertainment does not always require the active brain or behavioural side of the audience like with television for example, we can totally zone out but be entertained. Creating a respectful and safe environment where difference of opinion are tolerated and stimulated that is a key skill for an engagement focused facilitator.

Training needs to be relevant to what the participant is doing even if it standard and compliance related information, to create knowledge retention and behavioural change you need to make the information relevant to the individual or at a minimum the team. With learning trends evolving more and more to personalised learning this is an important factor and can be the reasons why some people will choose to opt out, because they do not see the relevance to their role or position.

When it comes to learning and development return on investment measuring, the above model can provide qualitative scores on whether your training team is hitting the mark to help drive your business forward. The added bonus when you tie the STER framework together with the priorities set in the SWOT analysis exercise, you can then start quantifying the strategic value of learning and development, which is where this should be positioned. The days of counting course hours, course participants and the happy sheets is well and truly over, quality in my view should always prevail over quantity.