2016: The Year to Reconsider the 70:20:10 Model in Learning

70-20-10 Learning Model

I’ve been involved in the learning field for over a decade and the content and knowledge sharing industry for even longer. Each year, I enjoy reading those inevitable “trends to watch in the upcoming year” blogs and articles as they often clarify the impact of market shifts that have been experienced but not yet fully articulated. Each year I resolve to write a “trend” blog of my own…and it goes the way of other New Year’s vows. Well this year, albeit in February, I’d like to write about one trend that I’m seeing that all involved in learning should consider as they formulate their 2016 plans: the reconsideration of the 70:20:10 model of learning in the enterprise.

For nearly thirty years, the 70:20:10 framework of learning has been cited consistently and religiously in training and learning circles. The model roughly translates to 70% of professional learning being experiential or experience based (i.e., new and challenging experiences provide worker with learning opportunities), 20% coming through social learning (i.e., networks, coaches, mentor) and 10% through formal learning.

Over the past few years, there has been more and more noise around this model. The model’s origins have always been a bit murky. The framework is most often credited to a 1988 publication of The Center for Creative Leadership. However, other thought leaders in training believe that the model derives from the work of Professor Allen Tough in the 1960’s or 70’s or inferred from various US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

It’s also a conceptual and not a statistical model. The 70:20:10 breakdown in The Center for Creative Leadership publication was a conclusion of work activity inferred by authors from a small survey of 200 executives who were self-reporting their learning sources (i.e., there was no rigorous clinical observation.) Not one landmark empirical study exists to support the breakout.

In addition, with the departure of the Baby Boomers from the workforce and the arrival of the Millennials, many are questioning the relevance of a model that was developed in a pre-Internet, pre-digital era. Professionals had no choice but to learn by “toughing it out” without easy access to Google and other search engines. With 89% of the Millennials on the Internet a member of at least one social network (Pew Research Center), members of this cohort are more likely to turn to their communities and networks for answers to job-related questions as opposed to learning by experience.

This past fall, Aberdeen Research released a report ”The New 70:20:10: The Changing Face of Learning” which explored the relevance of the 70:20:10 model in today’s “social and connected work environment.” Their research found that there may actually be four categories of learning that “organizations need to be prepared to include in their learning strategies” as can be seen in this diagram, with the traditional social category breaking into referential and relational.

Aberdeen defined referential learning as “feedback, coaching and mentoring” and relational as “learning from managers and peers that takes place in a social context through participation in activities such as communities of practice (on or off-line), knowledge sharing, collaboration, social networks and other social activities.” They also assigned new percentages to each category: experiential (40%), social (35%) with referential (17.5%) and relational (17.5%), and formal (25%). So, according to Aberdeen the model is now the 40:35:25.

The report went on to illustrate how technology had transformed the “20” (i.e., social) part of the 70:20:10 model, with the facilitation of collaboration. And it noted that “Best-in-Class” organizations are 72.3% more likely “to enable social learning” through such channels as blogs, social networks and communities of practice. The report recommended that companies use social technologies “to create informal learning opportunities.”

Aberdeen stressed that their model, like the original, was only meant to be “a reference” and not “a hard and fast rule.” And in my opinion, that is the potential and the ultimate power of these frameworks. They should facilitate critical thinking in the organization on how learning occurs and how it breaks down.

Each organization has different learning needs. An organization that manages massive regulatory requirements (e.g., OSHA) most likely will have a higher percentage of formal training for its employees than an advertising agency. Likewise, the employees of that advertising agency may be spending more time learning through relational channels and social platforms. The percentages in the model also vary within the organization across different functional areas (e.g.., computer programming vs. marketing) as well on the most granular level, according to individual learning styles. Some individuals learn through socialization, some like to “tough it out.”

I believe that for those planning learning for an organization, several models should be developed to better understand the environment. One model should break down learning for the overall enterprise (e.g., 60:40:10). This gives an overall feel for the type of learning that occurs in the organization as well as influence big buying decisions such as an LMS versus a collaboration platform. Then frameworks should be designed for the various functional areas to ensure that proper environments are established with the correct tools in each area for learning to flourish. Finally, the organization’s managers should be trained to develop frameworks for their reports to ensure that they will gain and share the knowledge required for success in their positions, the ultimate goal for all those involved in enterprise learning.

Jean McCormick is VP of Content at BraveNewTalent