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Social & Workplace Learning through the 70:20:10 Lens



There have been millions of words written and spoken about ‘informal’ and social learning over the past few years.



fact, if a Martian had just arrived on Earth and strayed into a meeting
of Learning and Development professionals or into a learning
conference, or even picked up a professional journal, he would logically
assume that these were the only ways humans learned.

Martian’s assumption would be roughly correct. Humans learn principally
through the process of carrying out actions, making mistakes, getting
help from others, having discussions about which approach to take,
stepping back and reflecting on why ‘it isn’t working’ and using a
myriad of other strategies in the heat of the workflow or activity.

shift in focus to workplace and social learning by HR and Learning
professionals over the past few years is an significant one. And it’s
not just a passing phase or fad. It is reflecting a fundamental change
that is happening all around us – the move from a ‘push’ world to a
‘pull’ world, and the move from structure and known processes to a world
that is much more fluid and where speed to performance and quality of
results are paramount.

Social and Workplace Learning

increased focus on social and workplace learning is causing
considerable disruption in the L&D world both to the traditional
roles for those who are designers and delivers of courses and programmes
and also to the whole ecosystem of training and learning suppliers that
inhabit the L&D world providing programmes, courses and content and
the supporting infrastructure to deliver (mainly) learning and
development events.

In a way, what we’re witnessing is a
significant shift in thinking about the best ways people can keep
abreast their jobs and improve performance in a world where change is
not only becoming the norm, but is accelerating on an almost daily
basis. Other factors such as the changes brought about with new
generations entering the workforce and technology changes creating
participatory learning opportunities (as pointed out recently by Claire Schooley of Forrester Research) play their part.

A number of approaches are emerging to meet this changing thinking.

Our awareness that more learning occurs outside courses and curricula than inside has added fuel to the fire of social learning
– which was lit by the plethora of emerging social media tools and
technologies speeded on their way by events typified in the O’Reilly
Media conference in 2004.

Also, there has been a re-awakening of the understanding that context
is vital for learning and, aligned with this, that performance in a
formal training environment is not necessarily a good indicator of
performance in a different environment, such as the workplace. To an
extent context is replacing content as the key factor in organisational
learning. These realisations are leading to greater focus on workplace learning – learning in the context of work. Learning and work are merging.

The Importance of Experience

Bubbling along under the ‘social’ explosion has been an increasing awareness that experiences are critical to learning and performance.

majority of learning is obtained through the experiences to which we
are exposed. Many of our experiences are social, some are not.

way we gain our experience, we now know that they are vital
building-blocks for our development. Learning how to ‘do’ something is
far more important than learning ‘about’ something in terms of improving
performance. We didn’t learn to ride a bicycle by learning Newton’s
first law of motion, nor did we learn how to best utilise our
professional skills through reading or being told about them. We learned
through doing them or, at least, attempting to do them. The theory and
explanations are often useful, but the real learning occurs through
experience and practice.

The 70:20:10 Framework



Surprisingly, I need to place the following caveat almost every time I speak about the 70:20:10 model:

is a reference model or framework. It’s not a recipe. It’s based on
empirical research and surveys and also on a wide sample of experiences
that suggest adult learning principally occurs in the context of work
and in collaboration with others (as the great educational psychologist
Jerome Bruner once said ‘our world is others’).

is being used by many organisations to re-focus their efforts and
resources to where most real learning actually happens –  through
experiences, practice, conversations and reflection in the context of
the workplace, not in classrooms. They have found the 70:20:10 framework
a useful strategic tool to help them transform the way their
organisations allocate resources and approach employee development –
whether it’s leadership, management or individual contributor

Anyone trying to ‘prove’
that the percentages fall in exact ratios, or anyone searching for
peer-reviewed papers demonstrating the same is not only wasting their
time, but clearly doesn’t ‘get it’. 


Some Background on 70:20:10
fact that most development occurs outside formal learning has been
known for many years, but the idea of specific ratios of the formal to
informal split has only been in focus for the past 40 years or so.

1971 Allen Tough, emeritus professor at the University of Toronto,
identified the fact that ‘about 70% of all learning projects are planned
by the learner himself’ in his research published in ‘The Adult’s Learning Projects
(the book is downloadable free).  In a recent conversation, Prof Tough
told me “both my books,‘The Adult’s Learning Projects’ and ‘Intentional
Change’ look at the entire range of adult learning and change (not just
work) but we found that 70:20:10 pattern.”

In 1996, 15 years
after Allen Tough’s work, Morgan McCall and his colleagues Bob Eichinger
and Michael Lombardo at the Center for Creative Leadership in North
Carolina found from their observations that:

“Lessons learned by successful and effective managers are roughly:
70% from tough jobs
20% from people (mostly the boss)
10% from courses and reading”

Eichinger & Lombardo published some details in their book The CAREER ARCHITECT Development Planner (now in its 5th edition).

More recently (2010) a survey by Peter Casebow and Owen Ferguson at GoodPractice in Edinburgh, Scotland, found a similar split in their Survey of 206 leaders and managers.

and Ferguson found that informal chats with colleagues were the most
frequent development activity used by managers (and one of the two
activities seen as being most effective – the other one being on-the-job
instruction from a manager or colleague). 82% of those surveyed said
that they would consult a colleague at least once a month, and 83% rated
this as as very or fairly effective as a means of helping them perform
in their role when faced with an unfamiliar challenge.  The other top
most-frequently used manager development activities included search,
trial-and-error and other professional resources.

Clearly, conversations (through informal chats with colleagues) and learning from the experience
of others (through workplace instruction from their manager or a
colleague – receiving the benefit of their experience and providing the
opportunity for guided practice) are important in development of the surveyed group.

My colleague Jay Cross has listed other research into formal and informal learning (‘Where did the 80% come from?’)
and explains why definitive figures have little meaning in the larger
context. Jay identified a rough 80:20 split between informal and formal
learning which he discussed at length in his Informal Learning book.

The 70:20:10 Framework in Practice

me, at its heart 70:20:10 is all about re-thinking and re-aligning
learning and development focus and effort. It involves stepping outside
the classes/courses/curriculum mind-set and letting outputs
drive the cart – thinking about performance improvement and helping
people do their jobs better rather than spending the majority of time
and effort on inputs – learning content, instructional design etc.  Of
course the inputs are important at times, but we need to keep our
perspective. Content and design are not the most important inputs to the
learning and capability development process.

It doesn’t matter
if the job is simple or complex, whether it’s repetitive or highly
varied, or if it’s driven by defined processes or requires extensive
innovative and creative thinking. The principles are the same – the most
effective and generally fastest way to improve and gain mastery will be
through workplace and social learning.

In practical terms what does this look like?

Well, it may mean using any of these ‘70’ approaches:

  • Identifying opportunities to apply new learning and skills in real situations
  • Allocating new work within an existing role
  • Increasing range of responsibilities or span of control
  • Identifying opportunities to reflect and learn from projects
  • Allocating assignments focused on new initiatives
  • Providing the chance to work as a member of a small team
  • Providing increased decision making authority
  • Providing stretch assignments
  • enhancing leadership activities, e.g.; lead a team, committee membership, executive directorships
  • Setting up co-ordinated swaps and secondments
  • Arranging assignments to provide cross-divisional or cross-regional experience
  • Providing opportunities to carry out day-to-day research
  • Providing opportunities to develop a specific expertise niche
  • Allocating assignments to provide new product experience

Or any of these ‘20’ approaches:

  • Encourage the use of colleague feedback to try a new approach to an old problem
  • Establish a culture of coaching from manager/colleagues/others
  • Encourage seeking advice, asking opinions, sounding out ideas
  • Engage in formal and informal mentoring
  • Embed informal feedback and work debriefs
  • Encourage learning through team work
  • Target building strong internal and external networks
  • Build a culture of learning through teams/networks
  • Support professional and industry association membership and external networking
  • Encourage facilitated group discussion as a standard practice
  • Use Action Learning

The above are just a few options available for development in the ‘70’ and ‘20’ zones.

Whose Responsibility?

When Learning professionals look at these lists they often remark that many of these activities are not in their bailiwick.

course this is correct. The responsibility for creating an environment
where real learning occurs and opening up workplace learning
opportunities is primarily in the hands of senior leadership and line
managers. However, HR and Learning professionals have an important role
to play.

A 70:20:10 approach does mean Learning professionals need to put a new lens on their responsibilities.

has an absolute responsibility as enablers – to ensure leaders and
managers understand their people development responsibilities AND have
the capability and tools to deliver. This means there’s a role for
Learning professionals in both the analysis of performance problems and
in the design of the solutions where the outcome is intended to be
improved performance through better understanding (knowledge) and

70:20:10 and the Changing Role of L&D

All of this raises the question ‘does adopting the 70:20:10 framework change the role of the Learning function?’.

There is only one answer to this question. Yes – it changes the role fundamentally. And the change not only impacts L&D professionals but HR professionals as well.

table below indicates a few changes that need to occur when adopting
70:20:10 (or any model or framework focused on workplace and social

Changing Role

changes require new roles, new skills and new mind-sets. Learning
professionals who have spent their time designing, developing and
delivering formal, structured courses, programmes and curricula will
need to adapt and develop their own capabilities.

My experience
has been that many find the challenges of working within the new
framework both challenging and rewarding. The 70:20:10 model certainly
places Learning professionals much closer to their key stakeholders and
to the white heat of their organisation’s Raison d’être. It has the potential to move L&D from a support function to the position of being a strategic business tool.

Tangible Actions to Deliver Results Through The 70:20:10 Framework

There are a number of actions
that can be taken to deliver results through moving to greater focus on
the ‘informal’ parts within 70:20:10.  The table below splits them into
three categories:

1. Actions to support the informal workplace learning process
2. Actions to help workers improve their learning skills
3. Actions that support the creation of a supportive organisational culture


Who is Using 70:20:10?

Over the past 18 months I have been engaged in work with researchers at DeakinPrime,
the Corporate Education arm of Deakin University in Melbourne,
Australia. Together, we have identified more than 60 organisations that
have implemented the 70:20:10 model as part of their overall learning
and development strategy. They include:

Nike, Sun
Microsystems, Dell, Goldman Sachs, Mars, Maersk, Nokia,
PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, L’Oréal, Adecco, Banner
Health, Bank of America, National Australia Bank, Boston Scientific,
American Express, Wrigley, Diageo, BAE Systems, ANZ Bank, Irish Life,
HP, Freehills, Caterpillar, Barwon Water, CGU, Coles, Sony Ericsson,
Standard Chartered, British Telecom, Westfield, Wal-Mart, Parsons
Brinkerhoff, Coca-Cola and many others.

If you want an overview of the 70:20:10 framework with some examples, I have uploaded a SlideShare presentation HERE.


would like to acknowledge my colleagues in the Internet Time Alliance
and others who have contributed to some of the material in this post. 

There is a 60-page white paper titled “Effective Learning with 70-20-10: the new frontier for the extended enterprise
that I have written with Jérôme Wargnier of CrossKnowledge, a leading
learning organisation headquartered in Paris. It was published in June
2011. The paper explores practical issues around the implementation of
the 70-20-10 model. You can download it HERE

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