clock 72dpiWe have heard a lot recently about 70:20:10 learning, which proposes:

70% of learning is from tough jobs
20% from people (mostly the boss)
10% from courses and reading

I am sure there is some truth in this; I learned a tremendous amount from multi-functional and international assignments in my career. However, this formula is often used to run down the importance of formal learning. There are a few problems with this.

1. Not all knowledge is in house already

While we learn a lot from colleagues and working, this tends to be what I call “in system learning.” It assumes that all you need to know is already either in your head or in your colleagues’ head. In this model, 90% of your learning comes from yourself doing the job and or from the people around you doing similar jobs.

This is fine in a slow moving, low change environment, but is not effective at bringing in new ideas and challenges (unless you are in a highly innovative role where you are the person developing new insights in your field).

As an example, when I moved into manufacturing there was an explosion of new thinking coming from Japan on total quality, lean manufacturing and process control. Although I was new to manufacturing I was an avid reader and I was able to bring in these new ideas and make a great impact on my operation. If I had just asked my colleagues I would not have come across these ideas – the experienced guys were not as receptive to the new ideas (initially at least).

2. The real learning comes from implementation – but change needs a reason to start

In business we don’t make a difference with what we know, but with what we do. You can take a handful of ideas from a training program or book and spend a huge amount of time applying it and learning new things.

Good formal learning should challenge conventional learning or offer you a better way of operating. If you know it and do it already you are on the wrong program.

However without the impetus of a new idea, a dissatisfaction about the status quo or a learning experience, why would you initiate the change. The 10% should drive the reflection and action that makes a lot of the rest of the learning.

3. Most people don’t learn systematically

It would be nice to think that people spend a lot of their time reflecting on their job, and discussing with their colleagues and boss and learning from it. Your good people will do this (but they would develop themselves come what may) and the rest rarely introduce change and new ideas.

I attended a “Corporate Athlete” workshop in the USA last year where they made the point that a top athlete spends 95% of their time coaching and practicing and 5% performing; a business person is the opposite. In a busy day there is often little time for reflection.

It is difficult to find out what the average number of days of formal learning that companies provide is; we regularly hear of informal targets of 5 days per year for managers (and many get less than this). This represents only 2% of the working year. If we then scale up the model (based on 5 days = the 10% formal) then people would spend 10 days talking to their boss and colleagues and 35 days of active learning on the job. Remember this is not doing the job, this is learning. It sounds like a lot and it sounds as though the informal bits are pretty overstated.

Have you had 10 days of time with your boss or colleagues focusing solely on learning this year?

So I accept the idea that learning in the workplace is very important. However I don’t think it happens organically. We need development plans, coaching and implementation support. You cannot expect to give someone a new skill or idea and leave them to come back to work and change the whole system around them. Learning tends to be individual – change collective.

As an example, in our work with global teams we try to change meeting behaviors because synchronous (same time) meetings are scarce and difficult to arrange across time-zones. We can train an individual in how to do this pretty quickly but when they go to their next meeting they are probably sitting with 10 other people who haven’t had the new ideas or training.

Making a sustained change is about changing ways of working systematically and at scale across the organization. It is a directed change effort, not just a training one.

70:20:10 does not mean we can just leave people to work out 90% of the learning for themselves.

I also think that formal learning and reading are much more important than the 10% would suggest – these should be the impetus for change, the stimulus to be dissatisfied with the status quo. This challenge and energy should drive people to have the conversation with their boss and reflect on their way they do the job for the rest of the year.

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About the author:

Kevan Hall Kevan Hall is a CEO, author, speaker and trainer in matrix management, virtual teams and global working. He is the author of "Speed Lead - faster, simpler ways to manage people, projects and teams in complex companies, "Making the Matrix work - how matrix managers engage people and cut through complexity", and the "Life in a Matrix" podcasts, videos, cartoons and blog. He is CEO and founder of Global Integration. Company profile: .

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