Three ideas for making the most of 70:20:10

A few years ago the L&D world was abuzz with the sound of people explaining that 70% of learning comes from experience, 20% from other people, and only 10% from formal learning events.

Thus the 70:20:10 model became the flavour of the month, and was used by Consultants everywhere to try to ram it into the stubborn heads of managers that a one-off tick-boxy training course is not a good way to help people get better at doing their jobs.

Like all things that are fashionable, it suffered the roller-coaster of fashion bias one minute, then anti-fashion bias the next, in turn exaggerating then obscuring the wisdom within the model.

Fashion Bias (noun, origin: just made it up): the tendency to overestimate the value of the latest thing because it is in fashion

Anti-Fashion Bias (noun, origin: just made this one up too): tendency to underestimate the value of the latest thing because it is in fashion

And lo, what had once been the answer to all L&D woes faded into the background to become yesterday’s news: a slightly awkward gimmicky sounding tool that people often took to mean that you should do a bit of job shadowing and watch a TED Talk once you’ve done the training course.

The problem with throwing out a model because it gets misunderstood and misused, and through familiarity ends up sounding a bit simplistic and old hat, is that one can accidentally also chuck out the good bits. I believe the metaphor to use here is the one about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but I’ve always thought that a rather dramatic and unfamiliar analogy: who hears that metaphor and thinks, “ah OK, now I understand thanks to my vast experience of accidentally throwing babies away“?

Anyway, in order not to lose the baby (i.e. the wisdom) if we choose throw out the bathwater (i.e. stop explicitly referencing the model), I have come up with three things we should do:

Lead with the data, not the theory

Many people are unconvinced by models and theories. They sound abstract and idealistic, and the sort of thing you could just find yourself if you put “learning and development strategy” into Ecosia and scrolled down past the adverts. This might be partly the fashionable Anti-Theory Bias (“I am not interested in theory, I’m only interested in what works!”), but it’s also a genuine concern for wanting to cut to the chase and crack on with proven practical actions that will make a positive difference.

Anti-Theory Bias (noun, origin: made this one up ages ago): the erroneous belief that theory and reality are in conflict, and so time spent on theory will necessarily lead to less time spent on action

So don’t lead with the theory; lead with the data.

The data should show that isolated learning events have minimal impact on performance, whereas well-designed learning programmes, covering the 70:20:10 landscape over time, may be a slower burn, but their impact is more profound and more sustained.

If you can’t show this with data, then get the data.

There is a useful discussion on this topic here on the Trainer Tools podcast, and I intend separately writing about this topic soon.

Provide the scaffolding

If we are saying that 70% of learning comes from doing, then do not leave that up to chance, because although experience is the most effective teacher, she is not an efficient teacher.

People do not do stuff, then rationally capture the right lessons from that experience, and then carefully improve their performance, because people are people and they rarely reflect on anything at all, and even if they do they suffer from Intentions Bias and so probably learn the wrong lesson anyway.

Intentions Bias (noun, origin: you get the picture) the belief that because my intentions were good, my actions must have been good too

So Learning and Development professionals need to plan structure to the 70% space, involving line managers and any other relevant stakeholders so that the learning is implemented, the right lessons are learnt, performance is fine-tuned, and improvements are sustained.

This is another topic I will write about in more detail in future posts.

Teach people to learn

We can put in place the best horse-water infrastructure imaginable, but we cannot make them drink: it is their own responsibility to learn, develop, and improve their performance (the learners, that is, not the horses), because they are the only ones who can learn, develop and improve: we cannot do it for them.

We can create the inputs (the water), we can help to create the conditions where learning has a good chance of leading to performance (leading them to the water), but we cannot create the outcomes (the drinking): that’s on them (the horses, I mean).

So we need to teach people to learn effectively from experience. This means noticing what happens and framing it helpfully, reflecting on their performance, planning for what they will do differently (or what they will repeat), and then trying it out … I have written more about this here (including a free video that was a nightmare to record thanks to an impatient and unruly dog at my feet).

2 thoughts on “Three ideas for making the most of 70:20:10

  1. I love this John – so much truth here. I still use influences from the old 70:20:10 model but never dare call it by its original name due to the once big fashion bias you mentioned.

    The current darling seems to coaching right now and I wonder how we’ll look at that in years to come. I’m intrigued about your thoughts in helping people recognise how to learn.

    I’m always torn on this particular subject because I feel like people need to develop more of their own curiosity to explore this but in your experience, have you deployed any interventions to help people realise this is how we really learn? And not in classrooms for 4 days straight!

  2. Thanks for the comment Ross.

    I think there are various ways to influence people to become better learners, including classroom (virtual) sessions with practical tips on how to do it better, and talking all the time about small things people can do to create a learning environment – like after a meeting as you walk back to the office or while going to get a coffee, just ask “what two things could I have done better when chairing that meeting” – these take no extra time, but can really boost learning and help to create the right environment.

    My ideal scenario is to get the infrastructure right, and I think we need to look to the medical profession in how they teach doctors over many years, and how learning and collaboration is knitted into the fabric of how the job is done. I’d like to see more organisations think through how they could apply a similar approach.

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