70:20:10 Learning Framework – Where did those numbers come from ?

Note: This blog was published in 2012 and people featured in this blog have moved jobs/companies.

“I have a question relating to this webinar, that I’d love answered, and that is really to substantiate the rigour behind the 70-20-10 model”. This was one of the questions raised about the Learning Cafe theme for March 2012 – “70-20-10 – Approach Is it New? Is it different this time?”, The theme has generated a lot of debate in our coffee catch ups. Our webinar discussion on 29 March, Thurs is also proving popular with over 50 participants registered. In this blog some our panellists answer this fundamental question raised by Greg.

The Question – Greg Palmer, Senior Manager Leadership Development, Westpac Group

I have a question relating to this webinar, that I’d love answered, and that is really to substantiate the rigour behind the 70-20-10 model. My experience to date is that it is held up by learning professionals in particular almost in an evangelical way yet there is very little empirical research that backs this approach. I’d like to have that as a question – why do we follow (blindly at times) this model – what empirical research supports that this approach is right?

Here is what some our panellist have to say. Register for our webinar discussion on this topic on Thursday, 29th March 2012, 12 noon Sydney time.

Anne Hodges, Learning & Development Manager, Projects@ AMP

I am not aware of any empirical research on this, but based on my experience it works.  The proportions of 70:20:10 may be arbitrary but the philosophy seems right. I’ve trained project management methodology then mentored junior/new PMs while they applied this on projects, and seen how the discussion of their experience has led to a deeper understanding, especially when they are struggling with tailoring to their own project.

I’ve trained business analysts in six sigma then managed them on the job, providing opportunities for them to apply the learning and discussing with them their challenges and results. It has also worked for behavioural skills.  I’ve trained self-leadership skills and then managed staff in projects and in line management plus mentored others who did the training.  Again, the application and discourse enabled people to make sense of the learning.  The feedback enriched their understanding of the concepts.

Taking another approach, I’ve rolled out methodology training where there was a disconnect between training, application and feedback and seen large parts of the knowledge forgotten.  We then had to run ‘refreshers’ and workshops to reinforce. So based on my experience this model seems to work well:

1  Provide a knowledge baseline e.g. through face to face group training,
2  Allow opportunity for skills practice on the job in the ‘real world’,
3  Ensure feedback is provided and a 2-way conversation to enrich understanding.

Liz Griffin, Director – Global People Team, Ernst & Young

This is an interesting point that Greg raises and has also been explored recently by the Deakin Prime White Paper 2012 – Demystifying 70:20:10. This paper also agrees with the point Greg raises and presents a pragmatic perspective.”From our review it is clear that there is a lack of empirical data supporting 70:20:10 and, while the above mentioned sources are frequently credited, there is also a lack of certainty about the origin. Despite the lack of empirical evidence and agreement on its origin, what cannot be denied is that the 70:20:10 model has gained significant momentum, and organisations are increasingly subscribing to the principles that learning takes place through a combination of formal and informal situations and through others. “

I attended the Thunderbird Global Mindset Institute “Developing leaders for global roles summit” last week in the US and many organisations from across the world who spoke at the conference demonstrated a systematic approach to development based on the principles of 70:20:10.

When the first research was published about 70:20:10 and its relevance to education, this was a point in time when the value of informal learning may not have been as clearly evident. Since then we know organisations such as Google, Coca Cola and McKinsey have related this formula to innovation, content excellence and marketing investment.

Today, it appears many organisations use 70:20:10 as a guideline in taking a systematic approach to learning and development. This is achieved by:
1. Being clear about your business strategy/talent strategy and how it relates to development
2. Defining the competencies/capabilities/expectations that you need from your people in different roles
3. Identifying your definition of “performance” and “potential”
4. Assessing and reviewing your talent  through clear and consistent conversations
5. Understanding the needs in different parts of the world and the best fit for people working in global roles
6. Implementing holistic development planning for a range of roles that connects formal learning to experiences and coaching
7. For developing global mindset, providing deep experiences that change the mind from a psychological perspective
8. One size fits none – customised and differential investment for different groups
9. Investment is key so being clear that ROI with this approach will be over time (eg 3 – 4 years) and the competitive advantage is in the output of your people, innovation and leadership.

Rob WilkinsRob Wilkins, Head of Learning, Aussie Home Loans: – Here is the twenty cents worth:

The following is based on some original inquiry by Nick Howe:

If you Google “70:20:10 you get about 6.9 Million hits. Hits are split between the education model, and the business resource management model of the same name. Informal learning” now gets you 12,500,000 hits, or thereabouts. 70:20:10 was the subject of the 2009 ASTD study, “Tapping the Potential of Informal Learning”. Informal learning has been covered in just about every training publication and in the mainstream media, including the Harvard Business Review but has been covered more in the last 2 years than at any other time in history.

The problem is that almost no-one, cites the original research for 70:20:10 applied to education.  This backs up Greg’s original point. So what does the research have to say on 70:20:10?

If you step away from the mainstream, you get 3.24 million hits with in Google Scholar. If you drill down to what might be called ‘authoritative sources’, things get a little narrower. There are a grand total of 106 (Peer reviewed) Articles in the recognised databases. If you examine the peer reviewed articles, there is still not one single empirical study that gets close to validating 70:20:10 as an applied scientific model.

The issue here is the same thing we do all the time in our profession.  We allow our work schedules to excuse the proofing of the models we hold up as religious and unequivocal and do not come back to the premise of education in the workforce… enlightenment that enables performance improvement.

I am not suggesting that the model does not make sense.  What I am suggesting however is these models only need an ”enlightened executive” to challenge and shoot holes and the integrity of L&D is shot.

My bigger question is, if we hold on to the PHILOSOPHY that 70% of learning is informal, how do we know that the learning acquired is quality?  How do we know that the competence of the surrounding individuals and systems in a workplace is what we know the organisation wants to be taught/passed on?

My guess is that if you changed the model around somewhat and asked a question: “of the 70% of informal learning that takes place on the job, what percentage would we evaluate as quality learning?”  Then you might obtain some very different answers. This is where Anne’s response is also important.  I would advocate that if the model was turned around and suggested a workplace learning flow…. 10:20:70…. Then as a philosophy I think we are getting nearer to what should be a robust model that could be empirically researched.

In summary, it is a philosophy at best or a gut feel model but is not a scientific learning model that stands up to the scrutiny of most management science.

Jeevan Joshi, Director, KnowledgeWorking

I tend to be a bit of a pragmatist. If a model feels right even if the  evidence base is shaky I tend to support it and use it. 70:20:10 fits this category. At the very least it provides a common metric, language and baseline which intuitively makes sense. Learning is an inexact science unlike something like physics and science; hence I think there should be a bit of allowance for inexactitude and gut feel.

70:20:10 Learning Framework – Where did those numbers come from ?


  1. One from left field.

    In a world that screams for empirical evidence and logic, I love the fact that so many professionals and organisations are adopting a model that has its basis in common sense, gut feel and real life practice. In fact I think perhaps the greatest foundation for 70:20:10 or 80:20 is our own experience. Looking back at over 30 years in the workforce I can say hand on heart there is no way I have acquired most of my knowledge about work from formal learning. It would be interesting to know what others believe on this.

    As to the quality of on the job learning I’d have to say it’s all good. Perhaps the experiences have ranged from great to unpleasant, some more structured than others, but learning as we know happens no matter how good or bad the circumstance. My best learning has come from the tough times, the failures and the bad. I still call that quality learning.

    Maybe we should lessen the science in learning? Not worry so much about formulas and methodologies and ratios of formal and informal approaches. Perhaps we should just be helping people ‘do’ work. Learning may prove to be just a by-product of that anyway?

  2. Two of my recent Blog Posts explore this: Learning – It Used To Be 100% Informal – No? – http://eppic.biz/2012/03/10/it-used-to-be-100-informal-no/ — and — More On – Mostly Meaningless Numbers – http://eppic.biz/2012/03/12/more-on-mostly-meaningless-numbers/ – but you may have to be tuned in to the early political primary process in the USA to “get” the 9-9-9-73 Approach to Learning that I propose (tongue in cheek) in the 2nd Blog Post. Sorry.

  3. I did try and find the source for this “equation” and tracked it down at the Center for Creative Leadership (although I have seen it accredited to others). They sent me a copy and I found it is focused on managers’ experience. It asks them “When you think about your career as a manager, certain events or episodes probably stand out in your mind—things that led to a lasting change in you as a manager. Identify at least three “key events” in your career: things that made a difference in the way you manage now.” (Please let me know if you would like me to forward this research)

    While the research findings are focused on management experience, it seems organisations are using the 70/20/10 arbitrarily. I would question if it needs to be adjusted when considering what would be best way to achieve learning, taking into account the topic, audience, career level or organisation culture.

    I would agree with others’ comments that the breakdown of 70/20/10 is a good guide and, whichever formula is used, more and more organisations are valuing on the job learning and coaching as part of the learning process.

  4. I believe the 70:20:10 ratio was identified by the Center for Creative Leadership in the following publication: Lombardo, M. M. & Eichinger, R. W. (1996). The Career Architect Development Planner. Lominger Limited.

    This 70:20:10 breakdown has since been supported by subsequent research, though sometimes the ratio is represented as 80:20 to reflect informal learning and formal training respectively. (See “Where did the 80% come from?” http://www.informl.com/where-did-the-80-come-from/ )

    As the contributors and commenters on this post have surmised, these kinds of mathematical models are always going to be highly circumstantial. I’m more comfortable with the rule of thumb: “The vast majority of learning in the workplace is informal.”

  5. The statement during the wevinar didn’t occur to me to require a “fact check”. I agree with Peter Davis. Common sense in the workforce and providing workforce solutions tell us this to be true. Then there’s the “C’ old school holding firm to the past with the same view — of course, he/she may be just interested in cost, not human capital value. This might only be an issue or contriversial in academia circles where far too many without having learned, failed and got up and learned again in the real world. The tide, in reality, is shifitng toward what may be a new norm of 50:20:30 model as the composition of the workforce mix changes ever more rapidly over the next decade. No indicators I’ve seen show a 10:20:70 outcdome. However, it will vary depending on the organizations leadership model, investment in talent management, and geoplitical issues — all of which shift in some way daily. 70:20:10 may not be the sourced “bible”, but many believe in it just as many do in the “bible”.

  6. Excellent original question Greg. I too work in an organisation which has elevated the 70.20.10 principle as its core learning strategy, so it was interesting to read that the original paper cited manager’s experiences in their learning, as opposed to any scientific, rigorous analysis of how people learn. My organisation has such a diverse group of people, about 5000 of us, and I’ve found applying 70.20.10 to each learning program challenging. It’s important to keep perspective that it is a guide only (as others have attested), and I especially like Liz Griffin’s comment on how organisations use 70.20.10 as a guide: ‘One size fits none – customised and differential investment for different groups’ seems to be the key to ensuring a wide variety in learning environments. I like 70.20.10 in that it supports one of the most common adult learning principles – provide variety in learning methodologies, systems, tools, environments etc.

  7. In answer to the question of where did 70:20:10 come from I am quoting from the Korn/Ferry International book FYI: For Learning Agility by Eichinger, Lombardo and Capretta (famous for Lominger Competencies) so you will find something similar in their other book The Leadership Machine where they strongly emphasis 70:20:10.

    Intro p15. The Lessons of experience

    “By the early 1980s, researchers gradually recognised that it was not possible to provide a comprehensive summary of predisposing characteristics of effective leadership. Leadership seems to be a product of growing up and gaining managerial experience. However, researchers continue to have a limited knowledge of how experience actually develops managers. Not all experiences appeared to be created equally. The question remained: “what experiences have the most developmental impact?” And, “Who will benefit most from such experiences?” Without understanding how people learn and grow from their experiences, organisations cannot fully take advantage of work-related assignments and job tasks as development opportunities.

    The Centre for Creative Leadership conducted a series of studies to understand how executives learn from their work experiences. Corporate executives were interviewed and asked to describe key events in their careers that caused the most learning. Specifically, the following two questions were probed: 1) what specifically happened on the job, and 2) what did you learn from the event. Researchers interviewed 191 executives from six major corporations. Descriptions of the 616 events and the 1,547 corresponding lessons were tabulated. The analyses and results are summarised in the book aptly titled The Lessons of Experience (McCall et all, 1988). Two findings had a lasting impact on the practice of leadership development. First, the rule of 70:20:10 was coined. It was discovered that approximately 70% of leadership development occurs primarily from job assignments, 20% from people, and only a small portion (roughly 10%) from traditional classroom education. Subsequently, this rule has been supported by other studies (see McCall & Hollenbeck, 2002).”

    Whilst it is reassuring to see the validation and research behind the number (plus I have some sense that it intuitively makes sense) I wonder if there is some need for caution about applying such a statistic out of context. Their research is clearly within a particular target audience and about developing and executing a particular skill e.g. leadership (albeit a hard skill!).

    That doesn’t necessarily mean “therefore that applies to all learners in all contexts” …so for example does it apply to heart surgeons? or other technical professionals who need to actually “know” more stuff before they can “do” their job….I don’t know if we have any data to say that a heart surgeon learns most during a real, live operation – maybe they do and maybe they don’t? or that a lawyer/financial analyist/engineer learns best when they do “experiential learning” on the job (that just sounds plain scary!). They quite possibly do learn best when under pressure to perform and when they call on previous experiences etc. but for many in leadership positions they are also supported by coaches, they have often developed an ability to reflect and learn, they can make positive meaning from failure, they are often the more “learning agile” in our organisations – and so overall are much more likely to be the sort of people who could turn the 70% on-job into a learning experience. But is that true for everyone? in every position?

    So I do like the comment about maybe 10:20:70 is the order in which learning is delivered/experienced – which absolutely applies for roles where there is a defined amount of stuff that needs to be “known” before being able to apply.
    But without the statistic being reassessed in a substantially different environment (and at different levels in an organisation) I do think we should apply it with some level of caution.
    Maybe that’s a PhD for someone?

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