70:20:10 Rhetoric or Reality?

70:20:10 Rhetoric or Reality?

70:20:10 is a ratio that most L&D professionals would be very familiar with.  It’s a guideline formula that many organisations apply to the design of learning programs.  The trouble is it’s not often used as intended or to its full potential.

70:20:10 comes out of the research that suggests, for optimal learning outcomes, 70% of the learning should take place on the job, 20% through so called social learning such as coaching and mentoring and 10% via formal classroom learning.

The 70:20:10 model has been heavily adopted by organisations in recent times and is most noticeably referenced in public sector learning program specifications.  

In reality, from our experience, when we delve into the detail of many of the learning program specifications we see, and look at where the resources are allocated, the programs look like an inversion of 70:20:10 – about 70% of the allocated time, money and energy of the program goes into the formal workshops, about 20% into coaching and mentoring and only about 10% into on the job learning. 

It is our proposition that an organisation’s learning program can’t be a true 70:20:10 program unless it is devoting a majority of its resources into learning activities that program participants are completing on-the-job.       

Face to face workshops continue to be the king when it comes to learning programs that are rolled out across Australia.  In reality 70:20:10 has become a mantra to indicate that a blended learning approach – the use of a variety of learning methods - will be adopted and include some support for on the job learning.  In most cases on-the-job learning is supported minimally in the program design whilst the workshops remain the star of the show.  In these cases the use of the 70:20:10 term is a misrepresentation of the program design.  

Learning programs with a design that is an inversion of true 70:20:10 continue to roll out in spite of solid evidence that the best learning outcomes for organisations do happen through on-the-job learning.  Research such as Robinson & Wick (1992) and Wick (1989) estimate that upward of 70% of all leadership development occurs through informal, on-the-job experiences, whereas training and other formal programs contribute less than 10% of a leader’s development. Increasing evidence suggests that managers learn critical competencies through their work experiences (McCauley, Ruderman, Ohlott, & Morrow, 1994).  In fact, a number of researchers have argued that the experiences that occur in the context of a manager’s job assignments are the primary vehicle for learning (e.g., McCall, Lombardo, & Morrison, 1988).

If we know there is solid evidence that on the job learning produces better learning outcomes and leads to better workplace results then shouldn't we be seeing true 70:20:10 programs – where on-the-job learning is the heart of the program - being rolled out constantly? What's stopping that from happening?

There are a number of blockers.

1. Habit – we’re like Pavlov’s dogs when it comes to L&D initiatives

Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov found his dogs became conditioned to salivate at the sight of anything they associated with food.  In a similar way we have conditioned ourselves to associate learning with workshops.  Let’s face it; the workshop is so ingrained into an L&D professional’s modus operandi that we are not thinking hard enough about its value in achieving its supposed outcomes – behaviour change and workplace results.  L&D need to become conscious of this habit and question whether workshops deserve such high status in our learning toolkit.

2. Convenience 

It’s tempting to put workshops at the heart of learning programs because they are typically easier to construct than on the job learning programs. We’ve done them before so we know what they look like.  We might already have the content developed.  They can be packaged up in an easily understandable format and are easy to cost.  But what we might gain in convenience we lose in ROI.  Why do we care far more about constructing something that’s easy to manage, understand and cost but apply far less attention to the ROI?    

3. Disconnect between L&D and the business

In many instances the L&D professional thinks about capability or competency frameworks as the basis for development programs.  However, on a day to day basis the business is working through scenarios and experiential challenges that form the fundamental basis of learning.  There is a disconnect in many organisations where L&D professionals and the business aren’t working closely enough leaving L&D without a sufficient understanding of the business’ strategic direction or the problems and experiences managers and employees are facing.  As such the L&D professional often designs programs that seek to focus people on context-less competencies which are more suited to being taught in the traditional classroom sense.   What businesses often really need is L&D helping them to learn from and master challenging situations as they happen in context.

4. Short term Results

Executives and L&D professionals too often collude to sabotage long term development and results in organisations.  There is an overwhelming pressure in organisations to deliver short term results, to show others that things are getting done - meeting targets, delivering services, selling products, implementing programs.  There is peace of mind that comes with completing things.    

However, development is ongoing.  There should be no end point.  To achieve the best results, learning and development should not be rushed.  But we often treat development like it can be completed in the short term, like it’s an item on our to-do list.  The best way to demonstrate completion is to roll out workshops.  There is an easily understandable end date with workshops.  Workshops rolled out?  TICK.  Development done?  TICK.     

We also have an opportunity to grow and develop people through experiential learning.  But that requires us to put our people on real assignments that they don’t currently have the all the skills to do, and that means taking a risk.  But this is where the pressure for short term results often brings us undone.  We start thinking negatively.    

“They’ll screw it up, we’ll get bad feedback, we’ll lose the client, our reputation will be tarnished, we won’t make budget this quarter”. 

The pressure for short term results sees the proven performer chosen to complete the assignment instead, negating the need to invest in experiential on-the-job learning.        

The good news

These are just some of the forces that work against the roll out of true 70:20:10 programs.  The good news is that many leading practitioners are developing practical ways to make the implementation of 70:20:10 a lot easier.  In part 2 of this blog we’ll look at some of the solutions to overcoming the blockers and enabling the roll out of true 70:20:10 programs.  As the evidence supporting on-the-job learning gets stronger and the wave of organisations already smashing conventional learning paradigms in favour of on-the-job learning gets bigger, it won’t be too long before we wonder why we allowed the workshop to be the king for so long. 


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Guest Wednesday, 19 June 2019