70 20 10
Written by Kathleen Davey
Last updated: 31 August, 2023
When people think of learning and professional development, they tend to see it as a monolith. Learning is just learning, isn’t it?
Well, there are different types of learning from various sources in a range of styles including self-directed learning, formal training, mentoring, learning from job experiences, and more.
For decades, educators, psychologists, and learning and development (L&D) professionals have been studying how these different forms of learning relate to each other and what is the optimal mix to include in a training program? One of the models researchers have developed to explain this unique balance is the 70:20:10 learning model.
In this guide, you’ll learn the theoretical background of this model, the pros and cons of using it, and how you can implement it in your organization for optimal learning outcomes. So, let’s all put our thinking caps on because things are about to get a little bit academic.
The 70:20:10 learning model is an L&D theory that outlines how people learn effectively from three different sources. According to the model, learning comes from three different components:
This model is important in fields like professional development because it tells those designing learning experiences how to optimize their learning strategies. Chiefly, it warns L&D professionals and company leaders that they can’t just rely on formal learning programs through online courses and lectures.
Instead, they need to include opportunities for informal learning, specifically relationships that yield insightful interactions and workplace challenges that allow learners to apply new knowledge through hands-on practice.
The 70:20:10 framework was developed in the 19080s by researchers Michael Lombardo, Robert Eichinger, and Morgan McCall. In a study, they asked 200 executives to self-report how they believed they learned. The results were surprising: only 10% of learning could be traced back to formal training programs. The other 90% came from informal and experiential learning and social interaction.
The study revealed that hands-on, job-related experiences drive the most learning from daily tasks at work to learning from co-workers to having casual discussions that reveal useful insights.
Here’s how the researchers explain it themselves in The Career Architect Development Planner, a 1996 publication outlining the results of the study:
“The odds are that development will be about 70% from on-the-job experiences—working on tasks and problems; about 20% from feedback and working around good and bad examples of the need; and 10% from courses and reading.”
Over time, this framework became famous in the L&d field. It was further popularized in the 2000s by Jay Cross in his book Informal Learning.
Today, many organizations, such as the Center for Creative Leadership and the 70:20:10 Institute, advocate for this model and help companies apply it.
Although the 70:20:10 model has been immensely useful in explaining how learners learn most effectively, like any other learning approach for e-learning and corporate training efforts, it has pros and cons.
Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of applying the 70:20:10 model to employee development.
Up next are the cons.
Like any theory, the 70:20:10 learning model has had its share of criticism. Most of this concerns the lack of empirical evidence to back it up.
It’s important to note that the conclusions of the original study were based on asking participants to self-report what they felt were their learning sources. Self-reporting studies have some significant drawbacks and, in the case of the Lombardo study, the main problems are honesty, introspection, and sampling bias.
Firstly, when a study relies on what people say, they may not always be honest. They can give a reply that’s more socially acceptable instead of what they honestly think.
Secondly, there is a lack of consistent levels of introspection and self-reflection among participants. A person may genuinely believe they’ve learned everything independently while subconsciously downplaying the knowledge they got from others. There’s no way to test if their perception is correct or distorted by personal factors.
Lastly, the only people responding to the survey were executives who had already achieved success and that’s a sampling bias issue. What about how people at the beginning of their careers are learning?
While the 70:20:10 model offers valuable insights into the range of sources that provide useful knowledge, it would be a mistake to take it literally and apply it to every learner group.
Despite criticism, the model is still a helpful guideline and may be worth implementing.
To implement the model, you have to focus on its three components. So, let’s go in-depth into how to create opportunities for each type of learning.
According to the 70:20:10 model, the central part of learning comes from hands-on experience that enables on-the-job learning.
You’d be forgiven for thinking you can do nothing to facilitate this as part of your employee development programs. Shouldn’t employees just pick up skills on their own?
That’s not exactly right. This experiential learning process is primarily self-directed, but companies can create conditions for it to happen and take steps to encourage it.
For instance, you can:
Doing this will allow team members to broaden their roles and empower them to experiment with new ideas and ways to solve problems.
As Lombardo and the other researchers called them, developmental relationships are nothing more than opportunities for people in your organization to share knowledge. Or in other words, it’s informal social learning.
Some of this will happen organically, but you can aid in creating those opportunities too.
Most importantly, create a learning culture of free knowledge-sharing and open discussion of ideas. If you do online training, learning platforms like Docebo can help you. With social learning features like discussion groups, chats, and forums, online learners can interact and learn from one another.
10% from formal training
Even though, in this learning model, only 10% falls to formal training, it doesn’t mean you should be discouraged from offering it. Quite the opposite. Rather, focus on the quality rather than the quantity of formal learning.
One part of that is providing high-quality online learning content through your LMS (learning management system) platform, but there’s a lot more you can do:
When developing job experiences, social learning, and formal training programs, it is crucial that all three formats create synergy. They must complement and balance one another to create an overall cohesive learning experience.
The 70:20:10 model is a beneficial guideline for training and development experts. It describes how three different kinds of learning—experiential, social, and formal—come together to help learners achieve their goals and develop professionally.
For it all to be effective, the three sources of learning must be connected. For instance, when you give someone a new project to expand their role (on-the-job learning), give them access to other coworkers who can help them (social learning) and point them to relevant resources in your formal training program.
That may sound a bit complicated but with an LMS like Docebo, it doesn’t have to be. To talk with our experts about supercharging your L&D strategy, schedule a demo today. You can also visit Docebo’s glossary of terms to learn other strategies and techniques for creating a well-rounded training program.