The 70-20-10 model: what does it say about evaluation?

• 3 min read

The 70-20-10 model is all the rage: according to it, 90% of learning in companies takes place outside of a formal training context. Does that mean that training evaluation overlooks the essential points? That would thus advocate for an evaluation of learning in “informal situations”. A way of including what may be the overwhelming development opportunities. But when we take a closer look at the situation, we can draw other conclusions…

The 70 20 10 model: grounds to be clarified

A small reminder about this model: it says an employee learns 70% of the time through practical experience in the context of professional missions, 20% of the time through discussions with his colleagues and work environment, and 10% in the context of traditional training courses.

Where do these figures come from? From a survey1 led in the 1990s by the Center for Creative Leadership. 191 high-performing managers were asked the following question: “Identify at least three key events in your career that made a difference in the manner that you manage today. 1) What happened? 2) What did you learn from it?” The answers were divided into three categories. Events in relation to:

  • a difficult work task,
  • a person in their entourage (generally their manager),
  • reading or training.

The 70 20 10 model was born…

It is therefore important to be careful with the results of this survey: not only can we question if the sample is representative (only managers, and high-performing managers), but in addition the question is about “key career events,” which obviously does not induce one to think spontaneously about training. Not to mention that technical training was left out of the field of study…

Must one deny entirely the interest of the results? No, learning in informal contexts is of inarguable importance, but it seems fair to put these figures into perspective.

“70 + 20 < 90” or the amplification effect

Imagine we confirmed these proportions, it would be without accounting for the “amplification effect” put forth in a study2 led in 1998 by Motorola: it shows that “each hour of training in a formal context leads to four hours of learning in an informal context.” Thus, the 10% of 70 20 10 weigh in fact more than 10%, when one considers that a part of the “70 20” was inspired by learning in training situations.

When you think about it, this is not at all surprising. Considering these three learning contexts as entirely separate would be like considering training to be like the waving of a magic wand after which the trainee is immediately competent and operational. To the contrary, we know that the learning transfer mechanism is a process that progresses over time. And it is more a question of learning over time in the context of the workplace initiated by training in the classroom than a simple “replication” of behavior learned in training.

This observation is especially true in behavioral training: this must be seen more as a seed that one plants, a “development of awareness” in the learner, that he/she must cultivate by successive adjustment of his/her behavior in the framework of his position.

Thus, a good part of “70 20” may be in reality learning transfer.

Evaluating informal learning, is also and firstly the evaluation of learning transfer

What lesson can be learned for training evaluation? That in evaluating transfer, we are already evaluating informal learning! What does a disappointing follow-up evaluation say after a good initial evaluation? That the informal learning processes were deficient:

  • Category “70”: lack of opportunities to practice, not open to error (being open to error encourages risk taking and learning), new developments (encouragement of new practices)
  • Category “20”: lack of feedback from the manager or colleagues, necessity of support in the form of mentoring or co-development

Thus, follow-up evaluations indicate the possible areas for improvement in the processes of informal learning.

Follow-up evaluation: stay simple and keep an overall vision

To the contrary, it seems dangerous to want to evaluate all informal learning through exhaustive and detailed questionnaires. As Albert Einstein said, “What counts cannot always be counted, and what can be counted does not necessarily count.” Indeed, informal learning processes are individual and sometimes intangible or even unconscious, from which comes the more overall approach of the follow-up evaluation, which does not seek to place the human and complexity into the equation.

To conclude, if the 70 20 10 model is to be considered with precaution, it nevertheless calls our attention on the key role of informal learning in the development of competences. It’s an invitation, more than ever, to manage the impact of training beyond initial indicators.