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70:20:10 - Beyond The Numbers


Organisations around the world are adopting the 70:20:10 framework. These range from huge multinationals with hundreds of thousands of employees across the world to small and medium-sized enterprises and regional government departments. Irrespective of size and nature, all are exploring the best ways to deploy the 70:20:10 framework, or are actively making it work.

The 70:20:10 Forum community has provided a number of insights, of which the FIVE below are particularly important:

  1. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about change
  2. Top-down thinking and bottom-up action are both essential
  3. A new understanding of ‘learning’ is needed by everyone
  4. Learning professionals have to step up and let go
  5. Manager engagement and capability are both critical

It’s not about the Numbers, it’s all about Change

70:20:10 is not about a fixed ratio. It’s a simple and extremely useful framework for changing focus and aligning resources to support workforce development and learning with where most of it already happens – in the workplace.

So, why use ‘70:20:10’ at all?

The numbers are a useful reminder that most learning occurs in the context of the workplace (the ‘70’ and ‘20’) rather than in formal learning situations (the ‘10’). It also reminds us that learning is highly context dependent.

It’s also useful to keep the ratios in the back of our minds as a continual reminder that learning naturally occurs this way. At the same time, it’s important also to remember that the numbers in the framework are not some tight formula that organisations should be targeting.

Formal/Informal Learning Ratios

When thinking about the 70:20:10 numbers it is well worth reading the article by Jay Cross about formal/informal learning ratios on his Informal Learning blog. Jay makes clear something we all know deep down - that learning is not a binary process – that it usually doesn’t happen exclusively formally or exclusively informally, but mostly part-formally and part-informally. The mix varies depending on the situation.

The KPMG work with the global food manufacturer, Sara Lee cited on the Informal Learning blog provides a good example of the fact that the ratios will vary with specific situations and therefore should not be taken as a mantra.

70:20:10 as a Change Agent

Above everything else, 70:20:10 is an extremely helpful change agent.

One of its most powerful uses is to provide a structure for de-focusing time and effort on sub-optimal away-from-workplace training, and re-focusing on more efficient and effective types of development.

Almost without exception organisations that have adopted 70:20:10 achieve greater performance improvement at organisational and individual level at lower cost than was being achieved beforehand.

1.    What About Those Numbers?

Recently, variations on the 70:20:10 numbers have been put forward. Some of these ideas are the result of thoughtful and useful analysis. Others are ‘angels dancing on heads of pins’. It would be an exercise in futility, for example, to re-define the Sara Lee data in the case above as the 45:30:10:8:3:2:2 model.

As social media comes into more ubiquitous use in workforce development – from executive and leadership development to individual contributor functional development – there is no doubt the ‘20’ will strengthen at the expense of the ‘10’, so we may get to a time when the ‘70:20:10’ simply doesn’t make sense anymore and we will need to find some new way to express the need for change.  Although there is some way to go before that point is reached, some organisations have dispensed with the numbers and refer to the framework as the ‘3Es’ – Experience; Exposure; Education in their communications out with their stakeholders.

2.    Top-Down and Bottom-Up

Organisations that succeed in deploying the framework are those that understand the need for adopting a clear strategy, but then focus on practical ‘low-hanging fruit’.

This top-down and bottom-up approach is essential. Clear direction plus senior stakeholders who are engaged, enrolled and prepared to act as ‘champions’ will get the change process underway and keep it on track, but then HR and learning professionals who can identify the quick wins and achieve them are also critical to ensure that change happens on the ground.

Simple approaches such as embedding 70:20:10 concepts into annual development planning and templates, educating workers and their managers that ‘development’ does not equal attendance on programmes and courses, and ensuring that social learning and reflection are embedded into work practices, all contribute to the change process.

3.    Re-thinking ‘Learning’

The thinking that hard-wires ‘knowing’ to ‘learning’ has set our efforts to build high-performing organisations back many years.

Learning and knowing sometimes coincide, but they are, essentially, different beasts.

There is still a huge focus on ‘knowing’ in organisational learning. We build formal classroom courses and we construct eLearning programmes that consist of pre-tests and post-tests. We then assume that if we gain a higher score after some formal learning process (almost invariably assessed through a test/examination/certification based on knowledge recall) than we did before we started, then learning has occurred.

Most of us know deep down that this is bunk.

Real Learning

Passing knowledge tests that are delivered immediately following a course tells us little about real learning. It may tell us something about short-term memory recall, but nothing more.

Real learning can only be determined by observable long-term changes in behaviour.

The 70:20:10 framework, with its emphasis on learning through experience (the ‘70’ and ‘20’ parts, especially), helps push the understanding of what learning means towards ‘know-how’ from ‘know-what’. Towards demonstrating learning through action – behaving differently when confronted with specific circumstances – and towards learning through other people, whether they are mentors, coaches or simply part of our network.

Morgan McCall, one of the researchers who carried out the Centre for Creative Leadership survey of managers that led to the 70:20:10 framework becoming more widely known and adopted, explains the power of experiential learning in a video clip here.

Organisations that effectively incorporate the 70:20:10 framework into their workforce development strategies invariably build a wider understanding of what ‘learning’ means – and follow that up with empowering many people to think of learning opportunities outside the class/curriculum mind-set.

4.    Learning Professionals: Stepping Up and Letting Go

Almost any 70:20:10 implementation will challenge some entrenched learning and development practices and, in so doing, put pressure on both the mind-set and practices of quite a number of learning professionals.

It does this because one of the underpinnings of the framework is the acceptance that only a minority of organisational learning (principally the ‘10’) can be entirely managed by the HR and L&D departments. The vast majority occurs outside of their bailiwick.

The categorisation below, developed with Internet Time Alliance colleagues Jane Hart and Harold Jarche, shows clearly that most ‘informal’ elements of learning can’t be managed, but can only be supported by HR/L&D. Others can only serve as lessons themselves.

Categorising Organisational Learning (© Charles Jennings, used with permission)

Learning Professionals Need to Learn to Let Go

A precursor for effective implementation of the framework is for learning professionals in the organisation to let go trying to control everything and look instead to support, encourage and learn from the learning that is happening all around them.

This is not to say learning professionals are redundant.  However it does mean that they need to step up to challenges that they probably haven’t faced before. It requires a change in modus operandi from simply designing, developing and delivering formal learning activities and programmes to a take on a wider remit to support performance improvement outside the classroom as well.

Working with Line Managers

Effective deployment of 70:20:10 usually requires significant support for line managers – as they’re the people who have the most influence over effective implementation of the ‘70’ and ‘20’ (and the greater percentage of influence over learning and performance improvement generally).

The learning staff can play an important role in supporting line managers to identify, enable and encourage social learning, information sharing, collaborative knowledge building and other workplace development activities, but the skills they need to do this may differ from the skills that the learning professional role previously required.

5.    Managers: It can’t Happen without them

There is a fundamental role that manager/line leader engagement and capability plays in overall success.

We know from the Corporate Leadership Council’s Employee Development Survey research into Driving Results Through Employee Development that line leaders who are focused and effective at developing their reports achieve around 25% better performance from their teams than line leaders who are not effective at developing their people.

It is essential that senior leadership and line leaders fully understand the implications of this research. It is also important that they understand that the greatest levers for learning and performance improvement are in the hands of their people managers rather than their HR and learning staff.

Making it Easier

There are a large number of tools and techniques that are available to make this job easier for managers. These tools and techniques need to be an integral part of any 70:20:10 rollout - from simple techniques to help reflective learning as part of regular manager-report meetings, to guides, templates, tools and tips to support experiential learning and learning through people networks.

Reference: Charles Jennings 70:20:10 - It’s not about the numbers, it’s all about change

We have established the 70:20:10 Forum to help people and organisations with these problems.


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1 comment

This tool was really important as part of the conversation in the initial establishment of 702010 approach for L&D at North Coast TAFE. We were concerned that staff would focus on the numbers themselves without thinking about change and how this applied to the own capability development in the workplace. In fact, while we did not omit using the numbers, we began by describing 702010 as Experience, Exposure and Education.

We documented this approach in our system recording the development of Performance Development Plans (PDPs) with individuals, teams and their line managers so the focus was on new ways of learning. We nuanced the numbers in these plans with ‘choose mostly experience activities, some exposure activities and a few education activities’ without having to necessarily fulfil a quota of learning activities in each level. We provided plenty of examples of what the three ‘E’s might look like in our organisation and shared these regularly with teams learning how to use our Peopel@NCTAFE system. Generating examples of 702010 helped L&D gain clarity on what options we did or could have in our organisation. We customised a table of examples for North Coast TAFE which can be seen in my ‘Certification Journey’.

Gradually people understood there was much more to capability development than attending a workshop or conference. Many staff were already engaged in more informal and social ways of learning anyway and the new approach really legitimised these activities and gave staff recognition for the workplace learning they were doing.

We also used this tool to engage with our Executive as part of an overall change to our learning capability development. Without their support and allocation of resources, implementation would have been less successful. Similarly, the tool as I have suggested, was and is still useful to raise awareness and explain the concepts to line managers responsible for the performance and development of their teams.

I would also add this tool is useful when read in conjunction with three other tools that provide examples in each of the 702010 spaces:

Essential Facts - the ‘70’ in 702010

Essential Facts – the ‘20’ in 702010

Essential Facts – the ‘10’ in 702010