Publicly available


Work That Stretches - Exploiting the '70' in 70:20:10

Great Learning Experiences

Can you think back to one great personal learning experience? It may have been in childhood when you realised you could ride your bicycle without training wheels or a parent’s guiding hand. Or it may have been when you finally understood the basics of solving quadratic equations. It could have been more recent – for example when you were involved in a debrief after a tough project and realised through the process that the project had taught you some very useful new skills.

If you can identify a great personal learning experience (and we would be very surprised if you can’t) can you remember where that learning occurred?

We have asked these questions to many groups of people over the past few years. The answers given are remarkably consistent. Around 80% say that their great learning experiences occurred while attempting to complete a specific task. Around 20% say it occurred in a classroom, seminar or workshop – in a formal learning context.

These results are not terribly surprising. Research indicates that we develop the vast majority of our ‘know-how’ through experience in the context of work, not through learning ‘know-what’ in content-rich but experience-poor formal learning environments.

These facts raise some interesting questions for training and development professionals.

Learning through Work

If workers learn more about their work through their work and have greater learning experiences through experiencing work, then training and development professionals need to re-think some of their approaches. Training departments need to develop strategies to make best use of learning opportunities where most of the learning happens, in the workplace.

However, one thing is certain. Simply lifting traditional training models into the workplace won’t achieve results.

If we are to fully exploit the power of learning through work we need to focus on changing mind-sets, and on helping individual workers and (more importantly), their supervisors, to look for opportunities to make work a continuous learning experience.

Learning and work need to become intermingled, with learning becoming the work and work becoming a learning experience. A credo of mine for some years has been ‘when working is learning, then learning is working’.

This requires supervisors to be constantly on the lookout for ‘work that stretches’ for each and every one of their team. That’s what good managers do. Good managers look to challenge and stretch and, by so doing, they actively support their team’s development as individuals and as an effective and high-performing team.

For example, it may be that a new project is starting. The supervisor needs to think of this as a potential learning experience for her team. Rather than giving the lead to a team member with a long track-record of successful projects, she could ask a less experienced team member to lead, and get the more experienced member to act as mentor.

Alternatively, she may seek out opportunities for job shadowing, job swaps or stretch assignments for her team members – activities and challenges that can be woven into the workflow.

Networking as Development

Active encouragement of networking is another excellent development driver that supervisors can call on. No individual or team has all the answers. Every worker will benefit and develop through building effective and resilient social networks at work and beyond the walls of their workplace. A solid network will provide far greater learning and impact than any number of formal training courses.

The benefits of a good network are not only realised in increased performance and productivity, but also in the availability of the experience of others that can be brought to bear on challenging problems at the point-of-need.  In my CLO role I continuously exchanged ideas and discussed challenges across my network both inside and outside the organisation and, in return, obtained support - from strategic advice to practical ideas.  In return, I helped other CLOs out.

The ‘work that stretches’ approach may require the supervisor to accept a degree of risk that she may not be used to – for example, it’s always easier to put faith in a ‘safe pair of hands’ - but the overall rewards will far outweigh that risk.  Using challenging tasks and encouraging social networking in the workplace will not only fast-track learning and development. It will build teamwork and job satisfaction faster than 100 training courses.

Copyright © 70:20:10 Forum 2016. We encourage you to share our freely accessibly Content, however we do not allow extraction, unauthorised use and/or duplication of this Content without express written permission from 70:20:10 Forum. See our terms and conditions


This resource offers a challenge to supervisors and managers to take every opportunity to focus on the people, not just tasks.  As part of our Leadership and Management Initiative at North Coast TAFEwe actively ask our new and aspiring leaders to think about this balance. While the situational leadership module of Hersey and Blanchard (, online accessed 19 Feb 2016) has been around for some decades now, it reamins a valuable way of helping new leaders to understand its they who need to adjust their style and be the leader their staff and the sitiuation requires.

Today's world of disruptive forces impacting on most sectors,  where flexibility and adaptability are essential skills for all, especially leaders, the opportunity to offer stretch project/work as part of the '70' seems a perfect fit. In the VET sector, where many of our emerging leaders have high levels of expertise in their vocational field, the concepts of stretch and situational leadership are critical for new leaders to understand and embrace.  This requires a fail/safe culture  where experiemntation and prototyping are encouraged. North Coast TAFE happily has this culture and our leadership at Executive level values and encourages this.

Networking is also highly valued in our organisation. In fact , for VET professionals,both vocational and professional teaching  currency is a major requirement. Networking both interally and externally form part of the development plans in the 20 space for all our teachers, trainers and assessors.


At the leader level, we are currently planning our annual leadership forum and this resource has caused me to think about how we might ensure all particiapnmts have this professional networking event auto added to the development plan... I feel another request to our technology and systems team coming on! 


Suggested improvements to the resource. Possibly some links to the research mentioned



This resource is really helpful in for implementation teams in cementing why they are going round their organisation talking about 70:20:10.  In having those conversations with line managers about ‘stretch tasks’ for individuals and the positive impact this will have on the performance of the individual and the organisation.

The writer cites that ‘Around 80% say that their great learning experiences occurred while attempting to complete a specific task. Around 20% say it occurred in a classroom, seminar or workshop – in a formal learning context.’  I agree with the previous commenter that it would be useful to have a link to this research to enable further reading.

That it is ‘stretch exercises’ brought in to a person’s workload that have brought about valued learning and development opportunities does make sense.  When we conducted research with our own staff, the learning that they had achieved on projects or on temporary promotions were most often cited as the learning that improved their performance.

The OD team has opportunity here to work with managers and get them to challenge the choices they make for project teams and reflect on where they can provide opportunities to create a truly high performance culture.

We need to recognise the value of networks and the strengths that each individual has.  The Scottish Parliament’s performance management system is moving to a strengths based approach away from ‘improvement plans’.  The implementation of workplace networks and the recognition of the value brought from staff networking outside of work will be in line with the strength based approach to performance.

This is a good resource for challenging perceptions – to initiate active stretch learning or not. I used some of the key points in this resource to help focus on the staff’s learning experience and to see if their reflections aligned with mine as part of a pilot review which tested a strategically identified gap in our organisation. Very little formal training was use to kick off the pilot, we focussed on building the existing skills of staff, providing self assistance resources – a knowledge bank and integrating just in time training to fill their knowledge and skills gaps during their work.

Did this learning through work approach, work?

Yes for one group and marginally for the other, even though the outcome depended on each team performing their role to ensure success.  Where it was successful, can be attributed to:

  • the team leaders, who encouraged and supported a ‘you can do it’ approach – enabling and providing opportunities for activities and task that ‘stretched’ the comfort boundaries of each member – sometimes will a gentle nudge.
  • a confidence within that team that taking a risk was OK, that each member of the team acted as a safety net, whether this was a peer, line supervisor or unit manager, but also that it was the responsibility of the collective team to consistently review their performance through reflective questioning – What worked well, What do we need to change now, Who is taking the lead and who are the support network. Then to take corrective action.

The group that felt learning through stretched work was marginally successful lacked a broader network of ‘go to people’ – they hadn’t had the opportunities to engage in other organisational networks, their focus on the role was concentrated on a few tasks in relative isolation and they couldn’t picture how their role contributed to the big picture. A symptom of a very large organisation in the midst of transitioning to a new learning phenomenon, where the skills of supervisors differ between social leadership and social investment and route task management, and workers may be either push or pull learners.

Would I use this approach again?

Absolutely, for my own learning development and for staff, but caution also needs to be applied:

  • The skills of the line supervisor contribute to success – choose them carefully
  • Don’t stretch so far as to snap!
  • Review, review and review – use reflection wisely and then support performance corrective actions within a risk based approach.