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Life in a 70:20:10 world

‘Kill the courses, shut down the training department’: has that really been the response of organisations to the advent of informal learning? John Helmer, senior consultant with LINE communications, charts its rise and describes how the 70:20:10 model is being practically applied within organisations.

Over the last decade, there has been a ferment of debate and discussion about what learning should look like in the 21st Century. Much of the energy in that debate, as far as elearning is concerned, has gone into questioning the academic and theoretical underpinnings of instructional techniques, and incorporating new insights from the field of brain science. This focus on design has surely led to a quality improvement in the effectiveness of online learning. However, at a higher level of granularity, there has also been a growing interest in the role of informal learning, and a sense that rooting our enquiry too narrowly in how best to structure self-paced online courses risks overlooking the greater value that technology innovation can bring to the business of educating and developing people, looked at in the round.

What is the 70:20:10 model?

The work of McCall, Eichinger and Lombard in identifying the so-called 70:20:10 model has been critical in spreading awareness of the importance of informal learning. In a nutshell, their work asserts that 70% of learning and development takes place from real-life and on-the-job experiences, tasks, and problem solving; 20% of the time development comes from relationships with other people through informal or formal feedback, mentoring, or coaching; while 10% of learning and development comes from formal training or education.

This model has become something of a touchstone for organisational development, and within our own industry has helped to widen the focus beyond mere ‘course conversion’ – replacing one species of formal training intervention, stand-up training, with a straight online equivalent; stand-alone modules of self-paced e-learning – towards a broader agenda. For some in the e-learning guru community 70:20:10 became a rallying call – even a battle cry. Surely, if the whole edifice of organisational training, with its searchlight focus on formal events, was being brought to bear on just 10% of what helped people to learn, then wasn’t it time for a bit of searching cost/benefits analysis, at the very least?

The ‘guru community’ were not the only ones to be thinking along these lines. What started out as a useful observation about how people learn has reportedly been deployed rather proscriptively within some organisations as a strategy in itself, leading in certain instances to 70:20:10 being used as a justification (horror of horrors) for budget cuts.

Who needs L&D?

Whether of not the cries of Jay Cross et all to shut down the training departments struck widespread fear into the hearts of L&D professionals, it is certainly true that many who are otherwise willing to embrace change, but who are uncertain of what the implications are, have experienced a degree of confusion about what (if anything) should be their role in this new world of informal learning. In an age where we recognise that 90% of learning is informal, need they even show up for work?

This climate of concern was reflected by some of the speakers in Epic’s Oxford Union debate about informal learning last year: ‘we need to know that our doctors are medical experts and our pilots can fly a plane,’ said Dr Allison Rossett, ‘… informal learning doesn’t offer these assurances’. Clearly, to many people, informal learning just looks like chaos. The fact that there is no pedagogy, no golden rule about how one should operate in the 70:20:10 world means that people just don’t know where to begin. ‘We have no ‘’north star’’ when it comes to informal learning … no common understanding’ complained Nancy Lewis; ‘… Until we have templates, until we have frameworks, until we have proof, informal learning will remain more style than substance’.

The implication is that, while cheerleading for informal learning and the use of technology in supporting it, the guru community is not yet doing enough to put meat on the conceptual bones, when it comes to how L&D roles and practice should change. This charge might seem a little unfair, however.

While approaches that embrace informal learning are by no means unprecedented within the traditional training world – as LINE’s Steve Ash pointed out in a rent blog post: ‘”Sitting with Nellie” elements of organisational learning were covered when I was doing my CIPD exams over 15 years ago, and the concept wasn’t new then’ – the use of web technology to support informal learning is an emerging practice, and very much in its early days. A lot is being done within organisations, and successes are being achieved, but outside of the benchmarking research published by Towards Maturity, not a great deal of useful information and data exists about these activities in the public domain. It is this sort of data that is needed, in order to produce the ‘templates’, ‘frameworks’ and ‘proof’ called for by Nancy Lewis.

Companies like LINE, that get to work on large-scale learning and change programmes with corporates, many of whom are fairly mature in their use of learning technologies, occupy a privileged position in this regard. They get to see and help guide the pioneers; to design and test structures for enabling 70:20:10 around tangible, real-world goals and objectives. LINE has been very active in the last year in publicising the results (the ‘proof’) of successful learning programmes, where these can be publicly aired. Now the company is turning its focus to putting some meat on the bones of informal learning – to distilling some principles and frameworks for applying an approach informed by 70:20:10 that have been proven to result in success.

The basis of this is that the organisation’s role, in a 70:20:10 world, should be to:

  • Strongly support the 70%
  • Develop and exploit the power of the 20%
  • Design the 10% within the clear context of the other 90%

Dimensions of learning

It helps, in visualising a structure for informal learning, to look at programmes in three dimensions.
In the absence of a course to give structure to the learner’s experience, learning design must work with all three of these dimensions to be successful.

X axis = Learning Content
Expert-designed, asynchronous content to meet results-focused requirements, including: ‘Traditional’ elearning, simulations, documents, assessment tools, video/Audio

Y axis = Live Learning & Tools
Networked & Informal knowledge systems to support person-to-person, applied, on-the-job, volatile learning & knowledge, including: webinars, workshops, virtual classroom, email, blogs, wikis, social networking tools, voting and ranking tools

Z axis = Learning Journeys
The vital dimension. Without this, informal learning can too easily be a rag-bag of different, unassociated elements that do not provide a coherent learner experience. Activities on this axis are what bring these elements together to provide a direction and a narrative, through awareness, communications, refreshers, networks, and tools to drive learning to unconscious behaviour. They might include: communications campaigns, awareness/teasers, champions & mentors, pre & post learning, formal learning, action learning groups, events & road shows, refreshers, etc.

Within any given client situation, sector or knowledge domain, the particular way in which activities along these three dimensions are configured to produce a successful outcome is characterised within LINE as a ‘Learning Architecture’, a concept about which there is much more to say than we can go into here.

It’s the 20, stupid!

I’m aware that what I have said above begs many questions: this is a big subject! However, it’s worth using some of what little space remains to touch on what may be a critical one in the minds of many learning and development professionals. If concentrating on the 10% of formal interventions Is not enough, how much weight exactly should be given, in terms of L&D activity, to the 20% and the 70% respectively? Which is most important to address?

There is a weight of opinion, within LINE’s client base at least, to indicate that it is the 20% – the area of relationships, through informal or formal feedback, mentoring, or coaching, that large organisations in particular need to give weight to. This is the area where there is most potential to bring about change. One client of LINE’s, for example, has taken on this challenge by introducing coaching training to all their line managers, spreading a coaching culture within the organisation.

John Helmer would like to acknowledge the help and input of LINE and its clients in preparing this article.

moodle 70:20:10 models

This post first appeared on the LINE website on February 18th 2011