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Designing Learning in a 70/20/10 World

John Helmer, reviews the 70/20/10 model and highlights its adoption within organisations

McCall, Eichinger and Lombard’s 70/20/10 model has been highly influential in spreading awareness of the importance of informal learning, and is now becoming something of a touchstone for organisational development. But have some people got a bit carried away with it? Has what started out as a useful observation about how people learn been deployed too proscriptively in some quarters, leading to its use as a strategy in itself? Last month, senior learning and development professionals from a number of corporate and public sector organisations met together at the Leo Learning London Forum to discuss this and other issues in Learning Design. In an age where we recognise that 90% of learning is informal, what is the proper role for Learning Design?

Which way learning design?

There has been a ferment of debate and discussion about Learning Design over the last five years or so in e-learning. Much of the heat and energy in that debate went initially into questioning the academic and theoretical underpinnings of instructional techniques, and incorporating new insights from the field of brain science. Regrettably this also led to some pop-science snake-oil selling of the type which has long been too prevalent in the training industry, and which proper scientists have taken to referring to as ‘neurotrash’. However the focus on design has surely led to a quality improvement in the effectiveness of online learning over all. There is now plentiful evidence to show that, in the right hands, well-designed e-learning can achieve outstanding business results. At a higher level of granularity, perhaps, over the same period there has 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 (the 10% of formal training interventions) risks overlooking the greater value that technology innovation can bring to the business of educating and developing people, looked at in the round. 70/20/10 has been a critical concept within this growing awareness, and one that has helped to widen the focus of the e-learning industry. For some it has severed as a rallying call – even a battlecry: in the inimitable words of Jay Cross, ‘kill the courses, shut down the training department’. Whether or not this sort of talk strikes real fear into the hearts of training managers, it is certainly true that those practitioners who are willing to embrace change have, perhaps unsurprisingly, experienced a degree of confusion about what (if any) should be their role in this new world of informal learning. Our own Steve Ash wandered into this conceptual Beirut himself this summer when in a blog post he contrasted the unreality of a lot of the presentations at the Learning & Skills Group event with the actual state of practice in most organisations. We know he spoke for a lot of people in saying this, but the reaction was strident to say the least. Having planted this stake in the ground, it behoves Leo Learning as an organisation to be active in sharing the practical, pragmatic work that is going on within client organisations to realise the implications of the 70/20/10 model.

Dimensions of Learning

Andrew Joly, Design Director at Leo Learning, gave a presentation on this subject that went beyond simply reporting successes, to elaborating a practical approach based on 70/20/10 that LEO calls ‘Learning Architectures’. In a nutshell, the model 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. The basis of LEO’s approach lies in a definition of the role of design in the 70/20/10 world that Andrew summed up thus:

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

So how does this work in practice? Well, in the absence of a course to give structure to the learner’s experience, design must work with three dimensions of learning (see diagram).

X axis – Learning Content

Expert designed asynchronous content to meet results-focused requirements, including:

  • Rapid Nuggets
  • ‘Traditional’ e-learning
  • Show-me/Try-me
  • Scenarios
  • Simulations
  • Games
  • Documents
  • Assessment tools
  • Quizzes/Profilers
  • 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
  • virtual Classrooms
  • online meeting tools
  • email
  • forums
  • blogs
  • wikis
  • rating
  • 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
  • top-ups

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 Leo Learning as a Learning Architecture. Andrew gave the example of the Maliens campaign, centred on email best practice, which for one client brought about a saving of 26 minutes per person per day.

Formal learning? Forget about it

Nick Shackleton-Jones, a well-known and respected figure on the conference circuit with a background in psychology, was Leo Learning’s honoured guest at this Forum event. His presentation added to and complemented this picture of the balance between formal and informal learning that has to be struck by today’s L&D professionals. He began by asking the other delegates about their memories of school. Tales of eccentric or inspirational teachers ensued, and the irksome nature of exams and homework. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate that to each of these memories – not many of which actually concerned core curriculum content, tellingly – adhered some strong emotion, whether it be irritation, fascination or fear, and it provided the cue for Nick to introduce the Affective Context model, on which he draws in his work a really interesting short video explaining this can be seen on Nick’s blog. To put it briefly, in order to remain in memory, an experience has to be ‘wrapped’ in a layer of emotion, which gives it an affective context. The role of the educator, therefore, is to encourage people to care – by connecting with people at an emotional level. Without this affective context, what we learn soon vanishes from memory, at a predictable rate as observed by Ebbinghaus in his famous ‘forgetting curve’. Nick contrasted this with the steep learning curve we go through when we really need to acquire new information – when we go to a new job, or school, for instance, where most of what we learn is informal. He suggested that people will learn informally around the subject areas that most interest them, while the most uninspiring, mandated areas of training are the most important areas in which to supply exciting, highly engaging formal learning interventions that connect on an emotional level: ‘It’s not about getting a body of information across: it’s more about making people care enough to engage and change their behaviour’.

Roundtable Discussion

A lively and wide-ranging discussion ensued on issues raised in the two presentations which covered more ground than we could do justice to here, so I’ll restrict myself to summarising a few of the points made specifically on the subject of the 70/20/10 model and informal learning:

  • 70/20/10 has become a mantra in some organisations and there was a groundswell of worry that it can occasionally be used to justify training budget cuts
  • In other hands it is a powerful engagement tool for talking to top management about issues of people development within the organisation
  • Why are we hearing so much about 70/20/10 now? Perhaps it is symptomatic of a wider social change going on in organisations and a move from a purely transactional approach to training towards something more transformational
  • One aspect of this change is that people can no longer be assumed to learn from their bosses in the same way they once did – often in fact it is the other way round, as evidenced by the phenomenon of ‘reverse mentoring’, where a top executive will be buddied up with a recent graduate to learn some new online skills
  • This new world requires new skills for L&D, many of which may lie close to marketing (bearing in mind that the practice of marketing, too, is in the process of a big change as a result of the same demographic and social forces)
  • Learning professionals have to become experts in motivating and incentivising learners, and to find ways of protecting learners’ time to explore and learn informally
  • This debate, however, also exposes large cultural differences between different business sectors and geographical territories – for instance, learners within very directive cultures will always do mandated learning but resist the call to use social media

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