70:20:10 – Dividing opinion

The concept of 70:20:10 continues to gain momentum in the world of Learning and Development. We hear it mentioned more and more in client meetings and I get the impression that it is interpreted in many different ways. For this reason, I thought it could be a good topic for my blog. I will cover our point of view but look forward to hearing yours too.

For those who haven’t yet come across it, it is a model based on research by Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger for the Center for Creative Leadership (and believed to be initially identified in the 60s by Alan Tough and to some extent reflective of the work on action learning by Reg Revans). The concept states that a blend of different learning approaches "in concert" can provide powerful learning with "the odds are that development will be":

    •    about 70% from informal, on the job experiences and tasks
    •    about 20% from feedback, coaching, mentoring and developing through others
    •    about 10% from formal learning interventions, structured courses and reading.

Its current surge in popularity comes as no surprise. Any model that advocates less time away from the job supplemented by concisely packaged shots of easily accessible learning is bound to be popular in a downturn. To many, it’s an attractive promise of a definitive learning solution that brings immediate cost reductions and minimal disruption to the daily workload. 70:20:10 can seem a very appealing option indeed.

The initial concept as conceived by CCL is a useful model for planned learning. What is of concern, however, is that the detail of 70:20:10 is being widely misunderstood and increasingly used as a blunt instrument – or even a "rule" - to discredit training courses and attack investment in L&D, based on the rationale that “most learning happens on the job, so why invest elsewhere”.

The folk at CCL were aware that it is unrealistic to expect effective and targeted learning to be generated simply through “on the job experience”. We must not lose sight of the fact that by doing your job you will not automatically get better at it. Without being properly integrated with the other 30% of the learning model, everyday practice can actually result in no learning whatsoever, merely providing evidence for what one already ‘knows’ to be true and resulting in endless repetition of the same actions and behaviours (both good and bad). This is of little use given that the fundamental nature of learning is to evolve and change what we know.

So, it is suggested that we support this 70% with the addition of feedback and example (20%) and theory input (10%). So far so good, given that sole reliance on direct encounter without feedback or reflection, without theoretical input or skills development, gives one a very limited view from which to interrogate (or critically reflect) on what one is doing.

This seems to me to be the most positive thing about the 70:20:10 model - that it has been a step forward in encouraging organisations to increase awareness that opportunities for learning are many and varied, and that learning is best achieved in a variety of ways and with a combination of both formal and informal delivery.

The most powerful forms of learning come from effectively combining different modes of knowledge production, with the development of skills and behaviours. It is the way these modes are used to inform and build on one another that produces learning that is lasting, personal and relevant; it is this process of combination that creates ‘Experiential Learning’ a methodology at the heart of Impact’s practice. Experiential learning is particularly effective for learning in the realms of personal attitudes, beliefs, values and other associated personal drivers; for learning that is transferable to different contexts and for learning that is personally and organisationally transformative.

The danger comes when the model is interpreted as a prescriptionfor precise quantities of the different learning dimensions. Surely the very “neatness” of the figures in the ratio indicates that it is intended as a guide, rather than a precise mathematical equation based on empirical research. It can’t be expected to act as a definitive, one-size-fits-all model than can be perfectly applied across all levels of learners, in all organizations regardless of sector, culture and L&D maturity. Yet perception of it as a recipe, or “rule”, seems to be on the increase, and maybe this is inevitable due to its mathematical structure. It reminds me a little bit of making shortbread. 3:2:1, Flour:Butter:Sugar.

After over 30 years in delivering experiential learning, we at Impact have come up with our own model for learning. What is exciting us at the moment is how readily compatible it is with the 70:20:10 approach, and how it can be used alongside this to encourage a structure of learning that is a cumulative process rather than a series of steps and which increases options to accommodate learner preferences.

Impact’s Learning Model

Impact’s learning model is based on the above diagram reflecting the four interrelated domains of a holistic learning approach.  We believe that meaningful organisational and individual development can best take place if the learning approach enables:

• Acquisition of key Knowledge
• Development of key Skills to apply that knowledge
• Direct Experience to apply and practice
• Time for Reflection, to gather feedback, review progress and plan implementation

The core of the model, and hence of our learning methodology, is that we believe learning can be pursued in these four different but integrated approaches (theoretical, skills, direct encounter, and reflection). The important and fundamental part is that experiential learning occurs (and onlyoccurs) when these four modes of production are combined and used to test one another. Experiential Learning isthe interaction between these four modes of learning.

So, for example, one might learn about coaching from reading a book (Theoretical Knowledge), you may be taught some techniques by an expert (Skills) you then might discuss what has been read and taught with your peers (Reflection) and then do some coaching  (Direct Encounter). In combination, this is experiential learning. Through each of these approaches to learning, you adapt, change, embed, and reinforce the things you learn. What makes this ‘experiential learning’ is the process of testing, combining and interrogating across the different modes of learning, one mode in isolation does not, in our methodology, make learning experiential. It has to be integrated into a learning architecture that draws upon all of the approaches into one developmental process.

Combining the models

The Impact model is not sequential – you can start in any of the four boxes and move between any of them in any direction. Unlike Kolb it does not suggest a series of prescribed steps. Rather, it is a cumulative process – you generate knowledge from one source (e.g. direct encounter) and then test and refine and add to this through other sources  (e.g. by refining a skill or seeking a theoretical base or challenge) the key here is to use the other ways of knowing to interrogate rather than just seek evidence for, what you already know or believe. This works perfectly with the 70:20:10 model, which advocates an ideal range of learning opportunities to source. We also believe that it is entirely possible to be operating in more than one mode at the same time, or to be moving between them very quickly in any given moment – so although 70:20:10 may appear to divide the learning modes up, we’d suggest that although you may wish to adhere to these ratios it does not follow that they must be entirely separate entities or that at any single moment learning must only occupy one single space.

Both models are useful tools when it comes to building a common language to encourage individuals to take responsibility for their own learning and to support managers to be involved in the development of their reports on a daily basis.

The Impact model can also be used as a way to help people explore other ways of learning outside their ‘preference’ and to use this to drive their own critical reflexivity. In essence, this for me is at the heart of ‘learning how to learn’ and the awareness that development can and should happen continuously,  can have an incredibly positive effect on staff engagement levels.


70:20:10 is, happily, open to a range of interpretation and implementation. In our experience we have worked with a number of organisations that have approached it in very different ways. For some it is merely a simple rhetoric to structure informal conversations, encouraging managers to discuss with reports opportunities for development on the job. For others it is a more fully embedded and mandatory model, used to guide all development activities and competency frameworks.

Any organisation that aims to successfully fulfil the majority of learning within the workplace must fully equip its leaders with the mind-set of learning. They must see all experiences as a development opportunity, creating a culture of learning, blending on-the-job task bundles, virtual development, action learning sets, mentoring, coaching, peer feedback, facilitated dialogue and more, all galvanised through a smaller proportion of intense, meaningful and immersive face-to-face formal learning.

This total learning culture is exactly why the 70:20:10 model cannot be used as an argument to reduce headcount in L&D. The percentage of learning L&D are responsible for is in no way reduced. It’s not 30% - it’s 100%. There is a huge amount of work to be done, in partnership with training providers, to ensure that design and architecture addresses all of the learning dimensions, both formal and informal, and carefully blends them into a seamless learning journey.

By adopting this integrated approach to people development, where different experiences and approached are blended into an accelerated learning experience, we can create powerful solutions that achieve sustainable results and enable organisational and behavioural change to happen.

That for me is what experiential learning is all about…