Fear Not the 70-20-10

How professional trainers can learn to embrace and thrive in a world gone gaga for an experience-oriented learning model.

By Tim Toterhi, Senior Director, Organization Development, Quintiles

Many trainers cringe when they hear mention of the 70-20-10 learning philosophy. It’s understandable. Some assume the concept takes aim at their profession, asserting that it—and by association, they—have little if anything to do with enhancing employee performance. The more imaginative among us fret over a potential corporate conspiracy, fearing that the simple-sounding slogan is actually code for a finance-driven initiative focused on reducing the size of an organization’s Training department.

In most cases, of course, the fears are unfounded. The concern, and, to be fair, excitement, over the model is based largely on a misunderstanding of what it is, what it means, and what it was intended to point out. Trainers who bypass the hype and review the original purpose can learn to employ the concept to become even more effective in the classroom.

The Not So New…New Thing

Need a laugh? Ask someone about the origin of the 70-20-10 learning philosophy. Better yet, ask them what it means. The model slowly has become one of those corporate concepts that everyone supports and professes to understand but just can’t quite describe with consistency. It’s no surprise. Search Google for the term and you’ll end up with thousands of articles on how to apply the concept to learning, as well as innovation, product rollouts, and even personal savings.

The idea actually originated through research conducted in the 1980s by Robert Eichinger and Michael Lombardo at the Center for Creative Leadership. While the duo has continued to pontificate on the now globally tested subject in various books such as “The Leadership Engine,” the core concept has remained the same.

In short, the researchers asked a pool of successful senior executives to look back on their careers and reflect where they felt meaningful development came from, i.e., things that made a difference in the way you manage. The results indicated the now familiar mantra:

  • 70 percent from on-the-job experiences
  • 20 percent learning from others
  • 10 percent learning from formal courses

The Question Is Key

It’s easy to look at the answer and draw straight-line conclusions about how an organization should tailor its learning approach. Scrap the trainers. Digitize the courseware. And get employees in the field. But not so fast. It’s important to consider the context of the question. Remember, this was a look back at events that shaped executives over a career. Is it any surprise that they recalled the people-based interactions?

Think about it. Can you recall the statistics lecture you had in college? What about that PowerPoint presentation you sat through yesterday? No one remembers a textbook. Sure, sometimes people fall in love with concepts, but more frequently they are moved and motivated by other humans. We grow from daily interactions with bosses, colleagues, customers, and direct reports. We learn as we do. So what we do in the classroom is critical.

The School of Hard Knocks

The research also noted the importance of learning from hardships—the personal and professional trials and setbacks one accumulates over a lifetime. While no one would purposefully build such experiences into a development plan, the point about learning from one’s mistakes and life lessons should not be overlooked. Getting fired, losing a loved one, being relocated are all hardships that test your metal. But let’s face it: You can’t forge steel without fire. Typically, people emerge from these trials stronger, wiser, and savvier than before. Those experiences can and should be harnessed where possible.

The Ugly Truth

The informal “90 percent” is powerful but amazingly difficult to orchestrate. For example, I learned a lot about crisis management and personal leadership when the engine sputtered in my two-seat training plane, but that doesn’t mean I’d advocate putting high potentials in a dodgy Cessna in hopes of replicating the experience.

The truth is that few organizations have cracked the code on how to successfully scale experiential learning without defaulting to a brutal sink-or-swim approach. Sure, you can put leaders in a classroom, assign mentors, and even invest in a job rotation program that gives future stars hands-on experience in key departments. However, unless you teach people how to look for and call out coachable moments during those experiences, you’ll waste your efforts. This is where trainers can excel and offer assistance.

The Value of Formal Training

Classroom training has been and will remain a key element in supporting people’s success especially for those in functional roles and at pre-leader levels. You might not remember that statistic course now, but rest assured it served a purpose. Just as the seemingly endless flight standard operating procedures served their purpose when I ran into that patch of trouble at 5000 feet.

But even required training doesn’t have to be “boring.” Today’s learning organizations demand that courses become more interactive—with assessments, simulations, and real-world role-plays that tie in with and support the other elements of effective learning. This presents two distinct opportunities for trainers. First, we can reshape the 10 percent to make it even more memorable and impactful by teaching employees how to solve problems…even unforeseen ones…rather than simply recall facts. Second, we can ensure the people who attend our courses become advocates for real-time learning back at the workplace.

The Challenge of Technology

Of course, if personal connection holds the key to productive learning, we, and the leaders we support, must press people to occasionally unplug. This is especially difficult for some workers who believe that breath-mint-sized keyboards hold the path to enlightenment. Perhaps, but I’ve yet to hear about the tweet that changed someone’s life or the instant message that prompted a career change. You have to experience experiences. There is simply no shortcut. Again, trainers are perfectly placed for imparting this and other successful habits that can truly enhance an employee’s ability to perform.

The Price of Continued Relevancy

Trainers are the facilitators of experience, the ambassadors of coachable moments. Yes, in the cheaper, better, faster world of the “i” (insert the appropriate Apple device here), you have to bring your technological A game. In the end, however, e-learning is a hygiene factor—table stakes of a successful strategy. If you buy into the 70-20-10 model in its purest form, then classic face-to-face trainers are more important than ever.

To be successful in today’s world, you have to make the most of your moments. For not only are you called upon to make the connection in the classroom, you have to encourage the average techno-dependent employee to look for learning…on the job, in the moment, and, most importantly, from the people with whom they interact. A tall order, but one worth fulfilling.

Tim Toterhi is senior director of Organization Development at Quintiles. He’s worked extensively with teams in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. He is also an author, coach, and presenter. He can be reached at timtoterhi@yahoo.com or via Twitter at @TimToterhi.

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