Choose the Best Learning Path

How organizations, managers, and learners can maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of the learning effort—for each individual

In a 1997 Harvard Business Review article, “The Living Company,” Arie de Geus declared: “In the future, the ability to learn faster than competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”

Today, that statement could not be truer. In a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world, the crucial competency that enables an organization to adapt and survive is learning how to win at learning. Training professionals, in partnership with line managers, must guide individuals to the learning methodologies that best fit their needs.

But many issues make today’s learning environment uncertain. New and emerging training technologies proliferate. A recent global study by the Gartner Group found that less than two-thirds of managers think their employees are able to keep pace with future skill needs. Companies make significant investments in learning with uneven results—Training magazine’s 2018 Training Industry Report found that the U.S. corporate outlay for training was $87.6 billion. So we had better get it right.

How can organizations, managers, and learners maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of the learning effort—for each individual?


The effort must take place within the context of the organization’s strategy and the individual’s goals, motivations, and abilities. Without alignment between the organizational strategy and the individual focus, resources will be wasted and employees will fail to connect what they need to learn with what is important for performance.

How is the learning alignment with organizational strategy created? That process is described in my article, “Aligning Training with Business Strategy” (, so we won’t go into it here.

But after alignment, the next step is to focus on the individual. This is the crux of the challenge facing both you and your line manager partner: You must diagnose the training need and then choose the best learning methodology. This process requires the integration of two proven frameworks: Situational Leadership and 70:20:10. Combining these two approaches will enable organizations, managers, and learners to choose the best learning path for the individual.


Ken Blanchard describes his Situational Leadership as a model for developing people and enabling individuals to gain the knowledge, skills, and motivation to become strong, self-reliant performers.

Blanchard outlines three crucial skills a leader needs to be effective:

  1. Diagnosis to understand the follower’s needs
  2. Flexibility to use a range of leadership styles
  3. Partnering for performance

Since your decision about training methodology depends on diagnosis of the individual’s developmental needs, that’s the portion of the Situational Leadership process we will focus on here.

Effective diagnosis begins with an understanding of the tasks comprising a job and the task-specific skills necessary for effective performance. This will change if the task changes. Just think of a person who has budgeting responsibilities and then must present the budget in front of a meeting. Two very different tasks—each set of skills must be identified.

But understanding the job requirements is not enough. In the diagnosis process, the manager also must consider the individual’s existing and transferable knowledge and skills, and his or her capacity to learn. In addition, the manager must assess whether the person feels confident he or she can succeed, and if he or she is motivated to get the work done.

In general, the diagnosis will provide an indication of whether the individual knows when to initiate a task, what to do, and how to accomplish the work. It also will show whether an individual lacks capability—in which case, a directive and structured learning methodology is necessary— or whether the person is capable, which calls for a less directive approach.

Similarly, a good diagnosis will indicate whether the individual is confident and motivated to learn and perform, or if he or she lacks confidence or motivation, or feels frustrated. These characteristics, which indicate a need for emotional support, also will guide you in understanding the individual so you can choose the right learning methodology.

The Situational Leadership framework is enormously useful. What it doesn’t do is help the manager or trainer actually choose the most effective learning methodology.


The 70:20:10 framework enables the organization to focus developmental resources and effort for maximum impact. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) identified how people learn what they need to know in order to be successful on the job through a combination of three methodologies, known as 70:20:10.

  • On-the-job, experience-based projects, and practice account for approximately 70 percent of how an individual learns what he or she needs to know.
  • Relationships/exposure through coaching or mentoring account for 20 percent of how an individual learns what he or she needs to know. It is best when the individual has some knowledge and skills, and is frustrated or lacks confidence in his or her ability.
  • Formal training programs account for the other 10 percent of how an individual learns what he or she needs to know. Formal learning methodologies tend to be structured and focus on when, what, and how to do a task.

Combine the two frameworks—and that’s where the magic happens:

Capable Performer—Use On-The-Job Learning (70 percent): Here, the individual has the knowledge and skills or transferable skills, and the emotional confidence and motivation to do the task—he or she can “figure it out” and learn on the job. This approach generally provides the least emotional support and the least structured approach to learning. Examples include special projects, “just Google it,” and on-the-job experimentation.

Moderately Capable—Use Relationships/ Exposure Through Coaching or Mentoring (20 percent): Often an individual begins to build the knowledge or skill necessary for success, but lacks the confidence that he or she will be successful, or he or she needs some perspective to help make connections. Here, the methodology becomes learning through relationships, i.e., coaching or mentoring, which provide both emotional support and appropriate levels of direction. Examples include executive coaching, peer coaching, and multi-rater feedback.

Learning a New Task—Use Formal Training Programs (10 percent): Individuals who are just starting a new job or significant task generally have enthusiasm but few skills. That suggests they need direction and feedback about what, how, and when to do a task. In general, formal training programs offer a structured approach, which is most appropriate when the individual knows very little. Examples include consultant-led training, e-learning/self-study, and Webinars.

Diagnosing an individual’s task-specific knowledge/ skill and emotional needs will enable the line manager and trainer to use the 70:20:10 framework to choose the most appropriate training path and methodology. The result will maximize the effectiveness and impact of the training.


Because Training professionals have a unique perspective on learning, they can become the linchpin connecting line management, Human Resources, and the Training function. Their perspective provides insight into how to best engage with the employee and deploy appropriate resources.

Combining good developmental diagnosis and the prescription of the best methodology will strengthen managers’ capabilities and capacities to develop their people and enhance the capacity of their organizations to succeed in a VUCA future.

Ross Tartell, Ph.D., is currently adjunct associate professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University. Dr. Tartell also consults in the areas of learning and development, talent planning, and organizational development. He received his MBA in Management and his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Columbia University. He formerly served as Technical Training and Communications Manager – North America at GE Capital Real Estate.