Since the 1980s, 70:20:10 has been a model for how employees learn in business. Simply stated, the model tells us that 70 percent of learning comes from the experience of doing, 20 percent from what others teach us, and the remaining 10 percent from formal learning activities such as training courses. Without too much thinking, the model makes sense and seems to fit with most people’s views of how learning works in business. As a leader of learning and development (L&D) teams, I love the model, because technically, L&D is accountable for just 10 percent of all the learning that takes place in a workplace.

This is a very simplified view of the model. However, this does point to a problem. Who is accountable for the 90 percent of learning (70 percent + 20 percent) that takes place in a workplace? If no one is accountable, does it even take place?

Let’s dig a little deeper. 70 percent of learning occurs through on-the-job experience. Employees learn from their experienceswhat worked and what didn’t. Failing is another important aspect of learning where we learn from our mistakes. Imagine you aren’t allowed to make mistakes. Employers put a lot of safety nets in place to reduce the chances of mistakes, minimizing the learning experience. No employer wants any individual to fail; this is bad for morale and business performance. As such, we have controls in place with different levels of sign-off to ensure many eyes get to check and double-check decisions. But if the chances of making poor decisions are minimized, we directly minimize the impact of learning.

The 20 percent element of the model is also flawed. The model tells us that 20 percent comes from the input of others through coaching, mentoring, and others providing guidance. Business is fast-paced, and there is a need to achieve results quickly and efficiently. We employ a multitude of metrics to tell us if we are working optimally and efficiently. Managers and project leaders use these metrics and are themselves measured by these metrics. This approach has an unintentional impact - we don’t take enough time for informal coaching and mentoring because they can be difficult to measure, and there can be a significant lag in a change to performance through coaching.

"To get maximum impact from the 90 percent, individuals need to develop the positive behavior of asking themselves: What do I want to learn? How will I do this? What did I learn?"

The model is a great academic hypothesis that fails to deliver optimal learning in the work environment. But it’s not all doom and gloom; there is an answer, and it lies in the approach we take to the 10 percent.

10 percent of learning occurs through formal learning. This is a statement that is the most accurate element of the model. Formal learning has been designed with learning in mind; it has a purpose. The purpose is clear from the beginning. It may be repeated and revisited throughout and tested at the end. This purpose is the key to increasing the effectiveness of the entire model. L&D teams think carefully and deeply about this purpose. There are skillful people considering: what does the learner need to learn? How will they do this? How will we know what they have learned? It is these three statements that are the key to addressing 90 percent of learning.  

To get maximum impact from the 90 percent, individuals need to develop the positive behavior of asking themselves:

What do I want to learn? How will I do this? What did I learn?

 The simple elegance of these questions means they are easy to understand, recall, and act upon, and by asking ourselves, we bring the learning purpose to our consciousness.

The challenge is to develop this positive behavior or habit. This can be done simply by blocking out 15 minutes at the end of the week. I do this myself. I have a repeating calendar item at the end of each week labeled “What do I want to learn?” Right at the end of the week, late Friday afternoon, I ask myself these three questions. The first two require me to think ahead to next week, while the third question has me reflecting on the week just ending. This simple, repetitive exercise keeps these questions in my conscious mind throughout the week and during meetings or tasks, and I find myself holding them in my mind. The result is I actively think about learning.

I also use these questions with my direct reports during our one-on-one meetings. At first, they didn’t have much to say, but after a few weeks, they knew these questions were coming, and they had more to share as they too had held these questions in their mind since the last time we met. This approach is now built into our people manager development program, a program we ask all people managers to attend.

The L&D team continues to focus on the 10 percent of learning while building positive behaviors across the business to make the 90 percent more effective.