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Tim Buff


Chief Learning Strategist

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How to propel training into the big bad world


“The only source of knowledge is experience.” Albert Einstein

Einstein’s words are a variation on a well-known saying that is widely regarded as a basic educational truth. For educators the big question is: how can we achieve this in today’s digital world and turn instruction into experience?

Whatever you think about the accuracy of the percentages in the 70:20:10 model, most people agree with the underlying principle that a fairly small (perhaps 10%?) part of learning is provided by formal classroom or eLearning type training; a greater part by social interactions and learning from colleagues (20%?); and the largest part (70%?) by actually ‘doing’, embedding the learning through practical application and reflection.

Now let’s look at how we can achieve this and, in particular, focus on the approach I call Action Based Learning.

The 10% of 70:20:10

Your Learning Management System (LMS) or virtual learning environment can probably already manage and host many different types of learning and support materials – eLearning, videos, slides, eBooks, PDFs and so on.

But you will notice that here we are talking about centrally provided, formal learning, pushed out to learners from the ‘experts’. This represents the 10% in the 70:20:10 model. It is essential and provides the necessary foundations and starting point for the learner journey. Such resources require investment and tend to be well thought out, carefully designed and created – but they are only part of the story.

The 20% of 70:20:10

Most organisations will then leave staff to their own devices, perhaps allocating a ‘buddy’ to support them if they are a new starter, or encouraging a line manager to provide ongoing support and answer questions. Historically, this has not translated very well into a digital form, but now LMS providers are adding various elements of social support to their solutions – ranking and commenting on content, as well as discussion forums where learners can share their issues and ideas.

Social and gamification features are all designed to increase learner engagement and encourage individuals to share thoughts, concerns, questions and experiences with each other to provide a real element of community and enable learners to benefit from the experience of others. This is our 20% in the 70:20:10 model.

The 70% of 70:20:10

But what about the 70%? Until now, finding a way of promoting learning in the workplace has proved difficult. The issue has often been that it’s too labour intensive from the manager or mentor’s perspective and that IT systems don’t really support this approach.

So what can we do? The challenge is to avoid becoming slaves to the LMS and to figure out how to use technology – especially the recent advances we have seen – to deliver really powerful, reflective learning in the workplace, which is centered on the learner. The Action Based Learning approach provides some interesting options to us as educators.

Action Based Learning essentially involves setting an individual, or group of individuals, practical activities via the LMS, encouraging them to put into practice (outside of the LMS) some of the formal, or perhaps even the social learning, which they have received.

But it cannot stop there. Learners must be able to provide evidence of having completed the activity – and the person setting it should be able to review it, then give feedback and guidance. This could be done by the learner’s manager, lecturer, tutor or anyone in this mentoring role. This process fulfils the other vital requisite of this type of learning – to encourage personal contemplation and reflection.

To make it work in practice, and at scale, this must be managed and recorded through the LMS in a really easy way - if it's not easy and intuitive, then people just won't use it. 

Independent learning activities

Many successful organisations aim to encourage a culture of continuous learning within the workforce – wouldn’t it be great to be able to capture independent learning activities, too?

This capability is a natural extension and fits in well with Action Based Learning. If you ask your people to go out and do something and record the results in the LMS, then it’s a small step to encourage them to also log their independent learning activities, performed on their own initiative, within the LMS.

The result is a stimulating and comprehensive learning environment that maintains a full picture of an individual’s complete learning journey. 

With all these building blocks in place and facilitated by the LMS, you are suddenly free to let your creative L&D juices flow.

Examples of Action Based Learning

Action Based Learning tasks can range from field engineering challenges, car maintenance or factory equipment repairs, to solo sales visits, employee appraisal interviews, or practical meeting management. Supporting evidence could be provided by pictures or videos taken on mobile phones, essays and reports, or perhaps an Excel spreadsheet.

The same principle can be used to monitor third-party documentation – for example, an individual can upload a scanned copy of their passport or visa and have it digitally approved by their manager; they could upload a copy of a degree or night school certificate, as well as sharing their recollections of a particular activity and thoughts on how it could have been done differently. 

Final thoughts

Once you begin to explore the Action Based Learning approach, then the possibilities are endless. To get started, you might like to think about these simple steps:

  1. In your own environment, what is the toughest learning challenge that is really resistant to all your efforts?
  2. What are the learning objectives you want to meet and behavioural outcomes you’d like to see?
  3. What would be the one practical work based assignment that you’d really like to see your learners successfully complete which would encourage that behavioural outcome?
  4. How would you shape that assignment as an Action Based Learning task? What would the task be, what evidence would you want, and what sort of feedback would you expect to give to help the learner?

Action Based Learning is obviously not the answer to everything. However, this approach is key to encouraging the practical application of learning with all that that implies about employee effectiveness. Action Based Learning helps you deliver programmes that really make a positive difference to the organisation and to the individual, opening the door to real, lifelong learning.

Author Profile Picture
Tim Buff

Chief Learning Strategist

Read more from Tim Buff

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