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John Tomlinson

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Learning and Development Consultant

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The 70:20:10 model: the good, the bad and the misunderstandings


When you ask people how they want to address a learning need, they usually say they want a training course.

When you ask people how they learnt the majority of the stuff they do each day, they usually say they learnt it from experience.

If you dig a little deeper and ask when in their career did they learn the most and make the biggest strides in improving their performance, most will talk about a fantastic boss or mentor who challenged and supported them, helping them leap forward to a whole new level.

When we demand learning opportunities, we think training and education; yet when we look back at our most effective learning, we see exposure to other people, and the fickle mistress of experience, playing the major roles.

The best learning happens in real life with real problems and real people and not in classrooms

Reference: Charles Handy (cited by Jay Cross in Informal Learning: The Other 80% on Internet Time blog)


The 70:20:10 model

The 70:20:10 model is a ratio (hence the colons, rather than the more common but incorrect hyphens or slashes). The ratio is the approximate breakdown of how we learnt the stuff we do:

About 70% of what we have learnt came from experience, reflection on that experience, experimentation, failure, adapting, success, reinforcing etc.

About 20% came from exposure to other people such as our boss, mentors, coaches, colleagues, family, friends, experts we might see on YouTube or read about in a book or article.

Only about 10% came from formal education such as training courses, e-learning modules or text books.

The model was first developed by Morgan McCall and others from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL).

Reference: Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger, from the CCL team, said (in their 1996 book "The Career Architect Development Planner"):

... development will be about 70% from on-the-job experiences, working on tasks and problems; about 20% from feedback and working around good and bad examples of the need, and 10% from courses and reading


This model is backed up by other research too - follow the link above for more background if you really want to know.

The Good

The good thing about 70:20:10 is that it makes sense. It reflects the reality that learning comes from many sources, only 10% of which tend to be formal.

As long as we treat the percentages as approximate guidelines, not a strict recipe for success, then it's a solid model for planning L&D activities.

Here's a case study from Adidas (in Forbes). If you can get past the bit about making training "hip" for "millennials" (young people), then it's a pretty good example of workplace blended learning.

The 70:20:10 model also has an impact beyond just some fancy best-practice L&D.

If done properly, and employees can get better at using experience, and each other, as powerful learning resources, then the individual - and therefore the entire organization - can become far more agile and able to adapt, change and innovate.

This article on the 70:20:10 Forum website is useful and talks about the advantages to organisations when adopting a 70:20:10 approach to learning and development.

The Bad

The main problems are less about the content of the model, and more about its application:

  1. It can sound buzzwordy, like it's the latest L&D fad, and it's not catchy or clear enough to act as a communication tool without it needing a fair bit of explaining. For this reason, I prefer to talk about "blended learning" and "learning journeys" (see below)
  2. It can sound like a fancy way of stopping people doing training courses, an excuse to cut costs by insisting that they'll learn a lot better if just chucked in at the deep end
  3. It's much easier for L&D departments to run training courses: it's what they know, it looks good and it's easier to measure. It's also easier for external suppliers to sell.
  4. Learning from experience is not as simple as just doing stuff and hoping for the best. This can work, but it's much more effective if people know how to correctly capture experience and learn the right lessons (another blog post or two)
  5. The prevailing culture is that successful learning comes with paper certificates that can be neatly jotted down on résumés and LinkedIn profiles. Informal learning doesn't work that way, so it's perceived as less credible.
  6. Although informal learning can be a lot more effective than formal learning, it isn't true to say that informal is always better than formal.  Good informal is good, bad informal is bad - and there's a lot of bad informal learning out there!




The Misunderstandings

The model is not saying that training is rubbish.

It's not.

Training has its place and can be very effective, but it's only one part of the solution to a learning need:

very little learning takes place in a formal classroom, with most ... occurring on the job or when a new employee works with a mentor or a coach

Reference: Matthias Malessa, the company’s Chief Human Resources Officer

That doesn't mean training doesn't have a role to play.

Sometimes a training course is the correct horse for the course in question, by which I mean it's the best learning activity for that particular need. I suppose if you have to explain a metaphor, it's not that great a metaphor.

This is because different types of learning require different types of learning solutions, and different types of people favour different types of activities ... but more than that, learning is not a single event: a course or an experience, a mentor session or a journal article - learning is a journey!

Learning journeys are built by blending together activities from across the 70:20:10 model (which is why "blended learning" is a helpful phrase).

For example, if we want to improve our negotiating skills, we don't (or shouldn't) just do a course and that's that, learning done. Box ticked.

What we should do is complete an e-learning module, read an article or book, attend a course, and then work with a mentor or coach who knows a lot more than we do, watch a video from an expert on YouTube, shadow someone else, then try it out working alongside a more experienced colleague, reflect on our experience and consider what changes to make to our performance, then try again, maybe on our own on a small project, seek feedback on how we're doing, adjust ... etc.

Neither investing in only formal training and education nor placing all your bets on informal learning is a good strategy. Extremism is rarely the answer to questions of human development. What you are after is the best mix of formal and informal means.

(Source: Jay Cross again)

(I re-blogged this because I realise that I had previously published it as the blog, rather than the blog post, so I have moved it to the right place - this is learning from experience, part of the 70% bit!)

4 Responses

  1. Good post!

    Hi John,

    Good blog, and you are right that people tend to come unstuck when they try to implement this model.

    One common pitfall I have seen is that people try and use the model as a recipe for the best mix of their blend. What this means is they start with their learning outcomes, decide on a syllabus/content, then try and figure out how they can deliver these learning outcomes via this ratio. They have missed the point that a large part of the stuff learnt experientially does not fit neatly into a syllabus. It is not just about taking the formal learning syllabus and delivering it via different channels.

    There are ways to harness the power of informal learning, and they require a different focus to the traditional content/syllabus approach.

    One of the challenges, interestingly, is that people who are learning things experientially very seldom consciously realise that they are learning. They are doing what they are doing, and the learning is a side effect.

    If you are interested in this stuff, you might have a look at my book on Informal Learning (on Amazon)

    My best wishes, Paul

  2. Experiential learning

    Hi Paul, thanks for the comment

    You are right that most experiential learning happens unnoticed, and often inefficiently. Just because it's informal and experiential doesn't mean it doesn't benefit from conscious practice.

    I will check out the book!

  3. I agree!

    I agree with every point you make in your post, John. 70:20:10 is commonly misunderstood and, as Paul also points out, applied in ways that miss the point. 

    From my perspective the challenge is, "turning 70:20:10 from great idea into best practice." Since most of us have had plenty of experience with the 10, and the 20 often involves explicit feedback (coaching, etc), the hard part is mastering the 70. I simply use 70:20:10 as an opener to get people to acknowledge that experience is an important and overlooked part of the learning equation.

    Over the last 15 years my colleagues and I had the opportunity to do interview-based research into the careers of highly successful leaders. The research process involved 3-hour long intensive, recorded interviews that were later transcribed and used for content analysis. During these interviews we would ask leaders to describe their most significant development experiences. A number of insights emerged from these interviews, including one that hits on the point that Paul makes in his reply to your post. While leaders were able to quickly describe the most significant learning experiences, they had a much harder time describing what they had learned from those experiences. Only about 15% were able to quickly articulate lessons learned and how they had been subsequently leveraged.

    This became the motivation for our first tool to aid people in capturing the learning from past experiences. We call it the LearningResume. It is described, along with other online tools we have since created in my book, FrameBreaking Leadership Development (available on Amazon) and in a chapter which is available for free download at . (in case this link doesn't show up, you can find the book by searching for: Experience-Driven Leader Development: Models, Tools, Best Practices, and Advice for On-the-Job Development…my contribution to this book is chapter 1, which Wiley has made available as a free sample of the book).


    Thanks for the post!




  4. Thanks Mark

    Thanks for your reply.

    I am increasingly interested in what I can do as an L&D specialist to help support people in the 70 and 20 spaces, especially the 70, so I thanks for letting me know about the book. I'll check that out too (after I've read Paul's!)

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John Tomlinson

Learning and Development Consultant

Read more from John Tomlinson

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