What’s the Problem with 70:20:10?

70:20:10 seems like common sense to me. Just glance around your work environment and you can see that this IS how people learn. The majority (+/-70%) of learning to do our jobs, about the culture, how to navigate the hierarchy or the best time to get fresh coffee in the break room happens through just doing it; the experience. Beyond that we watch others, interact with with them, get informal mentoring, etc (+/-20%). And lastly we gain some new skills and knowledge by completing periodic elearning modules and required courses (albeit aided by conversation and application (the 20% and 70% again). Yet I either get puzzled looks or a dismissive responses from people when I talk of 70:20:10 and the shift that needs to be made.

Charles Jennings, the leading authority on 70:20:10 has been speaking, writing and consulting for years on the topic. His organization, the 70:20:10 Institute, and organizations such as the 70:20:10 Forum are making headway in helping people move to a 70:20:10 framework. As for me, I think it is exactly what’s needed for the 21st century organization and here’s why:

It’s the answer to complexity
The world and world of work, markets, technology are changing constantly. Adopting permanent approaches, structures and tools makes no sense. Best principles not practices are needed today, agility and speed win. 70:20:10 reduces friction on the workflow by allowing learning and work to be more closely tied.

It’s simple
70:20:10 requires no new software, training or infrastructural changes. It’s a mindset shift from compliance, completion, attendance and direction to support, enablement, guidance and modeling. Once we let go of industrial era approaches to performance improvement, we see that those were artificial structures that often created unnecessary layers. 70:20:10 is ultimately about paving the cow path not creating new roads.

It’s not about learning
If you go by the numbers, about 90% of 70:20:10 is in and around work. 70:20:10 is about work getting done better, faster and more efficiently by making work more visible and encouraging people to connect and collaborate. It’s about reflection and thinking about the work being done and being conscious of the new understandings gained through doing the work.

It’s about autonomy
In a world of ever-change, a 70:20:10 framework doesn’t dismiss the importance of hiring right but it adds the requirement that new hires need no hand-holding. As adults that, if offered freedom to explore, connect, question and contribute, they will. 70:20:10 also doesn’t dismiss the value of training, rather it ensures that it’s not the default response by organizations to performance problems with the additional (and futile) burden of trying to control and measure learning.


However, for the same reasons 70:20:10 is the right approach, it’s the reasons why it’s not right… right now. And here’s why:


It’s the answer to (future) complexity
Talk around 70:20:10 is like talk around Climate Change – most people don’t act because there is no urgency. Discussions of dangerous weather projections, increased drought, floods, coastal area issues, etc are all “future talk”. Climate change hasn’t really effected us and it’s impact has yet to hit people in the wallet so therefore the status quo remains. Likewise only the most progressive are preparing for changing markets and processes. Most organizations however are in a “If it don’t look broke, don’t fix it” mode and 70:20:10 looks like a solution seeking a problem.

It’s (too) simple
People can’t let go of the numbers. Others use terms like Education, Experience and Exposure to reframe the discussion so we aren’t nitpicking about percentages but even then that still arguably makes it simple, and simple is often suspect. We live in a data driven world and frankly the hard data on 70:20:10 is often in question. Finally, all to often, leaders fall in love with tradition, packaged solutions, and plug and play. 70:20:10 is none of these. Its a principle and at best a framework that guides but doesn’t dictate. But people don’t buy principles, they want to buy features and functions and packages wrapped in poetic hyperbole, falsely leading to a belief that if there is a lot to it, well then -there must be a lot to it!

It’s not about learning (but it’s about learning)
It’s really not about learning it’s about performing but since the word learning is at it’s core, there is a disconnect. Executives hear learning and subsequently push it out to L&D to “implement” and systematically and wrongly spun into some form of blended learning solution. It’s not about implementation and it’s certainly not about L&D! 70:20:10 is no more about L&D than Social Media is about Marketing. The former, an organization-wide strategy. The latter, an organization-wide tool. 70:20:10 is suffering the same drag as “social media” does; seen by most as a push marketing vehicle.

It’s about autonomy
Organizations are still very much “command and control” centers. Managers are still expected to task manage not guide and support, leaders dictate, HR demands compliance. A strategy built on a cornerstone of letting go is not only foreign, it’s threatening. The vast majority of 70:20:10 is about self-direction, trust and moving freely outsides of an organizational and technological hierarchy. Few organizations are ready for that.


The issue is that its a problematic answer to a problem few recognize. People trust their gut or common sense until it butts up against an immovable object like tradition. And breaking through traditional beliefs and mindsets has never been quick or easy. Historically speaking most major change took a long time to become the new norm. Change, real change that is sustained, is evolutionary not revolutionary and it happens as Euan Semple says “one conversation at a time.” I’m confident 70:20:10 will ultimately be adopted… in many forms, under various names when people and organizations recognize it’s reality and the pain of the status quo is unbearable.



21 thoughts on “What’s the Problem with 70:20:10?

  1. Sorry, I’ve arrived a little late to the party but I’ve been fascinated by the post and the subsequent thread, largely because the diaspora of responses reflects one of the key challenges in learning in organisations today. There is a tendency for a desire to own this challenge, is it the learning team, is it leadership, is it the individual, is it the board?

    From there we start to look at who has the best solution for the complex, information rich, time poor, fast changing environment which is everyday work and life. It’s such a profound and important challenge that if someone can solve it, then fame and fortune (either literally or reputation) abound. This is where the divides can emerge. However, not too sound rather passive and on the fence here but everyone here makes sound points, and that in itself is the point. The challenges for learning today and multifaceted, highly contextual and evolving, our desire to anchor it to a model or solution is flawed. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore them as each may benefit in context.

    The best way I can think to describe this is when I use one my favourite of models (so yes, I am admitting to falling back on a framework too 😉 ) The Value Chain – it allows you to expand the workflow for delivery of a particular business objective and understand the performance flow, gaps and opportunities. By looking at a business objective from this perspective, it gives you the opportunity to look at all inputs and outputs from a performance perspective, human, process, technology, market and more. So let’s take the criticism for working out loud or WOL as a starting point – granted you may hate the acronym but as a knowledge management principle, understanding how others are addressing similar challenges in a context you share can speed delivery or increase revenue. Proof for this? In my time at France Telecom, one individual product manager as part of a community I facilitated shared a tip on a small software change to the voicemail product in Croatia – result? EMEA wide adoption and over 10 millions euro later, it spoke for itself. We don’t have to make a banner to put up outside the office saying ‘L&D says we now WOL!’ but as a concept for L&D to explore and understand the implications for the transformation of their role in the business, its easy to remember and understand. So if it has the same end result of helping L&D transform into more performance and business focused enablers through improving knowledge sharing then great! We don’t have to be precious about the terms.

    The same goes for 702010 – as Cathy says, the numbers are so easy to pull apart that it immediately stokes a fire, but I know Charles’ work from back in the Reuters days and I am sure he would agree that this is not a concrete exact distribution, applicable to all needs. What it can do is provide a foundation for the discussion about the value of those activities that by definition cannot be owned or formalized, but should be facilitated and can actually be measured (if you have done your homework on workflow analysis a la value chain and also have learning as responsible for understanding the workflow implications of learning activities – it’s the qualitative and quantitative measuring we used to do for communities). So again if we go back to our value chain, it may undercover that we have a significant skills gaps in some fundamental area, such as weakness in project scoping and control which may be costing us in money and efficiency. In this case, a foundation from a more formal project mgt skills programme may be required to get our team to the point at which we can then look at the discreet and contextual needs we have and start to adapt, flex and improve upon our processes. Here the 702010 may not apply, but over time as we learn more about what works around here, what works well over there and where we need to go, interpretation and adaption start to blossom. We may even start to critique the approach, question other areas and challenge existing ways of working and on it goes. So the informal plays more of a leading role.

    I wasn’t going for award for the longest comment so apologies but I really value taking part in these types of conversations as accepting the complexity, shifting sands and changing expectations are at the heart of performance today and those that can rise to the challenge and relish it will take these models, test them, refine them, challenge then, use them.

    The redefinition of learning and knowledge professionals is happening right now and we can help by pulling out the key themes from these discussions and supporting educators, researchers, organisations and curious individuals who relish the challenge of becoming the new learning professionals in understanding what’s important. I can’t claim to know the answer to that but if these discussions help start the distillation process then that’s great.

    1. Thanks for jumping in Lisa! As I read through your Value Chain examples I can see that the principle of 70:20:10 can be referenced to help guide decisions that an organizational learning profession, using solid analysis can make rather than jumping at the chance to build a shiny new course. It may be that struggling employees need to be guided in finding key individuals and/or resources. This is the new role of the learning professional as a key node in the network.

  2. I find the discussion about 70:20:10 not being an L&D principle timely, as in my conversations I’m discovering that many people in L&D don’t know much about it, while many others outside L&D do!

    While I agree that pushing 70:20:10 out to the L&D department to implement is wrong-headed, I maintain it *is* in the charge of L&D to support and facilitate… as it is for everyone else who cares about performance.

    While 70:20:10 is no more about L&D than social media is about Marketing (nice one!) the L&D pro who dismisses 70:20:10 will be as limited as the marketer who dismisses social media.

  3. Mark, I like your comparison of 70:20:10 to climate change. There’s not much sense of urgency. We need a better way to sell it as a way to remove current, pressing pain.

    One technique that’s working somewhat for me is to start with the L&D person and focus on their pain, which of course has to do with “training.” Then I nudge them:
    – You’re hearing complaints that your courses are boring or have no effect.
    – You want to “design better training.”
    – The first step to creating “better training” is to understand the performance problem and ALL the factors that influence it, including lack of communication, management issues, poor performance support… Here’s a bunch of clearly defined steps to help you. You do this with the client and managers (take it out of L&D).
    – Then you “design better training” to address ALL those issues, which can mean not designing training at all.

    Usually they still include training in the answer, often because a stakeholder they failed to include in the analysis continues to insist on it, but at least it’s minimal and far more targeted, and a lot more attention went into making sure performance support and other workplace issues are resolved.

    I’ve seen this work with people who were completely in the course mindset, which is why I disagree with recent attempts to divide the field into those who “get it” and those who supposedly never will. We can’t expect a major cultural change to happen without showing people clear, practical steps that begin where they are, and where they are is often very far from the 70:20:10 ideal.

    I also respectfully disagree with Clark’s suggestion that people outside L&D shouldn’t share their reactions to this without first researching it. L&D practitioners need to think more like business people and less like educators, and considering the reactions of people outside our niche is one of the best ways to do that. Defending 70:20:10 or any other model to “outsiders” is great practice for advocating for it to non-L&D people in our organizations, and as Andrew points out, we need to do this using non-L&D terms.

    1. Thanks Cathy. Most are far from the ideal of a 70:20:10 organization and clear steps for transition do need to be outlined. Many I encounter see 70:20:10 as blended learning and that’s likely because of the word “learning” inherent in the principle and because of this 70:20:10 is pushed off as an L&D initiative when I believe it is more OD related. As you note, if L&D approached their work more inclusively and with a consultant-like perspective, this might change.

      Given the great conversation on this topic I am wondering if 70:20:10 isn’t the issue so much as how it is introduced; model? Approach? Framework? Or principle?

      More to come!

      1. I think 70:20:10 has a bit of a marketing challenge. First, the numbers are easy targets, as you’ve pointed out, so the name itself can get in the way.

        Second, while I certainly haven’t read everything to do with the idea, my impression is that it’s still in “principle” territory and lacks the clear steps of a “model.” As a result, people who agree with the principle can find it difficult to apply.

        Third, there can be an “us vs. them” tone in discussions of the principle, pushing it toward moral panic territory. A lot of the conversation I’ve seen stays at the level of general exhortation rather than specific application. Variations on “L&D is doing everything wrong” seem to outweigh “Let’s change what we’re doing by taking this clear, concrete step. Here are some exact words you can say to a client to get them out of course mode. Here’s a tool you can use to analyze and fix a communications problem. Here’s a flowchart to guide you through [whatever].”

        Thanks for your thought-provoking post and discussion!

        1. Thanks again Cathy. I’m thinking 70:20:10 is more an organizing principle, similar (and related to) Jon Husbands “Wirearchy”- kind of like a law of nature. As such it’s not owned by L&D or a learning consultant although their participation is important to encourage connected learning and build formal materials when necessary. For argument’s sake, lets put aside the controversy around the research and numbers. If we accept the fact the 70:20:10 IS how learning happens, then it’s an organizational strategy to create a framework for it to flourish and not an L&D initiative. I’d argue that the biggest catalyst is management and not learning professionals. The first step then is probably about removing, not creating. Removing barriers to finding people in the know, removing barriers around openly sharing work. Next it’s about shifting default mindsets; away from course first solutions, managers as developers not task masters, LMS records as results, rewarding individual behaviors (competition) and start rewarding collaborative ones, etc. So with that I don’t think 70:20:10 is applied as much as it’s unearthed.

    2. Sorry, Cathy, that I wasn’t clear. It’s not that I think folks outside L&D can’t share their thoughts on it. I think someone outside L&D shouldn’t share their thoughts on it *as if they were in L&D*. Small distinction.

      One of Charles’s points is that the reason he’s successfully used 70:20:10 in orgs is that it resonates with those outside L&D.

      And I would resoundingly support L&D speaking more ‘business’ (and regularly do make this point).

      1. That’s a good point Clark – that Charles’ success (among others) is because his conversations are not targeted to L&D and most likely it’s with those who influence L&D. This entry point seems critical to me.

  4. Interesting. Would love to see 70:20:10 absorbed in the healthcare field. Far too much time and money is being spent on the 10%, which isn’t working on many levels including retention in a field where it is critical to quality care. As a manager in healthcare we need to embrace something different to get a different/ better result. Why not 70:20:10?

  5. A wonderful post – thanks Mark. I agree that 70:20:10 needs to be owned by the organisation, rather than be seen as an L&D initiative. I also believe strongly that 70:20:10 needs to be discussed using the organisation’s language of work and working, rather than learners and learning. 70:20:10 is about how we build capability, how we build and share knowledge and how we support people to perform and develop. If we focus on capability and performance as outcomes and position 70:20:10 as a holistic means for getting there, we’re in a much better position to get people on board and work together to bring the framework to life, regardless of what we call it.

    With this in mind, maybe a simple exercise is to ask your executives to describe how we build and sustain capability, how we build and share knowledge, how we develop and engage talent…..

    Maybe then the simplicity of 70:20:10 (or whatever label they put to it) and its ability to connect a range of strategic challenges will become not only clear, but a burning organisational platform.

  6. Interesting discussion! For me, one of the main reasons I like 70:20:10 is that it helps L&D folks rethink their role in an organisation. Ideally the entire organisation will be involved, but getting the L&D department to think about what else they can do – beyond courses – is a vital first step.

  7. Thank you for this insightful analysis, Mark. Your article and the discussion here highlight the key elements of the 70:20:10 approach as I have been using it over the years – by helping re-focus effort (all effort, not just L&D effort) beyond formal, directed learning/training interventions and into the workflow. That’s where most people’s learning happens – through experience, practice, conversations and networks, and reflection.

    A good course or programme, or an eLearning module, will certainly help people move up a step or two towards higher performance (sometimes, but rarely alone, structured training/development will even result in high performance). However, it’s the development that occurs through working and sharing that is fundamental to the overall process of building high performance.

    20th century approaches tended to focus almost exclusively on the ‘course mindset’ (after all, we’ve all been through school!). In that mindset, ‘learning and development’ for the workforce was considered as being tightly coupled with courses and, latterly, structured eLearning modules. 70:20:10 is one way to change this mindset and stretch effort and resource beyond the ‘course’.

    In my experience, high performance almost invariably develops through the following five processes:

    1. High performing people have exploited structured development approaches to master the basics. (the ’10’)

    2. They have had hundreds of hours of practice under guidance. (the ’10’ and ’20’)

    3. They are embedded in a professional community with colleagues and leaders who coach, mentor and support them when needed. (the ’20’)

    4. They have access to on-the-job performance support at their fingertips. (the ’70’)

    5. They have had thousands of hours of independent experience, practice and reflection in their field. (the ’70’)

    The 70:20:10 model provides a way to help development in each of these areas – through experiential learning, social learning, and structured learning.

    I’ve never had challenges from senior management when I explain development in this way. It resonates for most of us that our own development path (whether we’re high performers or not) has unfolded in a similar way.

    1. Thank you Charles. It’s hard to challenge this development path as you say. It’s getting to have the conversation that can be a challenge of course. And once it’s understood/agreed to, then the real work can be done to support such an organizational framework. Not an L&D charge alone!

  8. Mark no need to stress buddy – some Vendor will come along and rebadge 702010 as something new – put an acronym on it and voila it will be the best thing since sliced bread. I still remember when MOOCs were courses and sharing and discussing your work was not a movement that is “celebrated ” during a week in a year and has a book that goes along with it.

    Time to stop feeding me this FAD crap, don’t over complicate this learning stuff – I love 702010 and like it juts the way it is – business is sick of us talking MOOCS and WOLs – they want action and results – LETS DO OUR JOB !

  9. Bruno, let me see if I can address your many points.
    1. You say that all the stuff happens anyways, but it doesn’t. If you don’t address the 20 and the 70, you leave it to chance, and that leaves a great likelihood that you don’t get the best outcomes. Sure, formal learning *should* include them, but too often doesn’t, and 70:20:10 is just a way to draw attention to this possibility.
    2. Charles Jennings has lots of examples of companies using 70:20:10 beyond L&D. Just because you’re not aware of it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening ;).
    3. Applying your investment to designing just the formal part is the problem. If you ignore the followon, you decrease the likelihood of the desired outcome. And there are ways to be systematic about it, to make it predictable. And learning’s a probabilistic game, 70:20:10 increases the likelihood of a good outcome.
    4. The point is not to build the 70:20:10 brand, but instead to get folks to think outside the ‘courses’ model. 70:20:10 has proven to be useful for that purpose. If you have other ways, fine, but we need *something*.
    5. 70 is unmeasurable? Then you’re not doing it right. You can give stretch assignments, track via xAPI, etc.
    6. This reflects back to point 2. It’s awareness raising first, then there is a lot of work to go along with the change. The new book by Arets, Heijnen, and Jennings documents in detail processes to support.
    You admit this isn’t your field, and then wade in without having looked at it in depth. If you care, do the research. If not, why query?

  10. While I can understand the benefits of the approach (well explained by @Quinnovator recently), largly agree with and get were it fits I have a few questions you may be able to answer.

    1. The argument states that a large portion ofthe learning takes place after/outside of designed, formal learning. OK but isn’t normal? Most learning (ie changes) in my work takes place long after: the next day, when I apply, after a aha moment. Nobody is around to facilitate yet it happens. When the 702010 was “measured” it was before such framework exists, so what are the expectations of the Framework? That’s unclear to me. If I was the payee I would wonder if there is any impact at all. I make a parallel between 702010 and cultivation. Most of the costs are on seeds, taking care of small plants. After a while it’s autonomous. When fruits come I get the results. There is a delay betweeen seeds and fruits. Which conclusion should I draw from it? Move my investment to later stage?

    2. 702010 is know in the L&D community only. Outside from there, in my various discussions in the tech sphere or in Marketing nobody ever mentionned it. So it’s an L&D thing and as long as it stays there it will not be strategic, hence no pressure, no funds. How comes it’s an L&D only thing if it’s so important?

    3. One of the assumptions of 702010 is that investment and attention should map to were results take place. So spending 90% of your budget on 10% of learning results sounds silly. This is just a superficial reasoning. Spending takes place on the design effort required and in many case affected by number of learners. Extreme cases are MOOCS (formal, one course fit all, 15000 learners) and coaching of a single person (F2F,one course made for one learner only). Obviously formal is durable, scalable. Informal is less designed, less scalable. Where will be the ratio of investment ? totally impredictable. For knowledge workers with a good initial understanding of SDL only formal design make sense (and they will be the deciders), for craftmen informal, apprenticeship will be important, has always been, nothing new. Here again I miss the point.

    4) 702010 is brand as you well explained it. It’s also supported by other people like @C4LP who recently tried to divide people, opposed people who got it to others. I tend to apply extra critical thinking in such situations. Especially when people are not open to critics and discussions. I’m for open solutions, shared knowledge like we practice in the Software Industry. Building blocks, language, OS are open for everyone to use, what you do on top if your business. There are surely people taking some of the ideas and building on their own. They will not be named 702010 and as such will not appear as adoptors. A common corpus of knowledge, where everybody could tap and participate could be a better way to promote adoption instead of keeping it in a walled garden.

    5) Nothing proved that results changed from 702010 to something better. Since the 70 is largly unmeasurable and happened already before how can we see tangible benefits? Here I’m really playing the devil advocate, but I know plenty of business owners who would think like this.

    6) To implement properly 702010 (AFAIK) you need some impregnation of the learning process into the work. This means changing a few things in the workplace itself. Instead of learning taking place in an allocated place and time it will “overlap”, “leak” into work. To get this implemented I think you need support, sponsorship from top management and departement managers. If 702010 can’t be explained and become well known in Management circles how can you implement it?

    Disclaimer: I’m not an L&D person. My domains of learning are : software, marketing, communication, learning, KM, Mechanical, Agriculture. This is the base of what I know of learning experiences. No compliance.

    1. Hey Bruno, can’t speak for all your comment but I was intrigued by point number 2. I know this is only experience and it may be who you talk to, but I was surprised to find a manager at HP (not related to L&D in any way) who knew that HP’s training approach was 70:20:10. I was very surprised at this because I too thought it was only an L&D thing, but I was proven wrong. I think it’s an organization thing. If an org prescribes to the framework, most in the org know about it. If they don’t, then probably nobody knows about it.

      Just thought I’d throw that out there 🙂

      1. @Nick Thanks for your contribution, What you say fits perfectly with my #6. It can’t happen whitout everyone knowing. Speak about social learning in a software forum, most people understand what is it and the value (it’s what we practice with stackoverflow.org for example, or forums on various tech for last 20 years). Ask the same people about 702010 ? They ignore it. Speak about the fact that formal is only a minority? I think they will object, like me. In fact the more I think about it the more I think there is a question of defining the audience of the 702010 approach. What kind of “learner” are we talking about. I used quoted cuz I know you don’t like this term.

        1. We’re talking about people (people = learner = people = learner 😉 who want to progress in their career. People who want to succeed. People who don’t want to be replaced by automation. People who want a job that satisfies their being, not just financially but completely. When you talk about 70:20:10 it’s all about making the business succeed from the people to the customer. It’s not about command and control (at least most of it isn’t) it’s about openness and a good place for people to work. At least that’s my take on it.

      2. Thanks for jumping in Nick. In some ways the HP example is both good and not so good. Good to see a non-L&D manager expound upon 70:20:10 but the fact it’s considered “L&Ds training approach” is a bit disheartening because if the framework is “owned” by L&D, I think that severely limits it’s potential in an organization.

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