The 70:20:10 Approach to Learning and Development

One of the biggest challenges I’ve grappled with in my training and facilitation practice has been bridging the enormous gap that exists between learning and practice.

Like me, I’m sure you’ve been to courses that provide excellent content that has you energized and inspired, only to find it stubbornly difficult to retain what you’ve learned and apply it to your work. In fact, despite millions of dollars and countless hours spent on training and development, the sobering truth is that this disconnect between learning and application is the norm, not the exception.

Even more striking is that the deficiencies of traditional learning models have been documented and discussed for more than 100 years. Just take the Ebbinghaus Curve published a century ago, which found that 50% of what we’ve learned will be forgotten within an hour if it’s not put into practice.

It’s my experience as a learner and trainer that drew me to the emerging best practice model for training and development called 70:20: 10.  The essential idea of the model is that “when the work is learning the learning is working”. The learning experience is roughly shaped as follows:


  • 70% of learning is through experience, through work
  • 20% is social learning through conversation with colleagues, mentors, coaches
  • 10% of learning is through formal training

The approach emphasizes learning in-context at the point that is closest to application – that is, real work and real challenges. This is a refreshing alternative to the stifling confines of traditional learning, which tends to be very rigid, formulaic and artificially disconnected from real-world challenges.

While traditional, classroom training is effective to impart static information (for example, basic onboarding information or requirements for a new business process), the evidence in adult learning clearly points that the approach is unfailingly ineffective in driving high performance. This is concerning, given that it’s been my consistent experience that performance is the ultimate outcome organizations and leaders are expecting out of investments in professional development programs for their staff.

Increasingly, the business need for training is not just imparting information – that’s easy. The fundamental need, which is often a burning platform in the case of leadership development, is to equip employees with the ability to make decisions, deal with ambiguity, and navigate change and complexity with resilience and good judgement. Clearly, these outcomes call for a model that goes beyond the usual disappointing results from traditional classroom learning.

A case in point is a recent study conducted by McKinsey, in which they undertook an extensive review of the return on investment of leadership development programs. The analysis concluded that most fail to deliver the expected outcomes, mainly because they overlook context, decouple reflection from real work, underestimate mindsets, and fail to measure long-term results.

Advocates for the 70:20:10 model of learning such as leading expert Charles Jennings, recommend that leaders who wish to create true learning organizations must focus less on off-the-shelf course models, and instead aim to offer practical resources and opportunities for social learning that are accessible and integrated to the work experience.

The end game is that 70:20:10 makes learning a tool for driving organizational change – it helps cultivate new mindsets and builds a team’s solidarity of intent in addressing business challenges using new perspective a
d techniques.

At Ingenium, we’ve successfully integrated the 70:20:10 philosophy in many of our engagements, mainly through our Results Map capacity building programs which focus on providing practical tools designed for ease of application in day-to-day practice. The idea is that after a workshop, participants can access the digital database of Results Map tools, templates and worksheets to immediately integrate new concepts and mindsets into their day-to-day work.

What we’ve learned from our experience with this approach, is that the quality and level of engagement of participants shoots way up when “the learning is the work” – that is, rather than feeling that they are pulled out of their work to attend a training session, employees use the workshops as a forum to advance their real work assignments and challenges. This is a game changer. In terms of specific tools and approaches, our Top 10 Questions in Strategic Communications is consistently ranked by clients as the easiest to apply to day-to-day work, and therefore has the most immediate impact.

Our most recent application of a learning model inspired by 70:20:10 is our collaboration with the University of Ottawa in setting up the new  Institute for Strategic Communications and Change. The program focuses on experiential learning, including peer and individual coaching and active learning opportunities to apply new approaches to real-world challenges. The program stands on the shoulders of other successful uOttawa continuing education programs designed in a similar model, including the new Institutes for CIOs and Security and Policy.

If you’ve participated in experiential learning models such as 70:20:10,  please drop me a line to share your perspective – I’d love to hear your suggestions.