Learning Myth #9: 70-20-10

Is the 70-20-10 rule a learning myth? Not exactly. But did you ever wonder where those numbers come from or do you just accept them?

For those not familiar with the 70-20-10 approach to training, a quick explanation: The idea is that in a corporate environment training comes in many forms and that the optimal ratio is:

  • 70% from on-the-job experiences
  • 20% from coaching and other personal interactions
  • 10% from formal coursework (ILT, eLearning, workshops, etc.)

70-20-10

This sounds plausible on its surface, but remember evidence Rule #1: If the numbers are nice and round they are probably not valid.

So, where do these numbers come from?

In 1987 three researchers from the Center for Creative Leadership did a survey (not a validated study in the sense that we understand the meaning of that term) of 191 successful executives and asked them what types of learning experiences contributed to their success. It’s not even exactly clear that these numbers came directly from that survey. On the Center for Creative Leadership site, the organization states that:

“The 70-20-10 rule emerged from 30 years of our research, which explores how executives learn, grow, and change over the course of their careers.”

Giving this a little thought a few things should be clear:

  • These ratios are bound to vary from job to job and organization to organization. For some types of jobs on-the-job apprenticeships are the norm (lots of “70”). For others, formal learning experiences are critical (lots of “10”).
  • Even within a job the ratio can vary over time. During the initial onboarding process there is typically a lot of formal learning (much more than 10%) but once the employee is more senior learning can and does occur on the job.
  • Review the quote and the name of the organization that did the research. They are specifically referring to executive leadership. Even if you accept the numbers at face value, the types of learning experiences that form an executive leader are bound to be very different from those required by new and/or lower level employees.

Bottom line: There is no doubt that people learn a lot on the job, but don’t assume these numbers are correct exactly as stated, and don’t assume they apply to your organization or every job within your organization.

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