Is 70:20:10 valid?

Successful managers learn three to four times as much from experience as from interaction with bosses, coaches, and mentors. And they learn about twice as much from those conversations as in classrooms and formal learning programs.

The shorthand label for this viewpoint is “70:20:10.” It’s a handy framework to keep in mind, particularly when someone mistakenly thinks all learning is formal learning.

As Charles Handy has said, “Real learning is not what most of us grew up thinking it was.”

Is 70:20:10 a precise formulation like water boiling at 100 Celsius/212 Fahrenheit? Of course not. Learning discounted cash flow is unlike learning to counsel a troubled employee.

Trying to pin down the math on this is an exercise in frustration. Managers learn many different things, by many different means. And just as the boiling point of water changes with altitude, how people learn varies with culture, context, and the individual at hand. These variations don’t mean that 70:20:10 and 100 aren’t useful.

An academic tells me the 70:20:10 numbers are without basis because six PhD students who combed the past 50 years of peer-reviewed articles couldn’t find any empirical research to back them up. He says the numbers are therefore meaningless and the issue is not debatable.

I think he is using the wrong yardstick. My partners and I at the Internet Time Alliance have talked with hundreds, if not thousands, of managers about workplace learning in general and 70:20:10 in specific. It resonates with them. Most nod their heads that the numbers feel right.

So should corporations invest 70% in experiential, 20% in coaching, and 10% in the classroom? No, no, no. My colleague Charles Jennings writes:

For some organisations experiential learning (the 70+20 parts) may be the best approach for virtually all learning. For others, for example where compliance and proof of compliance training activity is critical, a greater focus on structured courses may be necessary.

The lesson here is not to become stuck on the exact ratios and percentages like a rabbit in the headlights . Everything will depend on context.

The reference model is not a recipe.

Charles Handy nailed it when he wrote, “The best learning happens in real life, with real problems and real people, and not in the classrooms.”