When I visited Las Vegas in 2010 I went to the Luxor to watch Criss Angel’s ‘Mindfreak’ show with my family. This unique illusionist – with his punk-like appearance – cleverly tripped us up. After the performance you can see how the audience is discussing how various tricks are done. In our L&D discipline we are also often tripped up. Not deliberately but as a sort of side effect: by concepts, ideas, or models that are in fashion. Something crazy happens to these models, concepts and ideas when they are transformed from a conceptual model into a straitjacket or recipe. After a magic show the audience wants to know how the tricks are done, but with a ‘trending topic’ in our area of knowledge it seems as though that urge just vanishes. In a certain sense I think it is a shame, but in another sense it is a great reason for a blog.
The 70:20:10 trick
Take the illusionist’s trick of the 70:20:10 concept regarding formal and informal learning.
This concept is based on research that shows that work related learning is made up of:
70% through simply doing your job
20% through feedback from others, observation and cooperation with others
10% through formal training/formal learning
The last 10% is called formal learning; the other 90% is called informal learning. Only 10% of results actually comes from formal learning: what should we do with that expensive 10%! Popular ‘thought leaders’ enthusiastically drag us to informal learning and in so doing create – no doubt unintentionally –the illusion that informal learning is the most important or even only thing there is. Formal learning is being frowned upon and hordes of L&D professionals are joining the ‘informal learning sect’ while formal learning is being looked upon as a dirty word. I think that this is a shame because I see this as a kind of negation of our own profession. After a discussion or reading a blog about the 70:20:10 approach I get the same feeling as after one of Chriss Angel’s good tricks: I was entertained, but I want to be able to understand how it is done. And ESPECIALLY when it is about my profession! Help me to see through the illusion and to unmask the trick, because I can’t do it alone! I will share my wild ideas if you’ll please share your revealing insights. How can we best tackle this?
Just join in and simply scrap it?
My first thought is nice and simple and gives you the chance to leave a lasting impression as internal Training Manager. Let’s go with the flow and just scrap all formal learning programs! That’ll save tons of money and maybe even a few jobs (at least yours!) and we only lose a fraction of 10% in the results. As a reward you will undoubtedly be offered a new job. In short: a brilliant idea (as long as it is not carried out in ‘my’ hospital, ‘my’ airline, ‘my’ pharmaceutical company or ‘my’ nuclear power plant: I like those professionals being formally trained before they serve me).
Exploring the dark side
Maybe it is a good idea to have a closer look at the 70:20:10 approach. Let’s start with the 70% of learning done by simply performing your work. Yes, of course you learn a lot by doing your work. In fact: even in the time which is not considered work time, I learn a lot. Even on vacation I learn a lot: last summer in Greece I learned to windsurf, ride a donkey and found out what Koukouvagia is (delicious!). What I want to say is: that 70% is easy, ‘just’ do your work, no, ‘just’ suffer life and you’ve scored that 70%. Of course I learn even more if I get feedback from others, if I observe them and work together with them. I can then learn all sorts of useful things in order to do my work better and smarter: how to get a good performance review, how I can shape my career, how I can best get out of doing troublesome tasks and avoid responsabilities and how I can terminate my enemies at the office. Informal learning does not just lead to desired or constructive learning results but also to performance improvement related to the dark side of corporate life.
Make your own calculations and don’t get sucked in
But back to the facts, back to the formula. Let’s have a closer numerical look at that 10%. There are 52 weeks in a year, of which about 7 of those are vacation (in my country). That means we are left with 45 weeks of 5 days = 225 working days. How many formal training days do you have a year? How many does the average employee in your company or country have per year? I think less than 10% of their working days (less the 22.5 in my equation), lots less, in fact. Take your own situation and fill in an amount: if the number of formal learning days is less than 10% of your working days then formal learning is more effective than informal learning! If it is 11 days in my calculations then, according to the formula, by spending 5% of time on formal learning I get a 10% result: that is a ratio of 2. The 95% of time left over is taken up with informal learning that yields 90%: that is a ratio of less than 1. Formal learning is then twice as effective as informal learning. If you should get anywhere near 5 days of formal learning a year then the ratio increases to 4! Let us put forward an official policy plan that everyone spends 1% of their work time on formal learning and then we’ve got a ratio of 10: we’re bound to get a place on the C-suite table for that one!
Carrying on to the next idea
But hang on; I’m pretty sure something’s not right here. If I want to build a new house then there are substantial costs in laying the foundations – something that is simply going to be burried under the ground. Still, it’s good to have a solid foundation in order to have a, um, solid foundation. Let’s shift to drinks. The mint leaves are the smallest ingredient in a delicious Mojito but it wouldn’t be the same without them. What is a house without foundations, a Mojito without mint and a learning route without formal learning? I feel that the art is to bring together the right mix and join the elements or ingredients together depending on what you want to achieve and making allowances for specific conditions. Every house has a different sort of foundation, depending on the soil type and the design. A recipe should always be interpreted on the basis of the available ingredients. The Mojito recipe that I recently looked up is a good example of that. The whole story is full of ‘tacit knowledge’, such as: ‘the quality and size of the limes and mint can vary, so you’ve got to decide for yourself how many are needed’. That brings me to the following point.
Deliberate and accidental learning in order to understand it better?
Let’s take stock of the quality of the ingredients in formal and informal learning. Informal learning tends to have the character of Accidental learning: you weren’t looking for it; you’re just doing your job and you got the learning results ‘for free’. Whether these are actually useful to help you do your work better or helpful for your organization, is an open question. Formal learning tends to have the character of Deliberate learning: someone has designed a formalized learning intervention with the intention of achieving certain learning goals, hopefully related to doing your work better according to the requirements within the organization. Critics of informal learning argue that informal learning cannot be steered and that the results are left up to chance. Critics of formal learning argue that knowledge becomes obsolete so quickly that by the time a formal learning intervention has been made, it is outdated. They are also critical about the degree to which learning is done in a formal setting: a class, or a workplace. Could we not come up with something for Deliberate Accidental Learning? First of all, the ‘Mojito approach’ appeals to me, applied to the 70:20:10 concept of learning: adjusting quantities on the spot for the best results. In practice an L&D professional can arrange that with the stakeholders (learners and managers) of the learning process and choose the right mix: maybe not a 70-20-10 but an 80-15-5 or maybe a 30-50-20 version. Does that mean 70:20:10 is unmasked? No, it is a useful concept, but not as a recipe with a deliberately thought out combination of formal and informal learning. I think influential L&D thought leaders should be aware of their reponsabiliy and not ‘obscure’ the value of formal learning by focusing so emphatically on the informal part.
I hope that the smoke curtain around the 70:20:10 act has cleared a bit and I look forward discussing it with you further while drinking a Mojito: with mint!