Juggling with Formal and Informal Learning: the 70:20:10 approach unmasked?

criss angelWhen 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 dwangbuis 4is 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%. rekensom 1There 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 inmojito 1 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!

Ger Driesen (@gerdriesen)

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11 Responses to Juggling with Formal and Informal Learning: the 70:20:10 approach unmasked?

  1. Hi Ger,

    Last week my colleague Marlo and I discussed the 70-20-10 idea with Charles Jennings. We asked him about the biggest misunderstanding around this concept and his answer was short: ‘the numbers’. He explained that by now he thinks that thinking in terms of getting the right mix of experience (the former 70), exposure (20) and education (10) makes more sense than juggling with numbers. So yes, formal learning is important, especially at the start of a learning process it helps the learner focus and it can help her find usefull formal and informal resources. Thank you Charles!

    Unfortunately L&D specialist tend to be specialized in education-like approaches and they enjoy building intricate formal learning programs. When a program is built they glue a management workshop at the front end and an action plan in the last half hour to ‘ensure’ that exposure and experience are taken care of. And there’s the problem: they work the exactly opposite numbers: spending 70 percent of their time building the formal program, 20 percent (which might even be optimistic!) ensuring genuine management buy-in and thereby exposure and feedback opportunities for learners in the workplace, and max 10 percent thinking about how to help their learners to start learning informally next to their formal activities. I like your idea about Deliberate Accidental Learning and I do think learners and their support system (managers, coaches, colleagues) need some formal (!) help to get the hang of this new concept and how to make it work. To be of any use here L&D professionals need to understand the workplace and get out of their classrooms and staff towers. That in itself will surely bring about a lot of informal learning.

  2. Thanks for the article, Ger, and for your comments, Petra.

    I can only reiterate that the 70:20:10 framework is not a recipe. It’s a reference model that describes how adult learning in organisations actually happens.

    Many people interpret it as ‘the way we need to distribute our learning’ when, in fact, it’s actually a description of what’s happening naturally. 70:20:10 provides some scaffolding to support workplace and social learning as well as structured learning events.

    Of course formal training and development is valuable if done well. It offers a form of ‘incubator’ in order to prepare people to be high-performers. However it’s not an either/or situation but an ‘all’.. the sum of the parts are grater than the whole.


  3. Mike Marr says:

    Hi Ger, first let me say I really liked reading your post.

    I’ve always struggled with the 70/20/10 concept myself as well. Not because I’m a training professional, but my belief is that numbers shouldn’t be thought of as empirical evidence because they usually represent one study, from one researcher (who may or may not have used proper test measures), and usually are biased in my opinion. Admittedly I’ve used numbers from certain studies myself to help emphasize a point, however, I try to base my training based upon knowledge I’ve made through self-studies.

    What I think is most important and you emphasized in your post that is that as learning professionals we should ensure learners drive what mix of learning they need. Making the learner part of the any design process (pre and post) is something rarely seen in my experience.

    Thanks again Ger, great post!

    PS: Like you, I learned how to ride a donkey on vacation. Although in hindsight it wasn’t really learning, it was more about what happens when you have too many strong mojitos!

  4. Hi Ger,
    Good article, in my experience though the 70:20:10 rule reflects how an individual’s retained knowledge was gained more than how they should be trained and links as much with concepts such as the Ebbinghaus curve as anything more modern and social based.

  5. Hi Ger,

    Good post and it poses some great questions 🙂

    I must confess to being a fan of informal learning having just written a book on it, but I also totally agree with Charles’ comment. It is not either/or. It is both/and…

    One area of confusion is the difference between learning and results. And this shows in how you have worded your post. You give a reasonable brief explanation of the 70:20:10 ratio describing it as “work related learning is made up of:”

    On the very next line you say “Only 10% of results actually comes from formal learning:”

    You have made results equivalent to learning. More learning = more results. Less learning = less results. Now we all know there are far more factors that govern the results employees get than the ‘learning’ they have. For example, motivation and engagement, and the systems and processes they work within.

    You could say that results are dependent on capability; capability of both the individual and the environment within which they are operating. And to be sure, a significant component of capability (or competence if you prefer) is what they have learnt over time, either formally or informally.

    I personally think that the focus should be on capability at the point of work. And this raises some fascinating questions. For example, if a mechanic has learned how to fix a specific fault on a car, and he has a car in front of him with that fault, but he does not have the essential tool he needs to make the repair, is he capable? His environment is stopping the learning being applied, so in that moment, at the point of work, it could be argued that he is not capable of doing the job in front of him.

    I would argue that learning does not lead to results. Capability leads to results.

    And the 70:20:10 model is an excellent way to think about the best ways to nurture the learning components of capability.

    Best wishes, Paul

    P.S. You can grab a copy “Informal Learning at Work” from Amazon at http://pal.gl/l

  6. Jay Cross says:

    Let us not forget the beauty of 70:20:10. It is memorable. Oversimplified. Encourages discussion. Loose enough to corral many viewpoints. 70:20:10 makes it hard for learning professionals to continue to act as if the 10% is the important stuff. It’s necessary but it’s not the only stuff. If you want to really make things happen, make a small change in the 70% by working with the managers of managers. The numbers are clear. This is the big performance boost. Focus on the work and let the workers prevail.

  7. Hello Petra, Charles, Mike, John, Paul and Jay,
    thank you all for your comments, very nice of you to invest some time in the discussion.Each comment gives additional thoughts and focus on different aspects and I think that is valuable for all readers. At the end it seems to me that L&D professionals, learners and managers should find the partnership and the right blend of interventions and responsabilites to build a value chain for learning, capability and performance improvement. @Paul, your book is out of stock at this moment, will try again later. Thanks all, Cheers, Ger

    • Hi Ger, We just sent some more copies to Amazon in the UK so just go ahead and order. It would only be delayed by a day or two at most. It is in stock for amazon.com 🙂
      Best wishes, Paul

  8. Hi Ger,
    I like your article. It’s always useful to fight hypes en to show people that reality is much more complicated than you can tell in one phrase. What I like to add at the discussion is the certification process of informal learning, This is nearly a contradiction in terminology. I think the mozilla open badges project (which is about recognition of skills and achievments, also, those out of school,http://openbadges.org/en-US/ ) can provide in this need.
    Best wishes,
    Geert Berghuis

  9. pauldrasmussen says:

    Hi Ger,

    One of the things that has always concerned me about the 70:20:10 idea, is that in reality there is no real research to back up the numbers. A lot of people tend to treat it as gospel now, but when you look at where it comes from there is very little evidence to support it. That being said I believe that a lot of the learning we do comes from informal sources, but for me one of the issues at least organisationally is how to turn informal learning into recognisable competency. Informal learning is great but unless there is some form of assessment to show the person is competent, then how is the knowledge that has been gained moving towards outcomes staff or organisations


  10. pauldrasmussen says:

    Reblogged this on Organisational Learning and Development and commented:
    A well thought out discussion of 70:20:10

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