Home > Uncategorized > Let’s kill a few learning holy cows – 70:20:10 is dead (or at least seriously ill)

Let’s kill a few learning holy cows – 70:20:10 is dead (or at least seriously ill)

Harold Jarche (@hjarche) recently wrote a blog post that contains a number of items I profoundly disagree with, so much so that it’s time for a new blog post from me.  I actually agree with many of his conclusions; unfortunately the road Harold takes to get there is filled with potholes.

Starting from the top, those potholes are:

  1. 80% of learning on the job is informal;
  2. individual learning in organizations is irrelevant;
  3. learner-centric learning objectives are not justifiable

I’ll take items two and three first, because the 80:20 ‘pothole’ is more of a bottomless pit and I’ll devote the bulk of this post to it.

Let’s start with: “individual learning in organizations is irrelevant”,  the argument being that work is done by teams and networks, therefore the individual is less/not important.  Whilst I absolutely support the implication in Harold’s post that context crucial and that none of us exist in a vacuum, I am reminded of one of my favourite quotes (if only I could remember who said it!) “Without people, companies are just depreciating assets”.  Organizations don’t learn (sorry Mr. Senge).  Teams don’t learn.  Networks don’t learn.  People learn.  People can learn to perform (better) in organizational, network or team contexts; they can even learn in teams, but organizations and teams don’t learn. (we could go off and discuss whether processes and/or culture count as organizational memory, but in both cases they are either created or instantiated by people.  Individual learning is it.  But context is crucial.

Next one: “learner-centric learning objectives are not justifiable”. Harold argues that learning objectives should be crafted as “the organization will be able to …”, not “the learner will be able to …”.  Again, organizations don’t do things. People do.  The role of the corporate learning organization is to develop human capability to execute business strategy.  A key skill of the members of the training team is therefore to work with business leaders to translate company goals and strategies into objectives that can be achieved via learning.  The goal of a learning program should be to “enable [employees/partners/customers…] to achieve [company objective].  Learning objectives should support the program goal.

Finally, let’s talk about the 80% thing (alternatively stated as the 70:20:10 rule – 70% of learning is informal/experiential, 20% comes from mentoring/feedback, and only 10% comes from formal learning).  The implication that often follows references to 70:20:10 is that we are wasting resources on formal training, and that social collaboration/informal learning is some sort of nirvana.

I really don’t want to target Harold for this one.  He’s simply repeating what many others have said before him.  The 70:20:10 mantra has reached almost hysterical levels in corporate learning circles.

But all is not what it seems.

I recently had the privilege to spend a few days at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania with a number of academics and a hundred or so senior corporate learning folks like me.  We were attending the 2010 Global Leadership Congress organized by the Corporate University Exchange. (Great event, by the way.  Thanks Alan and team!)  Both prior to and during the event I spent time with Dr Doug Lynch. Doug opened my eyes about a few things, but most notably about 70:20:10.

Doug asked a couple of simple questions: (a) is 70:20:10 true, and (b) if so how do we know?  Everyone in the learning space seems to assume (a) is true, but we all get a bit vague about (b).  The answer to (b) is almost always “because I read it in ____ (insert your favourite training magazine title here)”.  Doug therefore set his post-grad students a simple challenge: find the source of the 70:20:10 concept.  The results are at best worrying and at worst frightening.  The following is taken from information presented by Doug at the event):

  • If you google “70:20:10” you get 2.25m hits.  That’s right, 2.25m.  Hits are split between the education model, and the business resource management model of the same name
  • “Informal learning” gets you 402,000 hits, as of the time of writing this post.
  • 70:20:10 was the subject of the 2009 ASTD study, “Tapping the Potential of Informal Learning” (exec summary PDF here)
  • There is even a Wikipedia article
  • Informal learning has been covered in just about every training publication and in the mainstream media, including the Harvard Business Review

The problem is that almost no-one, including the Wikipedia article and HRB cites the original research for 70:20:10 applied to education.

So what does the research have to say on 70:20:10?

  • If you step away from the mainstream, you get 46,800 hits with in Google Scholar
  • If you drill down to what might be called ‘authoritative sources’, things get a little narrower.  There are a grand total of 46 EBSCO (Peer reviewed) Articles
  • If you examine the peer reviewed articles, there is not one single empirical study that validates 70:20:10

That’s right.  Not one. (I hope someone out there can prove me – or rather Doug – wrong on this one)

70:20:10 was never researched; it was conceptualized by Tough in 1968 and put forward as a hypothesis.

Think about it.  All of that wild hysteria that has built up around social learning and collaboration?  All that time and dollars/pounds/euros you are spending on collaboration systems?  Built on a house of cards.  Er. Um.  Time for a headache pill.

Please don’t get me wrong.  I’m as big a supporter of collaborative and experiential learning and the use of social media and web 2.0 tools and techniques for learning as the next person, if not more so.

My engineering background would just like things to be on a bit firmer footing.  Any Academics out there up for a challenge?

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  1. May 9th, 2010 at 08:38 | #1

    I wrote “~80%” (not 70-20-10, & please read the previous posts, as this is a blog post, not a thesis)

    Sources cited in Jay Cross, Informal Learning, Appendix B (p. 243):

    Marcia Connor 2005 75% informal
    Bureau of Labor Stats 1996 70% informal
    Raybould 2000 85-90% on the job
    Dobbs 2000 Ed Dev Center Newton Mass. 1997 70% on job informal
    Lloyd 2000 75% informal
    eLearning Guild 2005 70% informal
    NALL OISE (University of Toronto) 1998 70% informal; from lead researcher, David Livingston, “The major conclusion from this survey is that our organized systems of schooling and continuing education and training are like big ships floating in a sea of informal learning. If these education and training ships do not pay increasing attention to the massive amount of outside informal learning, many of them are likely to sink into Titanic irrelevancy.”

  2. Ann Schulte
    May 9th, 2010 at 19:29 | #2

    Nick…many claim 70/20/10 as the way…if there is no evidence, let’s go at it…

  3. James Duffy
    May 10th, 2010 at 19:16 | #3


    I regard you as an enlightened, thoughtful practitioner of education applied in the corporate world. I have read this blog and am writing in comment.

    I believe your assessment of Jarche’s second and third “potholes” is spot on. I share your admonition of Peter Senge (Fifth Discipline (organizational learning), “Organizations don’t learn.” and your assertion “People learn.” I would expand it to people learn from other people. Mentoring would be a useful topic for exploration in a future blog/article. In fact, you might have here the beginning of a series on workplace learning.

    Your statement about organizational memory is a relevant, appropriate clarifying follow-on. You could–and should–go off and discuss the crucial nature of organizational memory in another blog/article. Without careful, continuous attention to organizational memory–the collective, captured and applied learning of individuals–the adage about those who ignore history are destined to repeat its mistakes is verified.

    Regarding the 80:20/70:20:10 “mantra”, I would offer that searching for its educational-related application probably is not worth the time. I suggest it is simply the application of what is known as the Pareto Principle/Pareto’s Law–Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, 1906–(the 80:20–actually, mathematically it is 82:18– Rule/the Law of the Vital Few) to this arena. Pareto’s Law is such a commonly used rule-of-thumb in business, it makes sense to me that it got applied to learning.

    I hope you will continue to make observations like these; perhaps work them into presentations both at HDS and in public.

  4. Chris
    July 5th, 2010 at 20:16 | #4

    I agree with Nick – it amazes me how even seemingly educated and professional people start bleating the 70:20:10 refrain only because the company said it was so. Nobody asks “how do you know?” I once called it a “theory” and got strange looks because everyone knows it is a fact that can’t be questioned. It seems to me these corporate types are trying to turn back our whole enlightenment-generated culture by selling theory as fact. We should always be willing to ask difficult questions when the corporate taliban come forth with the latest ‘facts’ for us to repeat.

  5. August 16th, 2010 at 13:09 | #5


    I think 80/20 is “roughly right”, which is likely good enough for most business executives. I have not seen ANY evidence to indicate that 70-20-10 is anything but good natured guessing from well intentioned practitioners.

    Great article Nick,


  6. David White
    May 29th, 2011 at 17:35 | #6

    Thought-provoking article – thank you. I was originally looking for sources to describe how to support 70:20:10, but I’m happy to pause awhile to rethink.

    Can you point to an alternative model – other than 70:20:10 – that you think is more accurate?


  7. njh
    May 30th, 2011 at 11:16 | #7

    The problem is there is almost no peer reviewed research in the area. There ARE plenty of anecdotal stories about the efficacy of communities of practice to solve problems, but the extent to which this translates into ‘learning’ is unclear. Ultimately it comes back to the business problem you are trying to solve. Historically formal learning is pretty much always targeted at ‘just-in-case’ learning and by definition is separated in time from the need. There is definitely a need for ‘just-in-time’ activities and these are worth investing in. I don’t think it matters whether it is 70:20:10 or 30:40:30 or whatever number you come up with – there is a need for foundational skills building and context creation AND for targeted performance support. The learning/training organization should play a fundamental role in both of these.

  8. July 4th, 2011 at 08:44 | #8

    do you have the refernce for the Tough study from 1968 please?

  9. njh
    July 4th, 2011 at 15:32 | #9

    Check out this link: http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED025688&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=ED025688

    Allen Tough’s work is study of 35 people in the Toronto area. And from this foundation the edifice is built…

  10. Gerry
    September 5th, 2011 at 04:55 | #10

    I heard someone espouse the 70/20/10 approach at a conference last week – as part of a presentation about how they came to be an employer of choice, and their implementation framework.

    Given my observations about the usefulness or otherwise of formal training, and some intellectual wrestling with colleagues about the underlying purpose and intent of performance development programs, I thought I’d explore it further.

    I Googled… found a reference to Princeton Uni where I found reference to a publication and the Centre for Creative Leadership, where I failed to find any specific link to 70/20/10 (cursory search I admit, however the Princeton reference indicated it could be a bull’s eye – it wasn’t).

    Further Google-ing reveals frequent comments that the approach was developed by Princeton… who in turn describe this as a philosophy…


    And as a result of all this clicking, I came across this feed and am delighted – and interested as I have been following Harold Jarche for a little while now…

    Thanks for giving me another (and valuable) perspective!

  11. February 8th, 2012 at 17:07 | #11

    Hi Nick

    The average employee spend about 5 days per annum in the classroom (I am guessing) and about 300 on the job.

    As Alan Todd commented: it makes intuitive sense.

    Personally I did not look for research – saw it as a variation of the Pareto Principle.

    It makes commercial sense to structure the social/ experiential interactions in an organisation (to the extent that it is practicable) to be optimized for learning.

    Organisations will be crippled if they can only move forward when every decision has to be based on a peer-review study.

    Sometimes the Hawthorne Effect will just kick in and it does not matter if the strategy is right, just ‘doing’ something will have a positive effect..

  12. Stephen Mugford
    March 8th, 2012 at 20:49 | #12

    Dennis’ point about Hawthorne is interesting. There are, however, two caveats. First, while I don’t have the reference to hand, I have recently seen quite good evidence to suggest that this too may be a ‘sacred cow study’: everyone knows it and cites it but when re-examined, the data don’t actually support the famous conclusions. Second, and more importantly, the appeal to intuitive sense re 70/20/10 is not necessarily wise. In Tim Wilson’s recent book REDIRECT he has a very nice argument early on about numerous programs that “make intuitive sense” but when properly evaluated they turn out to be what, following an old medical model, he calls ‘blistering’ (painful and ineffective)’ or ‘bloodletting’ (actively counter-productive).
    While I can see why informal leaning cannot be trivial, I would really like to see more a better evidence base before I follow the 70/20/10 line.

  13. avidreader
    March 30th, 2012 at 18:27 | #13

    I had been suspicious of that 70-20-10 model from the outset, because to me the model just doesn’t look right — this is pure intuition of course, nothing scientific here.

    If I look at my own career and the learning I’ve done so far, it’s easy for me to see that most of what I have learned, I have NOT learned informally. I have learned IN SCHOOL (or in books), and I have practiced at work. Of course, practice is an important part of anyone’s life, but practice doesn’t necessarily equal learning. Practice gives you experience in what you’ve already learned, but doesn’t necessarily lead to new learning; and if it does, it will be the exception rather than the norm. Of course I value experience, but again experience does not equal learning. So maybe we should define or redefine what learning actually means.

    There are instances where you actually do learn informally; this may happen as a result of a major change in your organization or when you go out of your comfort zone and try something you have never tried before. But this will likely happen at discrete moments in your life, not continuously. So I’m not sure why so much emphasis is put on informal learning, as if it were a panacea.

    I know for a fact that I have learned more in the four years I spent in college – both formally and informally – than in the ensuing 12 years, working a ‘regular’ job. And of course this makes perfect sense because the purpose of going to school is to LEARN in the first place. I’m not sure where this idea, that informal learning is somehow better or more effeicient than formal learning, actually comes from.

    I have a feeling that this model has become popular among managements everywhere, because business organizations have always been reluctant to spend much money on general training for their employees. They do not always see a tangible return on investment (and who can blame them?). So this 70-20-10 model gives executives the ‘intellectual excuse’ they need to keep under-investing in their employees’ education. Again, this is pure intuition, nothing scientific.

  14. Kevin
    April 18th, 2012 at 01:57 | #14

    Are we assuming that the 70-20-10 is a reflection on where the good learning has come from? I wonder where people would propose bad learning (i.e. acquiring skills, views, habits and behaviours that diminish effectiveness) comes from. 85-10-5? An over reliance on informal training could blind-side an organisation allowing untested and possibly dangerous memes to develop and spread. A bit like how the 70-20-10 meme has infected the learning industry?

  1. May 9th, 2010 at 02:27 | #1
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  4. July 15th, 2011 at 17:42 | #4
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