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Implementing the 70:20:10 model with Action Based Learning

Translating digital learning into experience: Implementing the 70:20:10 model with Action Based Learning

Experiential learning and the 70:20:10 model

We’ve had 20 years of engaging debate since three writers came up with their theory on how learning can be broken down into three apparently distinct areas.

In 1996, Morgan McCall, Michael M Lombardo and Robert W Eichinger wrote in their book, The Career Architect Development Planner, that their research indicated people gain only about 10% of their working knowledge from formal training, 20% from working with and learning from others, and a massive 70% from everyday activities in their working day.

While I am always wary of anything that divides up so neatly, they did indicate that this conclusion was an approximation. There are many arguments over the numbers here and the proportions may vary significantly from role to role. But the basic principle is probably true – most effective training comes through practical application.

The authors were basically reflecting the constructivist thinking of 20th century educational philosophers and psychologists, such as Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. In a nutshell, the constructivist premise is that people form their understanding from current knowledge and new experiences. This understanding becomes personal knowledge, which can then be applied to the next experience – it’s one of those lovely virtuous circles.

There continues to be much argument around the 70:20:10 model, though most do see it as a reasonably sensible analysis. Some have suggested that it logically means that only 10% of training budgets should be spent on formal training, but perhaps the key lesson is that really good training should include a mix of formal, social, and personal learning through practical application. 

70:20:10 or 10:20:70?

To clear up any potential confusion, I think that the model should actually be inverted. If the 70% comes first, it has an implied chronological precedence. If we followed a path that said learning from personal, non-mentored experience came first, then I for one would not be happy to go to the dentist and find a novice with drill in hand, on their first day at work. I want my dental professional to be thoroughly trained and rigorously assessed before they get anywhere near my molars.

If you turn 70:20:10 on its head, giving you 10:20:70, you have a much more useful model. Our new starters receive some formal training in the fundamentals and can extend this by interacting with peers. When they have a good grasp of the core skills, they can then apply them to solving problems on their own. 


Experiential learning and the 70:20:10 model

Some practical problems with a 70:20:10 roll-out

The original research was based on successful executives who were asked about key events in their careers that made a difference to how they managed (70:20:10: Where Is the Evidence?

The research was focused on individuals who were already successful in their careers and were, one assumes, good at their jobs. With basic skills established, learners can start to reap the benefits of personal experience.

This highlights two problems with an across-the-board rush to a 70:20:10 model that ignores the nuanced nature of education and training.

Different roles

In business management, there is seldom a requirement for very product-specific, technical skills. For example, a senior IT consultant may be required to understand the strategic implications of security rather than being expected to know how to configure a computer’s security protocol.

Equally, in the retail sector, a senior director should be able to negotiate deals with large suppliers or project buying requirements, but would not be expected to discuss with a customer the comparative differences between two products. In both cases, there was probably a time when the execs could have done the hands-on job – but they don’t need to now.

They may well have started their careers with education and training on the basic principles, before receiving further training and lots of practical experience. But they had to start somewhere and some form of centrally provided ‘official’ training is essential in most environments.

The lack of structure in informal learning

Traditionally there is an either/or feeling about the three divisions; learning is either formal, or collaborative, or experiential.

For classroom-based learning, this is far from the truth. A good instructional designer provides baked-in discussion points and exercises that reflect real-world situations. This is enhanced by an instructor who encourages collaboration and even experimentation; a safe environment where the individual and the group can share their own experiences. The point here is that combining different learning methods will almost certainly give a better result – the problem is, how do we do it in the digital realm?

Digital learning and 70:20:10

In digital learning (eLearning and mobile learning) you can probably already see the problem – there are no classmates, no instructor, and no easy-to-deliver practical exercises. For digital learning designers, this is a major challenge. 


Digital learning and 70:20:10

Solutions to the problems of using the 70:20:10 model for digital learning

Practical, real-world assignments provide a potential solution for this problem.

By using this Action Based Learning approach and assigning a range of tasks and activities, an instructor, mentor or manager can pose challenges to learners, much in the way you would assign a module in a course.

The difference is that an Action Based Learning task does not have to be a series of click-through HTML pages. It can be a completely offline challenge, such as organising a meeting with a line manager to discuss a Project X or write a 500-word proposal (or create a project Gantt chart, or photograph some handiwork, or record a telephone call, or video a sales meeting – the list is endless).
When a learner has completed the assignment components, they can upload their proof (the proposal, an email from their line manager confirming that the meeting took place, pictures or videos, or any other digital evidence) to the Learning Management System (LMS).

Action Based Learning assignments go a step further than just providing the vehicle for encouraging truly experiential learning. The mentor or manager who sets the challenge can engage in a one-to-one dialogue with the learner about submissions. This means that, like other real-life experiences, an assignment can go through multiple iterations and be subject to feedback and contemplation.

The best experiential learning encourages the ability to reflect on and revise our efforts, based on discussions with others who are more knowledgeable – such as a line manager, lecturer, mentor, or whoever set the challenge.

Final thoughts

I believe that the Action Based Learning approach is a game changer for digital learning and the 70:20:10 model.

Training programmes can now include the 10% of formal learning provided in multiple formats, the 20% of social and collaborative learning, and the 70% of practical application and problem solving. As a learning exercise, it goes further than the 70:20:10 model ever could.

The supportive mentor means that even new staff can learn from skinning their metaphorical knees – with a guiding hand to help them focus and reflect on their efforts.

John Devaney
Author: John Devaney

This article was published by John Devaney on 08.02.2017. I’m a former Principal Technologist at Agylia. My background is in teaching, lecturing, and IT. I'm currently working on my Masters Degree in Digital Learning at the University of Edinburgh.

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