Janet Brady, PhD

Organisational Linguist

The 70 20 10 model of development: Do we really understand it?

The 70 20 10 model of development should be used as a guide not a formula, and should not be accepted at face-value by organisations.

While the 70 20 10 model helps us appreciate just how much our on-the-job experiences contribute to total workplace learning, we need to be aware of the model’s limitations when we use it. For example:

  • The model is based on interviews, surveys and personnel records, and is not combined with other methods such as the time-consuming and expensive activity of directly observing people at work i.e. on-the-ground research.
  • The composition of the “20%” component of the 70 20 10 model varies; in other words, what it represents is contestable.

702010 modelTo give you an example, at my research site the 70 20 10 model is referred to as the “3E’s” which stands for Experience, Exposure and Education.

This classification roughly corresponds to the work of Wick¹ in which 74% of learning occurs on the job (Experience), 19% occurs during off-the-job development experiences such as college, military service, or divorce (Exposure), and 7% occurs during company sponsored training courses (Education).

An alternate interpretation of the “20%” comes from research by McCall, Lombardo and Morrison². These authors claim that 20% of learning features specific people – notably organisational superiors – rather than events.

Under this interpretation, the “20%” component of the 70-20-10 model is given the label of coaching and feedback – happily for the army of consultants and coaches now occupying this lucrative niche.

One problem not widely publicised is the challenge faced by researchers when they need to allocate reported learning experiences to a category.

For example, if the “20%” component represents coaching and feedback, would you consider an hour-long briefing given by an experienced manager to a newly promoted manager “coaching” or “learning on-the-job”? What if this briefing includes the communicative activities of advising, instructing, teaching, suggesting and giving feedback?

What would you decide if you now consider research by Enos, Kehrhahn and Bell³ who examine how managers develop proficiency? These researchers found that 70% of total learning happens on the job and 30% happens elsewhere (more consistent with Wick’s categories), and that 63% of on-the-job learning – or 44% of total learning – is through interactions with others.

In other words, Enos, Kehrhahn and Bell would include the briefing as part of the 70% component of the 70 20 10 model regardless of whether it is coaching or instruction, and whether it includes feedback or not.

Have I convinced you not to adopt the 70 20 10 model as a formula?

Do you agree that it functions best as a reminder of the important contribution of on-the-job experience to workplace learning and as a prod to ensure that we consider how we support ourselves and others to make the most of our potential learning opportunities embedded in workplace experiences?

Finally, the 70 20 10 model has become a consultant’s tool. If you are interested in independent research on how individuals learn on the job, I suggest you seek the work of workplace learning researchers unaligned with corporate universities or consultancies. Examples include Yrjö Engeström, Michael Eraut and Victoria Marsick.

References:

  1. Wick, C. (1989). How people develop: An In-depth look. HR Reporter, 6(7), 1,6.
  2. McCall, M. W., Lombardo, M. M., & Morrison, A. M. (1988). The Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop on the Job. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
  3. Enos, M., Kehrhahn, M. T., & Bell, A. (2003). Informal learning and the transfer of learning: How managers develop proficiency. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 14(4), 369-387.
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