Informal rule of thumb

I was talking to a financial advisor at a bank the other day and I asked her what kind of professional development she did. The bank has a central online learning portal where employees can take “courses”, particularly compliance training. The financial advisor told me she just went to the end of each course and did the test. She found it rather useless. I talked about some of the communities that we have supported for sharing professional development, like our workshops, and she said it would great to have access to something like this, but it would be blocked by the IT department.

I have heard similar stories from many professionals in different industries and government agencies over the years. Developing all of this compliance training must account for a significant amount of revenue for the e-learning industry (anyone have figures on this?). It cannot be very satisfying though. It’s probably demoralizing to think that most of these courses are actually detested by the end-users. But then humans have excellent coping mechanisms for cognitive dissonance.

One reason I support the 70-20-10 framework is that it can change management’s focus.  It’s a way to see the forest and not just count trees. First, let me say that 70-20-10 is a rule of thumb, not a recipe.

rule of thumb is a principle with broad application that is not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation. It is an easily learned and easily applied procedure for approximately calculating or recalling some value, or for making some determination. ~ Wikipedia

This rule of thumb is supported by evidence though. Studies show that informal learning accounts for between 70 and 95% of workplace learning  [USBLS: 70%; Raybould: 95%; EDC: 70%; CapitalWorks: 75%; OISE: 70%; eLG: 70%; Allen Tough: 80%]. I have previously referred to Gary Wise and his extrapolation of Josh Bersin’s data from 2009. According to Gary, as much as 95% of workplace learning is informal.

Many organizations only offer sanctioned courses as professional development. This is completely inadequate in a complex work environment. It is like the central planning policies of the Soviet Union. It is arrogant to think that we can know in advance what people need to learn on the job today. For example, roles like online community manager did not exist a few years ago.

In complex environments, the people who know best are those doing the work, which is why we need loose hierarchies and strong networks. The job of learning professionals, in my opinion, is to help build strong learning networks. We need to let workers learn and instead support the work being done.  Frameworks like 70-20-10 can start the conversation by asking what are we doing about the other 90%. It’s a big number; bigger than that 10% for formal instruction. Consider 9:1 a rule of thumb.

3 Responses to “Informal rule of thumb”

  1. Andrew Joly

    I agree that the real power of the 70:20:10 model is that it has made many people think hard (or perhaps even just realise) that we learn in different ways – and therefore it has opened eyes, conversations and opportunities to develop genuinely effective learning architectures.

    I would say, however, that its not even a ‘rule of thumb’ – it’s not a rule, and it’s not a principle. What it is, I believe, is an observation (with a catchy title). An observation that, if we use it (along with others in our armoury) must influence us in how we develop truly useful learning architectures that are going to work in organisations of the future.

    The danger of any rule (of thumb or any other sort) is that it can be used by different strategists according to what they want to achieve. I’ve seen it used as an argument for increasing L&D budgets, decreasing L&D budgets, opening up great opportunities as well as closing down others.

    Andrew Joly
    Design Director, LINE Communications

  2. Paul Matthews

    I agree that the 70:20:10 principle benefit is steering people to think differently and focus on different aspects of the way people learn. But I also hesitstate to liken to a rule. It starts to push us back into a corner, albeit a different one than the 70:20:10 model got us out of.

    Cheers, Paul

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