Blog »

70:20:10 Model: Credible or Controversial?

In recent years, L&D blogs have been humming with posts about the 70:20:10 model for learning and development — which, despite the massive amounts of attention it gets, garners mostly mixed reviews. Some L&D professionals swear by it, while others swear it’s nonsense.

What is the 70:20:10 model?

According to the 70:20:10 rule, effective workplace learning comprises:

Developed over thirty years ago by researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership, the 70:20:10 model is the result of a qualitative survey of almost 200 executives, who described how they learned new management strategies on the job. It gained popularity quickly because it’s simple, easy to remember, and delivers a lot of information in a an elegant framework.

The question is: how reliable is this information?

What do the critics say?

Some of the main criticisms of the 70:20:10 model are:

It minimizes the impact of formal training.

Unsurprisingly, the “10 percent” aspect of the model left a bad taste in the mouths of L&D professionals who are dedicated to the design and production of corporate training. Many also argue that the model hasn’t adapted to the new era of mobile and online learning.

The evidence is weak.

2007 white paper by Kajewski and Madsen reported that “it is clear that there is a lack of empirical data supporting 70:20:10 and…there is also a lack of certainty about the origin.” Cathy Moore says “the numbers give the impression that this is a science-y formula, which can easily lead to misapplication by people who are looking for a quick solution.”

The original survey gathered flawed information.

Several L&D professionals were quick to point out that asking executives to self-report how they learn best isn’t the most scientific way to gather this information; after all, learners aren’t always able to be objective about how they take in new knowledge. In addition, the small sample size only included executives of a certain professional level, casting doubts on the model’s applicability to other populations.

The numbers seem too perfect.

How often does research knit itself perfectly into exact multiples of 10? Never, say most critics — unless you’re being imprecise, in which case, how credible is your argument?

What do the supporters say?

In response to these criticisms, supporters of the 70:20:10 model claim:

70:20:10 isn’t meant to be an exact equation.

The lack of evidence is brushed off by advocates who say that the model isn’t meant to be viewed as an empirically valid construct. Charles Jennings is quick to point out that “70:20:10 is a reference model and not a recipe. The numbers are not a rigid formula. They simply remind us… that the majority of learning and development comes through experiential and social learning in the workplace (the ‘70’ and ‘20’) rather than through formal classes and courses (the ‘10’).”

Harold Jarche also calls it a “useful model” that “provide[s] a rule of thumb, especially for planning and resource allocation to support learning at work.”

Many companies have benefited from applying the model.

The 70:20:10 Forum contains a few case studies of successful 70:20:10 implementation, including one international company who found that the model delivered their learning needs.

So what’s the verdict?

It seems that one thing both sides can agree on is that the 70:20:10 model is meant to be held lightly. Under statistical and empirical scrutiny, the framework falls apart — yet perhaps its underlying value as a reminder of the necessity for multiple types of learning still remains. Whichever side you land on, it’s likely that you will agree that to some extent, effective learning involves a mixture of methods that include experiential, social, and formal.