Should you still rely on the 70-20-10 learning model?

The 70-20-10 learning model is almost 40 years old. While the number 40 might – let’s face it – make the model sound old and dated, it still hasn’t quite passed its sell-by date. 


Yet many find themselves questioning whether it’s still relevant today. Is it completely obsolete, or simply misunderstood? And what tools should you use to implement it at your company? 


Before we answer these questions, let’s go over the basics.

What is the 70-20-10 learning model?

In the mid-’80s, three researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership surveyed 200 executives about their learning philosophy. Morgan McCall, Robert Eichinger and Michael Lombardo then crunched the numbers, and found out that: 


  • 70% of the learning came from challenging assignments
  • 20% from developmental relationships
  • 10% from coursework and training


This is how the 70-20-10 model was born. Turned into guidelines for training new employees, it was used to recommend that 70% of the learning should be based on real-life experience, 20% on social interactions, and 10% only had to come from training sessions.

Common misunderstandings

First, let’s get one thing straight: this model is a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule. The researchers who made it clear that the ratio isn’t fixed, and the numbers are rounded only to make it easy to remember. Plus, not all learning activities have to fit into one of the three categories, and it won’t be as effective for all workers.


More importantly, the 70-20-10 learning model isn’t ‘anti-training’. It is not about reducing courses and educational programmes to a mere 10% of the whole. It’s about integrating both formal and informal learning into every area of the workplace. 


Though many believed the model lacked empirical data. This all changed in 2019, when a scientific study, looking at the performance of Australian public sector managers since 2011, found that the 70-20-10 model actually had the potential to boost learning across all organisations.

Limitations and criticisms

Of course, the model comes with flaws.


Especially for those who, thanks to the colossal amount of information available online, rely on internet-led, informal training. For them, this new focus inevitably skews the 70:20:10 ratio and renders the model obsolete.


Meanwhile, other L&D leaders have tried to reverse the order to 10-20-70, to show that formal training offers the strongest foundations of knowledge – and so must come first. 


Others complain that the numbers are completely off for people in executive or leading positions. They argue that formal and social learning are significantly more important, sometimes making up for more than half of how they learn. 


The biggest criticism of the model, though, is that the numbers do not help. We all know that the best training is the one that hits at the right time and resonates with the right people. 


But trying to measure and plan where successful training comes from is neither possible nor useful. Optimising performance requires attention to both individual capacity and the environment, at all times.

Key benefits of the 70-20-10 model

Still, even when taking these criticisms into consideration, the 70-20-10 model has its uses. 


It:

  • Reminds us that employees learn all the time
  • Emphasises the need for blended learning
  • Gives guidelines on where to allocate your effort
  • Is flexible enough to deploy innovative learning methods


The potential to explore new learning methods inspired by the 70-20-10 model is particularly exciting in the L&D space. Introducing new learning opportunities in the workplace is a great opportunity to think creatively about how to mix formal, social and informal training.


There are plenty of fantastic concrete examples, too: Busuu’s online language courses, for instance, perfectly blend self-paced, formal training (via structured exercises), with one-to-one tutoring. – allowing the learner to learn in their own time, then reinforce their knowledge with a qualified expert. 


And because learning a new language is, at its core, social, employees can put what they’ve learned into practice with colleagues in an informal setting, during conversations or group-led activities.


Better yet, digital language learning is not simply learning for learning’s sake. There are countless examples showing that language training done right, is key to opening doors to exciting business opportunities. Take Palladium Hotel Group as an example: the luxury hotel group harnessed language learning to help their staff turn guest experiences into repeat customers.

To sum up: it’s still a valid guideline, with the right tools

So, to recap: the 70-20-10 learning model is flexible, adaptable and a sound guideline for L&D leaders. 


In fact, once you move past the numbers and ratios, it’s a brilliant reminder that learning happens in many ways, and that – provided you have the tools to to effectively track training success – your programmes should cover all the bases, including informal training and social learning. 


Looking for a way to prove success on your own learning model? Download Busuu’s guide on the 7 learning metrics that help prove L&D ROI.


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