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Why the 70:20:10 approach matters


We’ve all done it. There’s no point denying it. Every single one of us has misunderstood a song lyric at some point in our life. One of my friends used to think that Michael Jackson was singing “Be dead! Be dead! No one wants to be dead, be dead!” in his song ‘Beat It’, and one of my favourite misheard lyrics is “Here we are now, in containers. Avocado, mashed potatoes” from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana.

So what do misheard song lyrics have to do with 70:20:10?

In a similar way to Michael Jackson and Kurt Cobain’s lyrics, the 70:20:10 approach is commonly misunderstood. Misconceptions and erroneous interpretations abound. So today, I’m going to try and bring some clarity to what can be mashed potatoes…I mean muddy waters.

What it is

70:20:10 is one of the most widespread organisational learning models. The numbers provide a framework to understand the ways in which learning happens in the workplace.

70% of learning comes from on-the-job experience.
20% of learning is social; from interacting with and getting feedback from colleagues, clients and superiors.
10% is from formal training, whether in a classroom or online.

According to Charles Jennings (who has a blog here), one of the world’s leading experts on the model states, “70:20:10 is a reference model or framework that helps organisations extend their focus on learning and development beyond the classroom and course-based eLearning to build more resilient workforces and create cultures of continuous learning.”

Essentially, if you’re serious about cultivating a learning culture in your organisation, then it’s worth considering adopting the 70:20:10 framework.

‘Be dead’ and Common misunderstandings

Here I address a few of the most common misheard lyrics of 70:20:10.

“There’s no evidence to support it” / “It has no impact”

I’m a big fan of evidence. I think it comes from a combination of my academic background and the hundreds of episodes of CSI that I’ve watched over the years. Ideas must be tested, especially ones that are influential and I’m quite sceptical of ideas that have not. Towards Maturity recently released a report about the 70:20:10 model and found that it can have a significant business impact. Below are some of my favourite statistics (you can find a full summary here).

Companies that implement the 70:20:10 model:

  • are 3 times as likely to report improvement in staff motivation.
  • are 5 times as likely to be able to attract top talent.
  • are two times as likely to report improvement in customer satisfaction scores.
  • 56% report that their organisations are more responsive and agile.


“You have to stick precisely to the number ratio in order for it to be effective”

The ratio of 70:20:10 is not a scientific measurement to guide precisely how you implement the model. The numbers should be seen more like a guide to help you address performance problems from multiple angles rather than simply from the angle of formal training.

“70:20:10 is anti-formal training”

The 70:20:10 methodology is not anti-training, it’s pro-training culture. Training and elearning are often seen as single, isolated events that punctuate the life of an employee; where you physically or virtually attend a course in order to learn a new skill and then do nothing else about it. What this methodology does, is make it easier for companies to adopt a learning culture, where a performance issue can be tackled in multiple ways.

An example of 70:20:10 in action

Let’s look at a fictional example to try and illustrate this model in action. Imagine that your company, Stuff Inc., is losing a lot of money due to damaged goods in warehouses. Upon investigation, you discover that there are a few things that employees are doing wrong when operating forklifts, which result in damaged goods. Another aspect of the problem is that you get all sorts of shapes and sizes of goods and operators often don’t know how best to lift, stack or move an item.

This problem would best be addressed through formal (the 10%), social (the 20%) and experiential learning (the 70%).

  • For the formal aspect you have a short, action-packed and relevant elearning course made that addresses the wrong practices.
  • For the social aspect the forklift operators adopt an ‘instant messaging app’ that allows them to ask colleagues for instant advice when they’re unsure of the best way of moving a particularly awkward item. 
  • Finally, because operating a forklift is quite complicated and involves lots of different procedures and maintenance practices, there’s no way the employees will ever remember everything. So, you create a couple of attractive posters and decals for the machines for the quick reference of the operators.

If you’d like help in identifying how to address a performance issue in your company or you'd like to find out more about commonly misheard song lyrics, then get in touch.