70:20:10 model criticisms, origins and evidences

The 70:20:10 learning model has gained much attention over the years. Now, many businesses look to encourage it every day. However, is there any supporting evidence for the framework? Discover the origins of 70:20:10, the criticisms, and the supporting evidence of this learning model.

By Kasper Spiro on Mar 12th

70-20-10 criticisms

The 70-20-10 model’s origin

The 70:20:10 learning model is booming. You will even find online communities dedicated to the model. But really, where does the framework come from?

Authors and researchers McCall, Lombardo, and Morrison carried out a study in the 1980s. They looked into the finer details of learning and development to understand how executives gained success.

In their study, they asked nearly 200 executives to identify key events during their careers and what they had learned from these experiences. The 70:20:10 framework was a result of the research. At the time, experts were the only ones who knew about the mode. The wider public didn’t know about it yet.

Years later, in the early 2000s, learning expert Jay Cross published the book Informal Learning. He advises how to support, nurture, and leverage informal learning at the workplace. After that, 70:20:10 got a larger audience and became more well-known. Cross created the Internet-Time Alliance in the early 2000s, too.

The think-tank focusses on organizational learning and performance. Learning experts Jane Hart, Harold Jarche, Charles Jennings, and Clark Quinn work there and support organizations to embrace and adopt new ways of working and learning.

Someone else who worked on putting the 70:20:10 model in the spotlight is Charles Jennings. He continued Cross’s work by speaking about the 70:20:10 model at events and writing about it in his books.

Due to all these efforts, the 70:20:10 framework finally became known among a broader public. Also, it has opened the eyes of L&D managers who started to realize how valuable informal learning is. That is why informal learning now takes up the most prominent part of the 70:20:10 model.

Which are the 70 20 10 model criticisms?

Despite its rise in popularity and the fact that many people believe it is 70:20:10 is still relevant, many people and organizations point to problems. A big part of the 70 20 10 model criticism has to do with the lack of empirical supporting data and the use of absolute numbers. Let’s take a look at all the 70:20:10 model learning criticisms.

Criticism 1. Lack of empirical supporting data

For their research, McCall, Lombardo, and Morrison asked about 200 executives to fill in surveys. The executives had to identify three events in their careers that made them manage differently, what had happened, and what they had learned from them. Many people argue that there is a lack of empirical data gathered based on this survey. And not just that, many people have questioned the decision to survey managers who had already experienced success.  

Criticism 2. Uncertainty about the origin

As recently as 2012, authors Masden and Kajewski thought there was very little observation within the research. Also, they said that there could not be absolute certainty of the origin. After this and other research, learning professionals are always urged to remember that the 70:20:10 learning model is purely theoretical. With no scientific backing, it is solely advice given from 200 executives at the time of asking.

Criticism 3. The percentages are too exact

Many critics, learning expert Will Thalheimer in particular, dislike the model because it uses exact proportions. In 2006, Thalheimer questioned how often research results offer even percentages like those seen in the 70:20:10 learning model.

Criticism 4. The model doesn’t focus on formal training enough

With this learning model, only a small amount of learning comes from formal learning. Many L&D professionals argue that enabling employees to spend only 10% of their time on formal learning is not enough.

What supporting evidence shows that the 70-20-10 learning model is valuable?

Despite the critique, much evidence shows that the model is valuable if applied correctly. But what does that mean? You apply 70:20:10 correctly when you use it as a guideline instead of a strict rule. Here is some of the critique on 70:20:10 debunked.

Evidence 1. The model is meant to inspire

One of the most important things to know about 70:20:10 is that the model was created as a way to inspire other learning techniques. It is not meant to be used as a prescriptive model. As long as you keep in mind that the model is not scientific and is not a recipe for instant success, you can use it efficiently.

Evidence 2. Employees working full time learn plenty through formal learning

Even though the ratios are just a guideline, it is good to know how much formal training the 10% of the model boils down to. According to a Dutch study, employees in full-time employment work more than 1800 hours a year. That means that they have over 180 hours a year to spend on formal learning. However, according to the numbers of Statistics Netherlands, employees only spend 35 hours a year on formal learning. So while opponents say that 10% of formal learning is not enough, most employees don’t even reach that number. Besides, most of us spend large amounts of time on formal learning when we are in kindergarten, school, and university or college. We obtain most of our knowledge there before we start our careers.

Evidence 3. The model’s percentages are flexible enough to apply to any organization

Since 70/20/10 is not a fixed rule but a guideline, it’s up to you how you apply it in your organization. Some organizations use the framework to target performance development outcomes, while others use it in combination with their learning philosophies. You can use it to your advantage.

Evidence 4: it’s an efficient way of learning that improves productivity and performance

Informal learning covers the most significant part of 70:20:10. And thanks to that, employees don’t have to wait for formal training anymore. They can ask colleagues or use available learning content to learn a new skill or obtain knowledge. Also, they can work on a specific topic or skill with their coach or mentor and improve their performance while working on their daily tasks. This framework allows employees to integrate learning activities in their work, enabling them to work more productively and increase the quality of their output.

Evidence 5: research shows that employees find collaboration more valuable than formal learning

Research done by Charles Jennings and Towards Maturity shows that 90% of employees find collaboration essential. Only 37% think the same about formal learning. Having a learning approach that embraces the 70:20:10 model enables employees to learn 90% of things through collaboration, making the model extremely valuable.

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About the author

Kasper Spiro is the CEO of Easygenerator and a recognized thought leader in the world of e-learning. With over 30 years of experience, he is a frequently asked keynote speaker and well-renowned blogger within the e-learning community.

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