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The 70:20:10 Model: Finding the Right Balance of Formal and Informal Learning

It’s evolved over the years, but it still holds up today

By Ryan Day

What is the proper balance of formal and informal learning?

Undoubtedly, the answer fluctuates depending on the individual. There is no correct way to learn; no magic step-by-step formula to follow.

But a little guidance can’t hurt. The 70:20:10 model is intended to drive learning and development success. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) created this formula 30 years ago as a way to help professionals learn how to become effective leaders. The model consists of:

  • 70% challenging assignments (experiential)
  • 20% developmental relationships (social)
  • 10% coursework and training (formal)

Before we dissect the ratio, keep the following things in mind before you start crunching your own learning numbers in your head.

  1. While the CCL refers to 70:20:10 as a “rule,” it is more of a recommendation to guide optimal learning.
  2. The learning methods can and should overlap. They are not meant to be three isolated techniques.
  3. The order is not important.

Now let’s examine the 70:20:10 model and see how it applies to modern IT training.

 

Don’t misinterpret this number: 10%

The 70:20:10 model wasn’t intended as an insult to formal learning.

Just because traditional coursework makes up the smallest percentage, doesn’t mean it’s the least important. In fact, it’s quite the opposite—formal training provides the foundation for experiential and social learning. This model should not be used as an excuse to cut training budgets.

Think about it in terms of working days—let’s say there are 250 working days in a year; then 25 days should be devoted to formal training.

The 10% dedicated to formal learning also emphasizes the importance of selecting a training provider carefully. If you’re only focusing 10% of your learning and development efforts toward formal training, you can’t afford to swing and miss.

Tip: If you’re invested in a particular technology provider, such as AWS, Cisco or Microsoft, it’s a good idea to use one of their authorized training providers.

 

A mix of formal, informal and social learning is the best way to guarantee success

“Google it” is a feasible way to learn. But it can’t be the only way.

We encourage IT professionals to ask questions of a colleague when they’re stumped, or look over a co-worker’s shoulder when they’re seeking a new skill—just make sure to let them know you’re there first!

We also encourage them to know when social or informal learning isn’t enough. Sometimes formal training is necessary.

If you’re looking to solve a particular problem at work, researching the topic online is recommended as a first action. Seeking out colleagues or informal learning sessions can also help you pick up new skills. But for larger issues, such as product deployments or software upgrades, social and informal learning may not provide you with the in-depth or hands-on knowledge you require. In these cases, formal training is more beneficial.

The 70:20:10 model isn’t intended to isolate the three learning methods—experiential, social and formal. It’s meant to show the importance of all three and how they work best in conjunction.

According to the Global Knowledge Skills and Salary Report, IT professionals use a number of different informational and training methods to stay informed. Nearly 70% of our respondents use online research as a go-to method. In terms of social learning, 42% participate in informal learning sessions at work. This method typically involves an employee sharing content and learning experiences from a formal course with co-workers.

There’s a reason why this type of social learning is so popular—it’s a way for professionals to collaborate and share knowledge with peers. It also provides the learner with immediate feedback.

Formal training is a great building block, but many people do not learn something until they physically do it. That’s where experiential training comes in.

Experiential learning mirrors reality. It compels the student to solve real-world challenges by using skills they need in the workplace—skills they probably acquired through formal or social learning. It helps them take risks in a safe environment that they wouldn’t normally take in a workplace setting.

The 70:20:10 model can only be effective when you find the right mix of formal, experiential and social learning. These specific percentages may not be ideal for your learning style or profession—and that’s OK! It’s just a reminder that all three should make up some percentage of your learning and development strategy, and all three complement each other.

 

Technology hasn’t disproven 70:20:10—it’s evolved it

Though an untestable theoretical model, there is certainly a place for 70:20:10 in modern learning.

“It is useful to remind us that people are learning all the time, whether it be on the job or in a formal training situation,” said David Price, Global Knowledge Director of Learning Architecture. “The way we take this into account in our products is to seek to understand the learner’s needs, goals and environment and what they value so that we can design learning experiences that complement and address those factors.”

The original construct of conventional training was to teach first, then apply what you learned. In recent years, Global Knowledge has integrated a more challenge-based approach. A scenario is presented (this may incorporate formal training), then you see how far you can take it (the learner may need informal or formal assistance). The social element could be peer assistance, for example, and the informal element could be an online search.

 

Global Knowledge grows into the 70%

Our instructional designers are always looking for ways to add interaction and engagement to content.

“We don’t just account for that 10%,” said Ted Singdahlsen, Global Knowledge Learner Experience Manager. “We’re a big part of that 70% too, especially as we adopt challenge-based learning and incorporate hands-on activities and labs into our courses.”

Technology is also allowing us to explore new ways to learn that didn’t exist in the 1980s when the 70:20:10 model was developed.

“Going virtual produces a more personalized journey,” Singdahlsen said. “Virtual (training) allows us to create a simulation of a real situation, at your own pace, with help.”

As we incorporate more social learning activities, hands-on challenges and job aids into our learning experiences, there’s a better chance our students transfer those learned skills directly to the workplace.

And our students are seeing more of an immediate payoff as a result. In a recent survey of Global Knowledge students, 93% said they apply learned skills to job-related tasks in four weeks or less of completing a course.

 

Let the ratio be a guide, not a rule

Learning can’t be confined to a checklist. So don’t stress too much over the 70:20:10 model—the percentages aren’t meant to be exact and never have been.

But it can serve as an effective guide. Global Knowledge recognizes the importance of experiential, formal and social learning. That’s why we’ve been working with our subject matter experts and developers to make our trainings more interactive. Many people learn by doing. That’s why hands-on labs can be so beneficial. There’s no reason why your next IT course shouldn’t be a mix of formal training and experiential learning.

Your organization may not reference the 70:20:10 model by name, though decisions are likely made based on its principles. And that’s a good thing. This ratio can be adhered to organically as long as learning opportunities are available. It’s not meant as a law and certainly not intended to be rationale for cuts to the training budget.

It’s a reminder that continual learning is essential. So make up your own percentages if you like—just don’t forget the premise. It still holds up more than 30 years later.