Many organizations claim to embrace the concept of 70-20-10 as a learning approach. The idea of 70% learning on-the-job, 20% learning through others, and 10% formal learning/training seems logical, thus the framework is pervasive in corporate learning. Unfortunately, many employees, managers, and even learning leaders misunderstand – and fail to leverage – the 70%.
Too often learning and talent professionals think, “OK – so the on-the-job learning happens anyway, let’s focus on the parts we can actually plan like coaching and formal training.” The first problem with just letting the 70% “happen” is the lack of focus on getting the right experiences, particularly those that will stretch people to gain new skills and competencies. The second problem is that the “20” and “10” parts are often disconnected from on-the-job experiences.
To address both problems, development should start from the 70%. On-the-job learning should be a very deliberate exercise in choosing experiences that help a person grow capability by planning job situations beyond his or her comfort zone. An individual development plan discussion should be focused on questions like, “What are two experiences in the next job you want to be in that you could try now?” Once the right experiences are identified, additional ingredients like other people (20%) and formal learning (10%) can be introduced as direct supports to the on-the-job elements. Support from others should be directly positioned to help the person through the experience. Similarly, formal training should be positioned to support specifically-chosen, on-the-job challenges.
What does this look like in practice? Drawing on my doctoral research at the University of Pennsylvania, my team at DHL created a special accelerator program for technology project managers. The research looked closely at the kinds of experiences that information-technology project managers claimed to help them develop. The findings described a variety of challenging on-the-job events that pushed people outside their own comfort zones, but with strong support from developmental relationships. For a pilot “learning from experience” initiative, the company tapped 13 senior project managers to identify current challenges and work closely with top project leaders, who served as coaches and facilitators. The small groups met every three weeks for six months to review projects, work though challenges, and explore ways to steer the project to success. While all project managers showed positive development, the people who made the biggest gains were the ones who had been facing significant project challenges.
In addition, DHL has built a process to help ensure that on-the-job experiences are part of the DNA of learning. We have development guides outlining a menu of experiences for different job roles. These guides are based on the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA), a leading IT competency model. Managers and employees can select experiences based on current roles or next-step roles. For example, a junior IT service leader might pick “lead customer service review” as an action that, combined with support from others, might be one of the right stretches to help build capability and confidence.
Do people learn through experiences that just happen anyway? Probably—but organizations that constantly challenge people to plan the right experiences supported by other people and formal learning will build capability much faster and ultimately out-compete firms that miss this golden opportunity.