#1 Famous HR Terms – 70:20:10

trainingBecause this is the first in the series, I will start with an introduction and we’ll knock it off as we go.

My favorite conversations are one where someone who does not work in HR looks with apprehension, albeit politely, at an HR professional who has just sprouted a phrase that HR pros use in everyday conversation but might be incomprehensible to those who are not in the field. One would expect these conversations to be rare. However, given the vast repertoire that we have tucked away in our heads, they are enough to warrant a series of their own. It would be an injustice to not share the humor with you.

 I struggled for a large part of the week trying to decide which term would be worthy of opening the series with. Do I begin with terms that I personally dislike or do I reserve the spot for a term that I have never managed to use in my lifetime yet see thrown around every day. The more I struggled with the question, the harder it became to ignore this ratio of numbers that I am guilty of having used in my early years. A term so obvious that it doesn’t need an explanation to anyone who has ever worked or studied in the field but so utterly incomprehensible to those who have not. It is a term that I have grown to hate and vow never to use. Yet, for the purpose of the greater good, I must spend some time with it today. If you have read the title, then you know what I am referring to.

This is a story from a long time ago. It happened soon after I had learnt that the only logical piece about the famous 70:20:10 ratio was that it added up to a 100. Hence, I was not surprised when my learning & development partner (back when we still used the term) in a conversation with a business leader, confidently touted that our new managerial program was designed based on the 70:20:10 model. Who could blame her? She had probably heard many HR greats use the term at large conferences or heard smart professors refer to them back in college. Ask any HR professional and they will admit to having used the term at least once. Many might hold true to their belief even today. I may even receive hate mail as a result of this piece but I deviate. Let’s go back to my unfortunate colleague who had just quoted the 70:20:10 model and the googly-eyed business leader who wondered if he should ask her to explain further. He did.

I can’t recall the last time someone had asked me to explain the 70:20:10 model. I instinctively knew that this would be a conversation worth noting. Hence, I opened my mental notebook and promptly began taking notes. ‘The 70:20:10 learning model is a research based, time tested model which says that 70% of learning takes place via challenging assignments (on the job learning), 20% via learning from others (mentorship) and 10% via classroom training (coursework)’ she said. I think it was the words, ‘research based’ and ‘time tested’ that caught his attention since most others would accept what the expert is saying and move on. Instead, she faced a volley of questions. It is this Q&A that I will attempt to summarize below.

Business (B): Interesting. How did you design the program to reflect this model?

HR: We have six full-day classroom trainings spread over four months. In addition, participants are assigned a mentor with who they are encouraged to speak to at least once every two weeks but can move the frequency up or down and lastly, we work with business teams to assign participants a stretch goal/project. (What she missed adding is that over 80% of all managerial programs in the world follows this model.)

B: How do you ensure that the program delivers learning in that ratio?

HR: (One sour look later) We offer them all the three components that facilitate learning. The learning that takes place will happen in that ratio.

B: Are you going to check if the learning has happened in that ratio? (At this point, I am absolutely sure that he is just pulling her leg.)

HR: No, we will collect feedback on training effectiveness via the Kirk Patrick Model (we’ll save this for the next post).

B: Does Kirk Patrick help validate if people learn 70% from projects, 20% from mentorship and 10% from classroom?

HR: The feedback is to measure behavior change and response to the program.

At this point, there is a pregnant pause followed by the leader furiously typing in 70:20:10 into a search engine. Several clicks later, I am assuming he lands on the same page I did a few weeks ago.

B: Ah! Now I get this. This guy, Bob Eichinger basically created a meme. No wonder. I will nominate people from my team for the program. Thank you for your patience.

As my colleague and I walked out of his office, she asked – ‘Why did he say it is a meme?’

Here is what I should have said –

There is questionable science at best on 70:20:10 being the exact ratio. Most of the research is based on self-reported data. In addition, the ratios vary across gender and other demographics. If I were to ask you which mode do you learn most by and assign a percentage to it, it is likely you’ll come up with a ratio that is close, especially if you ignore all other modes of learning e.g. other life experiences. As aptly captured by the article referred above, “Bob and Mike’s genius was to take the 16 sources of learning present in the 616 key learning events, as recounted by the participants in the Lessons of Success study, drop out the 25% of learning that comes from hardship and beyond work, and turn the remainder into a meme of three sources of learning now known around the world as 70-20-10.”

What makes it even more complicated is that many HR practitioners invariably think of 70-20-10 as timeshare across components and design programs accordingly. Stacking a faulty interpretation over questionable science results in one large stack of shaky Jell-O. However, assuming for a minute that the interpretation is right, let us break the three components down.

70: In most programs, the 70% is left largely unmonitored. It leans heavily on the business assigning a project with goals that are usually defined loosely. The measurement of effectiveness at the end of it is usually self-reported. Because organizations rarely follow the rigor that academia follows, there has almost never been a control group that has been studied closely free from the many other variables to validate if this actually works. Would the shift be smaller had we not assigned that special project? We will never know.

20: Almost no one has figured how to make this component work. There have been many attempts in the form of forced mentorship or learning circles. Yet time has shown that the best form of peer learning or rather the only form of effective peer learning takes place informally where the employee engages with a peer based on their comfort levels. No wonder almost all mentorship and sponsorship programs struggle. The real question that we need to answer is “how do we craft an environment that facilitates informal peer learning?”

10: This is likely the only piece we can control. No wonder that all programs that claim to be based on the 70-20-10 model are essentially classroom trainings in disguise.

The bottom line is that all three components are important, one more than the other and classroom training being least effective. There is really no way to arrive at an exact ratio. It is a catchy ratio to help stick in memory – hence a meme. As per Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), Bob Eichinger and Mike Lombardo coined the phrase 70-20-10 to highlight the relative impact of three types of experiences (challenging assignments, other people, and coursework) on executive development. They based the percentages of data from CCL’s first study of key events in executive’s lives, which also identified hardships and personal life experiences as sources of leader development.

Instead, of the long explanation above, here is what I said – “No idea.”

I now kick myself for not having enlightened her as she continues to quote the ratio. I can take solace in the fact that at least you know what the ratio stands for and if you should really be quoting it. I am sure there are better ways to communicate that learning happens through three mediums which are in order of effectiveness – experiential learning, learning via others and coursework. We do not really need to use a meme, do we? Would programs be designed differently if the ratio were 60:30:10 or 60:25:15 or…..you get the gist.


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