Jul 152011

Informal Learning – InThe Ubiquity of Informal Learning: Beyond the 70/20/10 Model

Informal learning: By Ben Betts, July 13, 2011, via Learning Solutions Magazine
“I’m reminded of an old adage from a Professor of mine who used to remind me on a regular basis that ‘not all models are right, but some are useful.’ Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that 70/20/10 is actually useful either.”

So I’ve had a bit of a bugbear for a while and I’m starting to feel that I’m not alone. It’s 70/20/10, the oft-quoted model from which we derive that the majority of learning happens from on the job experience, as opposed to learning from peers or in a formal learning environment. That’s not to say that I think the importance we give to informal learning is wrong, far from it. It is more that I think we’ve got the wrong model at the heart of the movement.

Where’s the research?

I’ve heard plenty of people like Doug Lynch tell us there is no peer-reviewed basis for the model. I’ve searched for peer-reviewed journal literature to corroborate the model but I can’t find any, despite there being much suggestion as to a solid research basis. I’ve had conversations with a number of colleagues in academia who are generally of the same opinion — 70/20/10 is a model based on what “seems” to fit.

Unfortunately, “seems to fit” is a trend that we don’t need any more of in workplace learning. Learning Styles “seemed to fit.” There is plenty of “seems to fit” evidence for 70/20/10, ranging in quality from anecdotal blog posts to studies like the one conducted by the Education Development Center (EDC), often quoted as the basis of most “70%” work. The EDC research is often cited as providing the corroborating evidence for suggesting that 70% of workplace learning is informal in nature, but it makes no reference to the 20% or 10% part of the model. This distinction is made by Lombardo and Eichinger as a part of their “Career Architect” process; a proprietary approach to assessing and developing leadership. Here the waters muddy further as overlapping definitions kick in. What the EDC research might call informal, Lombardo and Eichinger would call “learning from others,” and the definition often changes dependent on who you speak to. It is all rather confusing and is certainly far from a concrete foundation to effect grand change.

Digging into the references a little further, many articles which put forth the 70/20/10 model cite Kevin Dobbs’ article “Simple Moments of Learning” which appeared in Training Magazine, January, 2000. This article only mentions 70% in passing, referencing another project which found this figure: the EDC study. Fortunately, the findings from the EDC study can be found in the book “The Teaching Firm,” which can be read in full online.

The Teaching Firm includes a range of case studies that attempt to verbalize the impact and intensity of Informal Learning in the workplace. While the results tend to show that informal learning does indeed happen, and it does have direct benefits to performance, the authors make no judgement as to the intensity or percentage of total learning which was informal in nature. 70% as a figure isn’t a part of the case study results or conclusions.

At this point I’m reminded of an old adage from a Professor of mine who used to remind me on a regular basis that “not all models are right, but some are useful.” Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that 70/20/10 is actually useful either.

To quote EDC’s informal learning thesis, “informal learning is ubiquitous” (p. 178). In work, as in life, informal learning has always been present. It isn’t a new idea and it certainly isn’t powered by the internet. To generalize on how much of our learning is sourced from informal happenstance is somewhat missing the point in my mind. Measuring how much of your learning is informal sounds a lot like asking for an ROI on your Social Media initiative; nice landing, wrong airport.

informal learning



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