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On-the-job versus formal learning


Just type into Google "70-20-10” and you’ll find a long list of links that refer to the 70-20-10 model of learning and development. Most L&D professionals are familiar with the model, which states that 70% of development comes from on-the-job experiences, tasks and problem solving, 20% through feedback and from working with positive and negative role-models, and 10% from formal or "classroom” training.  The model has been around for a long time, and judging from the Google links I see in front of me on my computer as I write this, many organizations still refer to it when they describe their approaches to organizational learning and development.

Not bad for a model that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

What’s wrong with a model that separates on-the-job experience from formal development? First, it is assumes that most executives have a structured approach to on-the-job learning, that they have the time and mindset to develop new ideas and concepts, to experiment with these ideas in the course of their daily work, to reflect on their effectiveness, and to distill what they learn into new actions and behaviours. This is a misguided assumption. In our experience, most executives are usually too busy doing to focus enough of their bandwidth on reflecting, synthesizing, conceptualizing and experimenting. They may learn through trial and error, but their learning is neither as dramatic nor as efficient as it would be if their on-the-job experiences were approached through a lens of formal learning.


Second, the model assumes that "formal training” is somehow necessarily removed from daily work. This separation would be a surprise to professional athletes, who often train on the same terrain on which they compete, or to a mountaineer who prepares for a Himalayan climb by improving his or her fitness and technique on smaller climbs closer to home. It should also be a surprise for both learning and development professionals and the executives under their care. Formal development must always be undertaken with a purpose, and that purpose must always be directly or indirectly focused on the real-world challenges of the organization and the real-world development needs of the executive. We are in the business of what many people would think of as "formal development”, but it’s a rare client who asks us to develop learning initiatives that aren’t expected to improve the performance of the organization or add to the strengths of its people in real and meaningful ways. So-called formal development is almost always designed with the on-the-job challenges in mind.


The most effective learning and development initiatives don’t make a distinction between on-the-job and formal learning. For most of them, the point is to blend the two: to apply a learning mindset to on-the-job experiences so that executives are always learning, and to ensure that even formal development uses real-world challenges as the main laboratory for personal and organizational development. When a client asks us to help them develop "wow” brands, or to help the top executives in the organization to become more innovative and inspirational leaders, or to help the organization to experiment with and apply new business models, the client isn’t separating on-the-job challenges from formal learning. The client wants both. Our job is to make sure that the so-called "formal development initiative” we create with the client is so deeply ingrained into the client’s real-world issues that it’s impossible to separate the two. Our job is also to ensure that each of the leaders we work with in the course of the initiative returns to their on-the-job challenges with a new appreciation for how a formal approach to learning can help them extract new ideas and different ways of working every single day of their working lives.

70-20-10? How about 100. Every learning experience, whether it takes place in a structured setting or in the chaos of every day work, should apply a disciplined learning mindset to real-world challenges.

Article by  Michael Stanford

Michael Stanford is Executive Director of IMD's Partnership Program business, and serves on the Boards of the University Consortium for Executive Development (UNICON) and the International Consortium for Executive Development Research (ICEDR). He has been at IMD for 18 years.