Mixing it up

Deborah Tarrant

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written on December 27, 2012

In the 1980s, three researchers at the Centre for Creative Leadership in the US developed a framework for learning that has burned brightly for more than two decades. Morgan McCall, Robert Eichinger and Michael Lombardo’s 70/20/10 formula has been widely embraced, and it prescribes that optimally 70 per cent of learning takes place on the job, 20 per cent is learning from others – including coaching and mentoring – and just 10 per cent involves traditional learning from experts and quite likely happens in the classroom.

Almost unquestioningly, the concept has become a standard.

In recent times, academics and leading business thinkers globally have started to query the veracity and examine the reasons behind the “golden” 70/20/10 development formula and have determined it’s time to reevaluate. Blazing an international trail for this mindset shift is Dave Ulrich, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and partner at consulting firm the RBL (Results-based Learning) Group. The author of 25 books on leadership and HR, Ulrich and colleagues’ reappraisal is stark.

Organisations need to develop their own “branded” leaders, they say, and recommend a different approach that sets just 50 per cent of learning from job experience, including coaching and mentoring, while 20 per cent draws on life experience – defined as “learning by doing things outside of work, such as coaching sports teams, spending time as a volunteer, assisting a not-for-profit or joining its board,” explains Ulrich who also counts “writing blogs, being part of a social network, reading broadly, visiting other places and observing how they do things”.

Ulrich argues that 30 per cent of training should be as a “guest experience”. Consequently, training must become part of the business, he says. “Participants come to training to solve problems, and not just be exposed to ideas. They may attend as a team, have presenters who are line managers and customers, and immediately be able to apply those ideas.”

In October’s issue of Chief Learning Officer magazine, David Forman of the US’s Human Capital Institute and Barbara Keen, head of organisation development for pharmaceutical company Aptalis Pharma, also highlighted the need for re-evaluating 70/20/10.

Categories for learning

In Australia, the industry executives and academics are like-minded. At DeakinPrime, the executive education arm of Deakin University, Kelly Kajewski and Valerie Madsen launched their own investigation. Their white paper, Demystifying 70/20/10, determined that while its original categories for learning were still valid, organisations that applied the formula strictly had less success than others that used it flexibly, more as a guideline.

Rosemary Howard, head of AGSM Executive Education at the Australian School of Business, agrees that the 70/20/10 principle is not always effectively applied. “Not every organisation is the same. You can’t say it will be right in all circumstances,” she says.

Melbourne Business School’s deputy dean of executive education Paul Dainty is more sceptical. Dainty critically dissects the model’s components and questions the time allocated to each and the impacts.

He says the problem is that 70/20/10 polarises activities, which each require specific structures and processes to ensure learning actually occurs.

Kajewski and Madsen surmised that 70/20/10 is useful for shifting managers’ thinking about L&D, in particular, the common misconception that learning only happens in the classroom. Companies can skew the numbers to suit themselves, says Kajewski. Indeed, it’s the coaching or feedback component that has caused Alec Bashinsky, national partner of people and performance at Deloitte Australia, to jiggle the training numbers. “I would break up that mix to 60/30/10,” Bashinsky says. “We’re seeing more and more effective results from coaching and mentoring.”

“It’s the sharing of stories that allows the mentee to get an individual perspective, and that comes through in how they address their roles and projects – their thinking styles start to expand. It gives them scope, instead of being siloed,” says Bashinsky. At Deloitte, the focus for the 500-plus graduates who are hired each year is now on experiential learning on the job. “On-the-job learning comes from shifting opportunities, moving people from one service area to another, explains Bashinsky.

Time to reflect

Rosemary Howard, director of AGSM executive programs, advises that two important activities require ramping up in the training mix.

Reflection: “Whether it’s during a course or in the workplace, people need to make time to reflect on new ways of working, beyond coaching, and then deliberately practise their new skills. It’s about closing the loop on new ideas,” she says.

Storytelling: “Leaders must learn to tell stories, to communicate their ideas, how and why they are doing that job, what they want to achieve and why it’s important. To do that well – in an authentic way – takes a lot of reflection,” Howard concludes.

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