Approximate reading time: 3.5 minutes

Just where did the 70/20/10 rule come from? Many HR and talent management professionals are using it to accelerate the development of their top tier leaders. It is regarded as the best practice model for learning and development.

The premise is that 10 percent of learning time should be devoted to formal learning, so that participants gain a solid base of knowledge and skills.

Twenty percent of development should come from others such as coaching from a boss, peers, subject matter experts and mentors.

Finally, 70 percent of learning should occur on the job, so that participants can learn by doing and immediately apply lessons from formal learning and others. Many organizations agree in theory, but getting it right is another matter altogether.

Intuitively at first sight the 70/20/10 rule seems perfectly sensible. Spend most of your time learning in a real live work situation. Yet the true meaning of the rule when you dig into it is that 70 per cent should be experiential learning. This is not the same thing as doing it at work.

For example “experiential” learning, where talk and chalk or classroom style delivery gives way to what is called “active learning”, is extremely effective at transforming behaviour, particularly in business organisations.[i]

Despite the success of experiential learning though as a methodology, “talk and chalk” in adapted forms, retains a powerful hold on organisations that want to develop their people.  

There is for example a considerable body of research evidence demonstrating the value of experiential learning in helping people learn, as opposed to the impact of talk and chalk.

Numerous studies have shown specific benefits from using experiential learning, particularly in areas such as attitude, behavioural change and skill acquisition.

The definition of blended learning has now morphed from “blending e-learning” with other methodologies of learning, into the 70/20/10 rule. In other words, when someone now talks about blended learning you need to unravel in which sense they are using it.

And far from being another way of talking about on the job learning, experiential learning covers a wide ranging of learning environments, including: project work, problem solving, independent learning, non traditional learning, and personal development. [ii]

In contrast to talk and chalk, experiential learning makes greater demands on learners. Pioneer and expert on experiential learning Carl Roger’s argued it is essentially equivalent to personal change and growth.

He claimed all human beings have a natural propensity to learn. To encourage this means: (1) setting a positive climate for learning, (2) clarifying the purposes of the learner(s), (3) organizing and making available learning resources, (4) balancing intellectual and emotional components of learning, and (5) sharing feelings and thoughts with learners but not dominating.

The essence of Roger’s view is that the person must participate completely in the learning process and have control over its nature and direction.

Behind experiential learning lies the assumption that we seldom learn from experience unless we assess it, make sense of it through choosing our own goals, aims, ambitions and expectations.

From these processes come insights, discoveries, and understanding. The pieces fall into place and the experience takes on added meaning in relation to other experiences.

Experiential learning is therefore concerned with discovering and meeting learner’s needs and wants, through giving them an experience and hence learner-centred, a “hands on approach” and one of the most widely used descriptions is Kolb’s four stages of experiential learning. [iii] 

Critics like Philip Race, reject this kind of cyclical model as unrealistic, prescriptive and needlessly academic. Their simpler view is that learning stems from: practice, trial and error, having a go, repetition and experimenting. This can be entirely work-based, but equally one can create highly demanding situations outside of work that provide exactly Race’s requirements.

Whatever the exact process, the point of experiential learning is that it designed to affect actual behaviours, whether in terms of attitude, skills or some other aspect of actual performance.

Even though experiential learning is such a powerful movement, talk and chalk continues to play a major role in much training and development in organisations. The question is why?

The most obvious answer is that it easy and cheap to implement. Many organisations are reluctant to fully evaluate the effectiveness of their learning and development investment, so the actual evidence against talk and chalk often remains hidden.

Another, perhaps more compelling reason, is that evaluating experiential learning is complex: is it a programme, a teaching method, an exercise, or a work-based methodology?[iv]  One thing seems certain though, the 70/20/10 rule is more akin to an urban myth. It suits an era in which investing in proper experiential learning can be conveniently attacked on cost grounds, rather than its effectiveness.

[i] Teaching and Learning on the Edge of the Millennium: Building on What We Have Learned, Marilla D. Svinicki; Jossey-Bass, 1999

[ii] See for example: Meaning and practice in experiential learning by Jane Henry, in Making Sense of Experiential Learning,  SHRE and OU Press, 1989)

[iii] Kolb. D. A. and Fry, R. (1975) Towards an applied theory of experiential learning. in C. Cooper (ed.) Theories of Group Process, London: John Wiley


[iv] Evaluation of Experiential Learning by J.Gosenpud, in Guide to Business Gaming and Experiential Learning 1990, Chapter 18