Where does Experiential Learning fit within the 70:20:10 Model?
26 Jul 2016

Where does Experiential Learning fit within the 70:20:10 Model?


categories: Business Simulations, Experiential Learning

A lot of what is written about Learning and Development is qualitative. It is often hard to ascribe hard numbers to theories and practices.

Therefore when a theory or model emerges which seems to set out numerical data, it can be very seductive – and maybe controversial.

This is the case with the “70:20:10 Model for Learning and Development”.

In the 1980s and 90s, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) under the leadership of Morgan McCall worked on leadership learning and, most famously, carried out a study whose results were published in ‘The Career Architect Development Planner’ (1996), written by CCL members Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger.

The basic survey that they reported on involved some 200 successful North American executives, who tended to be towards the end of their careers. They were asked to consider and report how they had learned in their working life.

How Managers Learn

The authors’ conclusion from the responses was that “successful and effective managers” tend to learn and thus develop:

– 70% from challenging assignments

– 20% from developmental relationships

– 10% from coursework & training

The 70:20:10 ‘rule’ is much quoted to this day: yet the analysis has been criticised for a supposed lack of rigour and the selective nature of the respondents. However I should like to pick out another aspect of the findings and propose a slightly different conclusion.

To quote Lombardo and Eichinger:

“Development generally begins with a realisation of current or future need and the motivation to do something about it. This might come from feedback, a mistake, watching other people’s reactions, failing or not being up to a task – in other words, from experience.”

This summary relies on the idea that what they call “challenging assignments” always have to be directly work-related. But what if they were sometimes deliberately created as part of a parallel business simulation – where the executive was taken out of his or her comfort zone, given challenges that caused mistakes to happen, was exposed to initial failure and then encouraged to learn their way towards success: all in a way that left an indelible experience in their minds when they got back to their regular job?

In other words, experiential learning can and should take its rightful place as a key component of lifelong learning – and if it is, it will account for a significant proportion of the 70% that is ascribed to ‘challenging assignments’.

That is because we at ProfitAbility model the client’s actual business, so it is learning within the context of your own operation; with the added kicker that you can experiment and try out different ideas in a risk-free environment.  It is the 70% part, but without the danger of failure and the termination of your career!  It actually allows people to be more creative at solving business challenges.

Consider the Odds

Those who rail at the model’s lack of empirical data should consider the authors’ actual words:

“ The odds are that development will be about 70% from on-the-job experiences – working on tasks and problems; about 20% from feedback and working around good and bad examples of the need; and 10% from courses and reading.”

Note especially “the odds are”. This is far from being a hard and fast statistical model – it is put forward as a tendency, and one that as a Learning and Development practitioner I recognise as stating a general truth. That is, so long as you accept my rider that the dominant 70% should (in a far-seeing organisation) include a subset of experiential learning.

CCL pointed out that 70:20:10 is “neither a scientific fact nor a recipe for how best to develop people”. Maybe so: but when we construct courses (following extensive consultation with the sponsoring directors and senior managers) we often tend to follow the model in general terms.

That is to say, 70% or so of time may be accounted for by the experiential learning process: 20% by giving feedback as well as training participants in the art of giving and receiving constructive and helpful feedback: and 10% in background reading, and pre-and post course study.

Experiential Learning


Model Behaviour

Others have sought to twist and mould the model in different ways, for instance by reimagining the 20% component as being all about social networking.  This also leads to suggestions that ‘informal learning’ is breaking down previous norms and taking an increasing share of L&D. This may be true: but it does not in any way invalidate the crucial importance of business simulation in creating complex scenarios that are experienced in tight-knit groups.

So I am arguing that experiential learning does not rightly belong in the remaining 10% of effectiveness that is ascribed to ‘training courses’. I believe that proportion represents conventional coursework and pursuit of qualifications. But even if you prefer to believe CCL itself, then it now modifies its own numbers thus:

“…well-designed coursework and training have an amplifier effect — clarifying, supporting and boosting the other 90 per cent of your learning. For example, a program module that incorporates tools and experiential practice sessions can help managers become more effective learners and leaders. Skilled training specialists can help an organization establish a shared knowledge base and align its members with respect to a common leadership vision.”

When it comes to our own courses such as Agile Leadership and Strategic Alignment and Execution, then I could not agree more.

If you want to experience taster sessions of just how such programmes work in practice, then now’s your chance. We are running a free Open Day at the Institute of Directors on September 14th. Register now to secure your place.

Mark Haenel is a Director of ProfitAbility

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