What does continuous learning look like in the modern workplace?

In late 2017, a group including numerous thought leaders in the field of Learning and Development congregated on Twitter for a “Debunk Debate” on the topic of 70:20:10—a well-known and controversial framework for how skills and knowledge are developed in the workplace. The discussion that followed highlighted a clear gap: there is important work left to be done to clarify how to best support continuous learning within modern organizations.

As many readers will be familiar, 70:20:10 proposes that 70% of the skills and knowledge we use every day at work come through on-the-job experience, 20% through social interactions (or exposure), and 10% through formal training (or education).

These three elements together comprise what some are calling The 3Es:

The 3Es & 70:20:10

As was seen from a number of participants in the “debate,” some common objections to this framework include: that the numbers are inexact and difficult to measure, that the ratio changes with different roles and industries (the original research for the development of this model targeted executives), and that it is difficult or impossible to locate much of learning within only one category.

In general, the strongest proponents of the framework seem not to disagree with these objections, but rather claim that they are somewhat beside the point. 70:20:10, they argue, is most useful as a guide to thinking about how experiential, social, and formal learning work together. The exact numbers are not what matters most, nor are we meant to think of any one learning experience as fitting neatly into one category or another (in fact, as we’ll explore, it’s the blend of the three that provides the most interesting territory for innovative learning design).

Another common concern amongst practitioners is that the “10%” frames formal training as unimportant and of little value. There are fewer and fewer in the industry who will disagree that formal training, and the role of Learning and Development in general, is facing some significant challenges (recent studies show that only 8% of executives believe L&D has a measurable impact and only 6% of L&D budgets lead to any behavior change).

However, some argue this has more to do with poor design than with the nature of formal training in itself, and that this type of learning deserves more than the 10% the models give it.

One of the questions posed by Will Thalheimer, who was facilitating the Twitter debate, was: “What good messages does the 70:20:10 Model send?” Some notable responses included:

A huge amount of learning occurs outside formal situations, and we can exploit that. (Charles Jennings)

It forces us to see that learning is social and active. (Tamara Lewis)

That we need to consider social/stretch/informal in our design solutions. (Clark Quinn)

L&D should become ‘learning facilitation.’ (Kate Herzog)

We are always learning. Every time we DO something, we solidify learning. (Dan Bixby)

Instructional designers should add non-formal learning interventions to their toolkits. (Robert Jordan)

Look at what people do on the job, what makes it hard, and what will help – don’t just throw them courses. (Cathy Moore)

That we need to change the dialogue to one that starts with supporting performance. (Bob Mosher)

It shows that management, colleagues, and learners themselves have a responsibility to attain the learning for their performance. (Dan Topf)

Guiding insights from the research

While there have been an increasing number of success stories following a 70:20:10 approach, some of which we will highlight in this and future posts, there have also been some notable struggles. In their study The 70:20:10 framework and the transfer of learning, researchers from the University of New South Wales in Australia investigated the degree to which “implementation of the framework led to managerial capability development through learning transfer.” Their findings concluded that overall, the organizations studied were failing to achieve their desired outcomes with a 70:20:10 approach. The researchers identified four primary misconceptions regarding the framework’s implementation as the cause for these disappointing results:

1) an overconfident assumption that unstructured experiential learning automatically results in capability development

2) a narrow interpretation of social learning

3) the expectation that behavior would automatically change following formal training events without the need to actively support the process

4) a lack of recognition of the requirement of a planned and integrated relationship of all three aspects of the framework

Following these insights, in particular the last, which relates closely to the first three, our first principle of leading continuous learning is:

Principle #1

Effectively supporting continuous learning requires an integrative approach that appropriately combines learning through experience, exposure, and education.

In his article Implementing a useful model – 70:20:10, Harold Jarche writes:

“The most important aspect of 70:20:10 is that it requires leadership to hold the space so that workplace learning is connected through experience, exposure, and education. Leaders have to promote learning and themselves master fast, relevant, and autonomous learning. There is no other way to address the many wicked problems facing us today. If work is learning and learning is work, then leadership should be all about enabling learning. Holding space means protecting the boundaries so that people can work and learn.”

Reframing the 3Es

As shown, an issue that many learning professionals have with how the 3Es are often presented relates to how they related to each other. As separate slices of a “pie,” something doesn’t quite sit right for many, myself included. Likewise, even as advocates of the model remind us that these categories are meant to have fuzzy borders, there seems to be some lack of clarity around how the pieces of the continuous learning puzzle fit together.

With this in mind, we’ll here propose a slight reframing of this tool to help us better conceptualize how the 3Es relate to one another:

The 3Es of Continuous Learning, Reframed

One key point this updated framework attempts to make is that all learning happens as a result of experience—therefore, experiential learning theory can be usefully applied to all forms of learning, formal and informal. In this way, experiential learning becomes the foundation of continuous learning. The ultimate goal of continuous learning is to fully integrate the learning process into daily life.

Social learning (exposure) and formal learning (education) become situated within the larger, holistic learning experience. Some but not all formal learning is social, and some but not all social learning is formal—yet it is all grounded in the learner’s experience.

What does effectively supporting continuous learning through The 3Es look like in practice?

In 2014, Citibank initiated a transition in their approach to learning and development that stands as a good example to inspire and inform others to come. For a little context, here is how Brian Murphy, Head of Learning and Development for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Citi described the challenge:

“Three years ago, the team at Citi Learning did some soul searching. We found ourselves facing a pivot point in our journey, at a crossroads of choices faced with fundamental questions about why we existed.

Increasingly the traditional training and push ‘L&D knows best’ approach simply wasn’t delivering results. Faced with a rapidly evolving business landscape and changing nature of work, people were increasingly bypassing the L&D department, this at the same time as the organisation was struggling to adapt and build innovation and agility in its culture.

We held difficult debates as members of the Learning team struggled to let go of what they knew, what they were good at, traditional course content, and instructional design. But very soon we arrived at the consensus that we should find a new path and a new role.

Rather than just change how we do our work, the team decided to change what work we do entirely and indeed reposition why we exist.”

The team decided to adopt the 70:20:10 framework as a guide to creating a new strategy for supporting the organization, identifying three key needs driving the process:

1) The need to embed ethical decision-making

2) The need to drive innovation and to future-proof Citi to meet the changing nature of work

3) The need to attract and engage top talent

The strategy that emerged focused on three key areas:

1) Facilitate connected learning

2) Embed experiential learning

3) Reframe the mindset to support the concept and culture of continuous learning

A roadmap was then developed that consisted of three distinct but interdependent streams:

1) Mindset changes that were needed to embed the new approach

2) Specific solution sets that would be developed and deployed

3) Technology required to support the new approach

A 6-week workshop with key stakeholders was facilitated by social learning expert Jane Hart, which focused on establishing “social and collaborative mindsets through experiential learning.” Following this a set of guiding principles were developed and disseminated throughout the organization in a “manifesto.”

Murphy explains how the 70:20:10 framework and the 3Es helped guide the process and facilitate communications:

“70:20:10 is not a formula, it’s a rule of thumb. The important thing is for us was to extend focus to the 70 and the 20. We used the term ‘Experience, Exposure and Education’ and the 3Es as this resonated with our people better than the numbers”.

Tools and resources, along with a community of practice, were developed to support learning professionals as well as business leaders to identify the level of maturity on the path to continuous learning within specific teams. In this way, teams could be supported by “Learning Advisors” in the way they needed most. This represented a new and exciting role for members of the L&D team.

One key to success was Citi’s decision to frame the initiative as a “campaign,” branded with the hashtag #BeMore. The campaign was sponsored by the CEO and in contrast to an HR-branded program, was designed to “empower people to take control of their own development and to embed the 3 Es into the organization.”

#BeMore gained significant momentum by leveraging Citi’s internal social platform Citi Collaborate, which was supported by a mobile app and was already being used by over 100,000 employees on a monthly basis.

Some of the primary initiatives that emerged out of this process included a 30-day Development Challenge, where employees were challenged to take “micro actions” each day and reflect and share their experiences, a platform where employees could share personal stories, a new resource center where individuals could self-select content for independent learning, social learning events for collaborating and sharing ideas, and a new approach to creating Individual Development Plans (IDPs) to promote employee ownership of their own learning journeys.

With its innovative approach and outstanding results, Citi’s #BeMore campaign went on to win the Learning Technologies Gold award for the best use of collaborative and social learning technologies in 2016, as well as the Learning and Performance Institute’s Gold award for innovation in learning in 2017.

Click here to see the full report from Charles Jennings and the 70:20:10 Institute. 

The Emerging Role of "Learning Advisor" at Citi - 70:20:10 Institute

Preparing for the journey toward continuous learning

For many organizations, looking through the lens of the 3 Es, the shift toward continuous learning is largely centered on transcending and including formal training to increasingly integrate experiential and social learning into the fabric of daily work life. At the same time, the function and nature of the formal training itself will evolve to better support these other forms of learning.

It is clear that the goal of supporting continuous learning is best seen as an ongoing process rather than a tangible achievement. As Holly Burkett writes in Learning for the Long Run: 7 Practices for Sustaining a Resilient Learning Organization:

“Learning matters and continuous learning is the path to adding a sustainable, competitive advantage. Now the question is how to keep continuous learning processes in place given volatile change conditions and shifting business demands. Unfortunately, there is no simple, one-and-done solution for meeting modern-day sustainability challenges…A common piece of advice is treat the growth process like a marathon, not a sprint.”

At the heart of this process, we will argue, are leaders who model the mindsets and behaviors of skilled continuous learners—something we will explore in more depth in the next post and with the second principle of leading continuous learning:

Principle #2:

Leading continuous learning starts with practicing new skills and mindsets and leading by example.

After all, the cultural and organizational shift we are exploring is in itself a continuous learning experience that must be navigated with the skills and mindsets of continuous learners.

Some guiding questions for the next post include: what are these skills and mindsets and how are they developed? How can I best apply them in my role as a learning leader?

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Tom Palmer