Transferring Learning into the Workforce - Does the globally used ‘70-20-10’ work?

Does 70-20-10 model work when it comes to transferring learning into the workplace? QA Digital Leadership Practice Director, Dr Jill Shepherd, delves into the details.

LinkedIn has recently been a hotbed of debate on the need to use approaches in L&D that are evidenced and not just what we fancy. This exhortation can feel rather obvious, until you realise that there is little in L&D that has been empirically tested and researched.  

What is 70-20-10? 

Here at QA, we are interested in workforce learning – learning that has impact in the workplace across the workforce. I therefore have delved into 70-20-10. By way of reminder, or if are new to L&D (e.g. as a capability manager or IT manager or indeed learner), the 70-20-10 framework upholds that challenging work experiences and situations make 70% of how learning happens, 20% is made up of learning through relationships (with peers and bosses) and 10% through formal training. Yes, the 10% in the 70:20:10 combination is formal, which raises the question why bother with formal when it costs real money. 


The critique of 70-20-10  

At this point it is worth noting that the initial research by McCall Jr. et al (1988) and (2004) involved 200 successful executives from 6 large corporates. Clardy (2018) argues the empirical base for 70% of learning being on the job ‘needs to be set aside, despite it pulling on 5 different literature streams, because of invalid data collection and sampling concerns, given data was collected from successful executives in large corporations’.  

The critique also talks of the tautology of so few managers receiving formal education and training that requires certification, compared with technical roles, raising questions about how different the insights would be if managers and leaders experienced more formal training. The questions asked were perhaps leading – as they asked more about experience as a source of learning, than the effectiveness of formal training, so the conclusion was on the lines of d’oh.  

The move from the collected data to the percentages is also questionable, given the initial data did not view the field of informal and formal in any quantitative way. The data was after all self-reported. The criticism goes on and is well worth reading. 

Do we throw it out and how considered informal learning matters

Does the lack of rigour suggest we should throw out what is relatively common sense – that learning will happen in these different contexts and is likely to be synergistic or integrative or holistic across them in some way?  


We know that the role involved, learning elements, time spent, spacing, and sequencing are all likely to impact learning effectiveness in different ways – just for starters. 

Not leaving informal learning to chance 

Skule (2004) develops a model of effective informal learning (using a quantitative survey from within the private sector in Norway) that includes direct feedback and vicarious feedback, anticipatory reflection and subsequent reflection, intrinsic and extrinsic intent to learn, trying ideas and learning from models. All of which means a lot affects informal learning that an organisation can get right or wrong or just not bother with. 

Informal learning has problems if narrowly based/ superficial, unconscious, and so not recognised, not easy to integrate into formal qualifications, and might well just be wrong through bad habits and wrong lessons. It might well not promote diversity as it is fraught with power imbalances (Dale and Bell (1999), also reported in Manuti, 2015). Motivation linked to how secure or not the role is, and aligning the purpose to learner and organisation, both have impact.  

Clardy (2018) concludes that informal learning has its role but cannot be left to chance. It too needs to be examined, structured, and manged. Modern apprenticeships do just what is recommended. They mix formal and informal learning, and structure and manage the informal learning through the apprenticeship standards.  


Take action - implement mixtures of formal, peer to peer and informal learning and measure what is working

If you explore the common-sense view that some sort of mixture works best, what is a time poor L&D professional supposed to do, in addition to paying attention to what is known about effective informal learning (as discussed above). 

Action point 1 

The secret sauce seems to be the integration of the three (Johnson et al, 2018). As above, do not assume informal learning will be effective without structure. Do not assume that formal training will result in change unless followed up. Think how social learning supports the contextualisation of the formal learning, the structuring of the informal and the augmentation or dampening down of bad habits, or a lack of change, or change in the wrong direction. Social learning is as vital as formal and informal.  

Action point 2 

Observe carefully how impact emerges. Create positive feedback loops for what you find out is effective, and negative feedback loops to dampen ineffective links and behaviours. Often this reinforcement is best achieved by communicating about the learning as it happens. Therefore, don’t wait until the learning is over to measure success, businesses just do not have the time anymore. Measure – damper or amplify and move onwards/ 


70:20:10 Conclusion 

It can be easy to implement learning designs that appear evidenced and are, in fact, not that well evidenced. It can also be easy to ignore how weaknesses in evidence for a learning strategy have been subsequently filled by further research. 

So, keep going with mixes of formal, informal, and social learning – measure the impact and act to increase that impact.  

Discover more about TAP learning at QA here 


Clardy, A., 2018. 70-20-10 and the dominance of informal learning: A fact in search of evidence. Human Resource Development Review, 17(2), pp.153-178. 

Dale, M. and Bell, J., 1999. Informal learning in the workplace (Vol. 134). London: Department for Education and Employment. 

Johnson, S.J., Blackman, D.A. and Buick, F., 2018. The 70: 20: 10 framework and the transfer of learning. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 29(4), pp.383-402. 

Manuti, A., Pastore, S., Scardigno, A.F., Giancaspro, M.L. and Morciano, D., 2015. Formal and informal learning in the workplace: A research review. International journal of training and development, 19(1), pp.1-17. 

McCall, M. W., Lombardo, M. M., & Morrison, A. M. (1988). The Lessons of Experience (Lexington, MA. A: Lexington Books. 

Skule, S., 2004. Learning conditions at work: a framework to understand and assess informal learning in the workplace. International journal of training and development, 8(1), pp.8-20. 


Read more blogs from QA

Latest blogs and insights from the experts at QA. 

What is agile? Our guide

How the great reshuffle has impacted apprenticeships

What is a product owner? Our guide




Related Articles