Blending training with 70:20:10 - using the '3E Framework'

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Most of us in the training & development profession will be familiar with the 70:20:10 ratio.

Borne out of qualitative research undertaken by the Center for Creative Leadership in the 1990’s, it models how most people learn in the workplace. Essentially…

  • 70% of learning occurs “on the job”
  • 20% of learning occurs via interacting with others
  • 10% of learning occurs “off the job” (eg attending classes, reading)

This breakdown has since been supported by subsequent research, though sometimes it is represented as 80:20 to reflect informal learning and formal training respectively. Nonetheless, the numbers remain a sore point among many of our peers who complain that there still isn’t enough evidence to support the model’s claim. But which claim?

Frequently I see 70:20:10 misrepresented as a formula or a goal. I suppose that’s understandable because it looks like a cocktail recipe. However, it’s not a model of what “should be”. For example, we needn’t necessarily assign 70% of our time, effort and money on on-the-job interventions, 20% on social learning, and 10% on formal training. Similarly, we shouldn’t mandate that our target audience aligns its learning activity according to these proportions. Both approaches miss the point.

The point is that 70:20:10 is a model of what “is”. Our target audience does undertake 70% of its learning on the job, 20% via interacting with others, and 10% off the job (or thereabouts). It doesn’t judge what is right and wrong. It simply states what it is happening.

Implications for training

If we can agree that the 70:20:10 model is descriptive rather than prescriptive, that begs the question: What use is it to trainers?

As the forgetting curve illustrates, retention decreases exponentially over time. So no matter how brilliant our workshops are, they are unlikely to be effective on their own.

Forget chart

To overcome this problem, I suggest using the 70:20:10 model as a lens through which we view our instructional design. By this I mean using it as a framework to structure our thinking and prompt us on what to consider. So, less a recipe citing specific ingredients and amounts, more a shopping basket containing various ingredients that we can use in different combinations depending on the meal.

For this purpose I have created the following diagram. To avoid the formula trap, I have decided against labelling each segment 70, 20 and 10, and instead chose their 3E equivalents of Experience, Exposure and Education. For the same reason, I have sized each segment evenly rather than to scale.

3E Framework

Using this framework at face value is fairly straight-forward. Given a learning objective, we might consider whether a reading may be suitable (Education); whether a social forum might be of use (Exposure); and whether participation in a project would be worthwhile (Experience).

For example, suppose you are charged with training the sales team on a new product. As the trainer, you will address the Education component with an informative and engaging workshop filled with handouts, scenarios, role plays, activities etc. Then your trainees will return to their desks, put the handouts in a drawer, and try to remember all the important information for as long as humanly possible.

When we use 70:20:10 as a lens, we see alternatives and complements beyond our event-based intervention.

To help your audience remember, you could host the reference content on the corporate intranet. Then they can look it up just in time when they need it; for example, via their iPad in the waiting room while visiting a client. A job aid might also be useful, especially for skills-based information such as the sequence of key messages to convey in a client conversation.

To improve the effectiveness of your workshop even further, you might also consider the following:

  • Engaging each trainee’s manager to act as their coach or mentor. Not only does this extend the learning experience, but it also bakes in accountability for the learning.
  • Encouraging the manager to engineer opportunities for the trainee to put their learning into practice. These can form part of the assessment.
  • Setting up a community of practice on the Enterprise Social Network to which the trainee can ask questions in the moment. This fosters collaboration among your audience and reduces the burden on yourself to respond to each and every request.
  • Partnering each trainee with a buddy to accompany them on their sales calls. The buddy can act as a role model and provide immediate feedback.

When we use 70:20:10 as a lens, we see alternatives and complements beyond our event-based intervention. Regardless of the numbers, plenty of research can be cited to support the efficacy of on-the-job learning, social learning and formal training. So rather than quibble over the minutiae of the model, it is in our interests to embrace its holistic view of instruction.

This article originally appeared in Training & Development magazine June 2016 Vol 43 No 3, published by the Australian Institute of Training and Development.

About Ryan Tracey

Ryan Tracey

Ryan Tracey is an E‑Learning Manager in the Australian financial services industry. He has worked in corporate e-learning for over 14 years, following several years in the higher education market.

He is a Divisional Council Member of the Australian Institute of Training and Development, and a former Editorial Board Member for eLearn Magazine.

Ryan holds a Master’s degree in Learning Sciences and Technology from the University of Sydney, and he blogs as the E-Learning Provocateur.


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21st Sep 2016 11:22

I think the three Es are really interesting and a good way of making the transition from a training focused approach to a more learning focused approach.

I don't think there is sufficient evidence about 70:20:10 being the way people learn (your comment about 'it simply states what is happening'). This requires nuance. While learning how to get by, do the things which seem OK, keep out of trouble with the boss or keep in with the team may well be about 70% learning on the job, actually learning how to do things right, change things or develop whole new ways of doing things in line with business purpose and mission, is neither guaranteed or likely in very many workplaces if we simply assume it'll happen on the job. This is where I disagree with the current orthodoxy on 70:20:10. Interestingly, one of the original authors at the N Carolina Center for Creative Leadership - Morgan McCall - has said similar things.

In the model he and his colleagues proposed, the 70% is about stretching workplace activities, not simply 'doing the job'.

I also have an issue with Ebbinghaus. While the general focus of his forgetting curve may be about right, Ebbinghaus's study had a sample group of 1 - himself. I'm not sure that abstraction of one man learning some nonsense syllables by rote provides a reliable basis for us thinking about forgetting or memory.

For a more robust appraisal of how much we forget and the conditions during which we remember see:

Thanks for the article - good stuff. I've circulated it to colleagues to further the debate internally about how we design interventions. I think that counts as an endorsement.

Thanks (1)
to robinhoyle
21st Sep 2016 23:46

Indeed Robin, the definition of the 70:20:10 philosophy has evolved (or at least changed) since Lombardo & Eichinger published their book in 1996. The explanation of it in this article is merely my interpretation, influenced by Charles Jennings and others. The way I describe the "10" is somewhat peculiar - rather than calling it "formal", I call it "off-the-job" because it might be reading a book, for example.

In terms of the "70", I certainly agree with you that innovation and real business outcomes are not guaranteed via on-the-job learning (or at least the kind of OTJ that leaves it to chance). I'm a little bit old fashioned in that I'm an advocate for instructor-led training, where relevant, as well as formal assessment. Nonetheless, I recommend we think of the "70" more broadly, including stretching workplace activities that the instructional designer weaves into the intervention, or the trainee's manager engineers post-training.

Regarding Ebbinghaus, of course I'm not suggesting we base all our thoughts about memory on that one study back in 1885! I simply used his forgetting curve as a prop to argue that people tend to forget much of what they hear over time. This human foible is supported by stronger science, explaining the if's and buts, and I thank you for sharing that meta-study.

Thank you also for circulating my article to your colleagues and for your endorsement.

Thanks (1)
21st Sep 2016 11:31

Thanks Ryan. Loving the 3E's too - an alternative way of looking at things without getting hung up on the rights and wrongs of ratios.

Thanks (2)
to Kickstart Development
22nd Sep 2016 00:00

Cheers KD. Please note that while the illustration of the 3E's is my work, I didn't coin the term "Experience, Exposure, Education". I don't know who did, so if you find out please let me know!

Thank you also for describing the 3E's as an alternative way of looking at things without getting hung up on the rights and wrongs of ratios. That was indeed the thrust of my article - to use the model as a lens through which we look at instructional design, thereby gaining a more holistic view.

Thanks (0)