Cracking The Code Of 70:20:10

Cracking The Code Of 70:20:10
Summary: 70:20:10 appears to be the new gold standard for Learning and Development. However, it is creating its own jargon in which services are referred to as numbers: “Is this a 70 activity, a 20, or a 10+ activity?” It looks suspiciously like a code – so a key question is what is the code of 70:20:10? What do the numbers really signify? Is it a new service with business impact, or are we still stuck with the old 10 and 10+? It’s time to crack the code…

What Is The Code 70:20:10? A 70, A 20, Or A 10+ Activity?

The fact that people learn the most by working has been translated into a useful metaphor – 70:20:10. These numbers have not been chosen arbitrarily. They show us that learning through work and with others, the ‘informal’ 70 and 20, is more important for the development of people in organizations than formal learning solutions. This is borne out significantly by the findings of De Grip (2015), whose research found a ratio of 96:4 of informal to formal learning.

However, this is not to detract from the importance of formal learning, the 10. Of course formal learning is often necessary and, in a smart system, the two types –formal and informal– complement each other.

When interpreted as a stark ratio, the 70:20:10 model suggests that formal learning accounts for 10% of working time – this gives a much higher number than the average of twenty to forty hours per year that organizations usually devote to formal learning for members of their workforce.

But it’s not as simple as that.

The Original Code Of The 70:20:10 Reference Model

Arets et al. (2015) contend that the original code of 70:20:10 is best explained as follows:

  • 70.
    Learning by working, to continuously improve your performance and develop yourself.
  • 20.
    Learning from and with others to increase knowledge sharing and productivity, by working smartly to create development opportunities for online and offline teams and individuals.
  • 10.
    Learning by taking part in formal learning solutions to gain the knowledge required to work better and develop yourself.
  • 90.
    This is a combination of learning by working (70) and learning from one another (20). The distinction between the 70 and the 20 is not always meaningful.


With 70:20:10 we need, both in our reasoning and in our actions, to always begin with the 100 in order to identify and act upon connections and synergies at the system level, and then to design and implement solutions from the 70, 20 and 10, in that order. These are mutually reinforcing, and the 100 is more than the sum of the parts.

Additional 70:20:10 Code

This is not the end of the code. As a counterpart to the numbers and ratios, some people have gone to the effort of re-coding the original philosophy in a language they believe to be less confusing or less laden with what can be seen as emotional connotations. They have not always been successful.

Some examples include:

  • The 90:10 Reference Model. 
    This is the same as the 70:20:10 model, except that the 70 and 20 combine to form the 90. It is not always meaningful to make a distinction between the 70 and 20, in which learning occurs by working alone or networking with others to achieve better performance.
  • 70-20-10.
    The hyphens take away the suggestion of a ratio. This works well for some people, but others still see the numbers as a ratio.
  • 70.20.10.
    The dots do not suggest a ratio, but many people see this as meaning “multiplied by”.

Experience, Exposure, And Education

Replacing numbers with words is another way that is used of avoiding confusion and the focus on ratios. One drawback to this approach is that the underlying principle (that formal learning is not the only kind) can remain unclear.

70:20:10 – Old Wine In New Bottles With 10+

Many specialist HR and Learning and Development professionals and providers are jumping on the 70:20:10 bandwagon without changing the nature of the core services they provide.

Likewise, many self-appointed 70:20:10 experts simply offer rebranded versions of formal learning, which in practice takes place in the workplace in the form of challenges coaching, and reflection. While these may assist the 10, they are only a part of the whole 70:20:10 approach. Often social learning may be developed as part of a formal course or program, too. Again, this is “20 wrapped in 10” rather than 70:20:10.

All of the above are 10+ approaches, which focus not on the original 70:20:10 philosophy, but on formal learning as the basis of all thought, development, and action: The 10+. The service of formal learning is expanded to include learning from one another (20) and workplace learning (70). From our perspective, this type can therefore be coded as follows:

  • 10+
    Add formal learning to work via tasks, reflections, observations, eLearning, etc.
  • 20+
    Add intentional social learning, or base it on formal learning solutions. These may include sharing knowledge about the content of formal learning solutions to support formal learning in the workplace. They are not to be confused with knowledge sharing and production of the 20 in the 70:20:10 reference model.
  • 30+
    Formal (10) and social (20) learning based on formal learning.
  • 70+
    Formal learning added to work, often referred to as ‘workplace learning’. This includes workplace coaching, short forms of training, eLearning, and creating a positive climate offering the right conditions to support intentional learning in the workplace. This formally organized workplace learning is not to be confused with informal learning by working as designated in the original 70.
  • 70:20:10+
    This is formal learning complemented by formal workplace learning (70+) and formal ways of learning from one another (20+).

The key question for HR and Learning and Development departments is simple: In the knowledge of the above, how much of our budget and effort is devoted to formal versus informal learning?

In practice, most will devote 80% or more to formal learning solutions and only 20% or less to informal ones. Cross (2006) describes this as the spending/outcomes paradox.

This 80:20 ratio demonstrates the irony of 10+ thinking. If the service has changed, and a spend analysis shows that the lion's share consists of in-house or bought-in formal learning, the 10+ approach causes unnecessary confusion and the 70:20:10 code has not been deciphered.

Cracking The Code

The core of the 70:20:10 philosophy as we see it is not about numbers or ratios. It is about new ways of thinking and acting.

The code can be cracked only by:

Shifting The Focus From Learning To Performance.

The priority is not learning, but obtaining the desired organizational performance: Goal versus intention. Formal organizational learning is not an end in itself, but a way of helping everyone to work better, learn from this, and develop themselves. It is the intention. In this sense, organizational learning is a byproduct of smarter working, improvement, renewal and learning from these – and not vice versa.

The Expansion And Change Of The Service With The 70 And 20.

70:20:10 enables HR and Learning and Development to offer more than the 10. Expanding the service to include the 70 and 20 helps to create a direct connection with the organization’s core activities. It is about working together and learning smartly from this to achieve the desired performance for the organization. It is not just about classroom learning, eLearning, or coaching. With the 70:20:10 reference model people learn by working together to solve problems and exploit opportunities to perform better and learn from this.

The Changing Roles Of HR And Learning And Development.

The focus for HR and Learning and Development cannot be on education, but on the organizational performance to be delivered. As the service changes, new roles apply. The five new roles of the 70:20:10 expert use systematic analysis to generate action and measurable business impact.

Emphasizing Business Value Rather Than Learning Value.

Learning in itself may be fulfilling, but the focus needs to be on the output, not on the process.

Everything That Is Valuable Is Also Fragile.

Sadly, this is particularly true of learning value, in which HR and Learning and Development departments place the main emphasis on cost effectiveness rather than business cases while management thinks in terms of positive business cases ensuring that every department –including the Learning and Development department– makes a measurable contribution to a quantifiable business impact. We must no longer limit ourselves to providing formal learning and measuring its impact. This is only a small piece of the whole.


Something is happening in the world of training. Organizations everywhere are embracing 70:20:10, saying things like: “Of course our training is based on 70:20:10”, or “We’re starting to use 70:20:10”, or “Our workplace learning is 70:20:10 proof”.

This article attempts to crack the code of 70:20:10 not by focusing on numbers and ratios, but by emphasizing the underlying principle. The job of HR and Learning and Development is not simply to offer formal learning, but to expand the service it provides using 70:20:10 to make the transition from learning to business value. And that, essentially, is what the HR and Learning and Development department exists to do.



  • Arets, J., Jennings, C., Heijnen, V.,  (2015). 70:20:10 Towards 100% Performance. Maastricht: Sutler Media.
  • Cross, J. (2006). Informal learning. Rediscovering the natural pathways that inspire innovation and performance. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Grip, A. (2015). The importance of informal learning at work IZA World of Labor 2015: 162. Consulted May 2017.