In Memoriam: 70/20/10

In Memoriam: 70/20/10

      There is an oft-cited ratio in the field of talent management:  70/20/10.  It’s really past its prime and needs to be put to rest.  


     This old ratio is based on a Center for Creative Leadership study conducted 30 years ago asking a small group of executives to recall their most significant development.  The researchers report that 70% described on the job experiences, 20% pointed to relationship-based growth and 10% cited formal learning such as classroom training.   It made a relevant point back then that we shouldn’t only think of development as a training program.


      What I don’t agree with is 70/20/10 has unintentionally morphed into something else.  It is very common to attend a conference and hear someone describe their strategy for talent development as the old ratio.  Everyone in the room nods in recognition of this conventional wisdom.  It’s not a strategy and actually, I think it is now on the level of urban myth.  Like the one about the Great Wall of China being visible from outer space.  (Sorry, NASA reports it isn’t recognizable from space.)


More Fuzzy Than Good Math


      The old ratio isn’t a strategy and isn’t very useful.  It is a perfect example of HR-speak that reinforces the jargon-laden, fuzzy headed label some give our  profession.  How would you operationalize the old ratio?  Does that mean you dedicate 70% of your budget to on-the-job and only 10% to structured learning?  Does it mean you apportion the amount of executive time devoted to talent development plans exactly to the old ratio?


Just Any Job Isn’t Learning


      It over-states the role of experience in development. The weighting of 70% can mislead people into thinking as long as everyone is on the job, everyone is developing.  Consider the story of two equally qualified candidates vying for the same position.  The hiring manager confidently selected one person, even though both had an equal ten years in their prior roles. The hiring manager deduced that one candidate has a full ten years of rich, varied learning while the other had only one year’s learning and repeated the same lessons for ten years. No guarantee on the job alone produces real growth.   The old ratio may seduce some that any job produces development, so talent just needs to stay put and season awhile longer. Or worse than that lazy thinking, the urgent open job is always the right choice for someone’s critical ‘next step development’.  After all, it’s an experience!  The reality is that it takes hard work and risk to manage talent development through job assignments.


Three Martini Lunch Networks


      The old ratio under-states the value of learning from others. When the first study was done, Ronald Reagan was president, the proper country club was the predominant community you built and social networking was the three martini lunch you had every day at Harry’s with the boys.  Things moved a lot slower and more local then, so as long as you could work the internal hierarchy, there was little to be gained by building relationships laterally and outside your organization.  Of course it was harder to connect to learn back then. Back in the Disco era, sending a fax was a big deal, the daily mail was the primary communication mode.  The concept of the Internet and social networking was non-existent. 


Classroom As Prison


      If social learning was difficult as development tool 30 years ago, imaging the pain of classroom learning!  The standard format for corporate training back then was five to ten days of lecture-style encounters, usually at a university complete with academic professors, expounding theory X and theory Y  using overhead transparencies.  If you were lucky, a consultant might show a 35mm film or a slide show to spice things up.  Safe Harvard case studies dragged managers through the likes of the history of the Swiss watch industry.  These were more rites of passage than relevant, performance oriented training.  No smart, flexible e-learning. No focused events with ‘apply it now ‘material.


Consider The New Math


      So things are different now.  Old ratios based on historical realities may not neatly apply. Experience can still be powerful, but needs more precise thinking and discipline in application. Social networking and informal learning are rising as new modes of knowledge and skill building. And what used to be called classroom learning has evolved in so many way to be more relevant, more compelling and more accessible on your desktop.


      I recognize that there have been a few attempts at redoing the original CCL study, each finding different ratios. Let’s go beyond the superficial formulas when we consider talent formation strategy. If you do need number model, here’s my 1-2-3 approach:  great talent development is one part focus on the jobs and people that matter most to the business strategy, two parts disciplined reviews of assessment and calibration with the rigor of financial budgeting and three parts using all the contemporary developmental methods to engage, inspire inform and build talent. 

© Kevin D. Wilde