Interview with Charles Jennings, Co-founder 70:20:10 Institute (UK)

On January 30, 2018, Charles Jennings, co-founder of the 70:20:10 institute, will hold his Keynote “Exploiting Learning in the Workplace: informal learning and the 70:20:10 model” at LEARNTEC 2018. In the following interview he explains why high performers mostly learn from their own work and experiences and, in a second step, from colleagues, communities and family. He appeals to managers and HR professionals to focus on performance support.

Charles Jennings, Co-founder 70:20:10 Institute (UK)

Could you please explain your 70:20:10 concept?

The numbers represent three different, but often overlapping, ways to learn: The ‘70’ represents learning form working which includes experience, practice, and reflection. The ‘20’ represents learning from and with others – for instance, colleagues, the boss, high performers, members of communities, your partners and children. The ‘10’ is formal learning including courses, e-learning, reading books, etc. The model is a framework for re-focusing Learning & Development activity closer to business and organizational objectives.

Charles – why do you think that informal learning is more important than formal learning?

The evidence suggests that we learn more from working and from colleagues in the workplace than from formal training. Professor Andries de Grip, for example, published a review in June 2015 titled ‘The importance of informal learning at work’. He suggests that 98 percent of the time spent for learning is informal. And the closer your learning is to the point-of-use the more likely it will be effective.

Which topics are suitable for informal/formal learning?

I haven’t found one single topic that is not suitable. Because all learning is contextual, 70:20:10 provides a way to focus on performance in context. If, for example, you look at the top musicians, designers, architects – almost all of them started with formal learning, but getting qualifications alone will not produce high performance and creativity. During my time as Chief Learning Officer at Reuter, not once did I recruit a candidate based on their qualification alone.

Can’t we all learn more in a concentrated, focused way in a quiet environment with formal material we can study step by step?

This is true sometimes. When we have some focused time, without distractions, to concentrate on new ideas and information it helps. But if you take the world of medicine, for instance, studies show that greater experience and practice leads to less complications, less rework and lower mortality. Learning that occurs in the daily flow of work has a significant effect.

But when I want to learn a foreign language, there is no way I can avoid structured grammar and vocabulary training.

When we start out learning a new language it certainly helps to understand grammatical structures and some vocabulary, but we should not assume that passing tests will produce good linguists. Let’s not confuse short-term memory retention with learning. To get their university degree, language students learn how to cram information into their heads to pass the exams. But what is left after three or six months? Without continuous practice and application, we will forget most of what has been ‘learned’.

Which learning concepts do you find when you visit companies?

Many companies still base their Learning & Development planning around what I call ‘the course mindset’ – where everything is packaged into courses, programs and curricula. They give very little attention to informal learning. When I speak to HR and learning professionals they often tell me their job is designing, developing and delivering content and courses. But we know that high performance is dependent not only on knowledge and skills, but also on factors such as having the right work environment and tools. Some companies are doing a great job moving into the emerging knowledge era, but most e-learning is far too content-heavy. Even with the learning nuggets and micro-learning, it is still content-centric, based on information and ‘knowledge transfer’.

What’s wrong with the term “knowledge transfer”?

We don’t really transfer knowledge. You can help others build up their own knowledge, but it’s not a bucket you can pass on. There are two challenging elements: terminology and the issue of tacit knowledge. Much of the knowledge of high performers is tacit or implicit. This knowledge can’t be ‘captured and packaged’. They continually make decisions based on an ever-changing environment. We need to move our thinking and practices away from ‘knowledge transfer’ and focus on supporting people in their daily workflow. This means a shift from ‘courses to resources’.

How should workplaces be structured and designed to support effective learning?

You do not necessarily need a physical change of the buildings or workspaces. However, you do need to work on the culture about learning in the organization. One thing is start learning from errors and mistakes. As an example, the aviation industry is far safer than the medical industry, because it has a culture of learning from errors. When pilots make mistakes, they report them. Pilots are legally protected from being fired if they self-report mistakes. Airlines then circulate lists of errors and lessons learned, so that others can benefit.

How can learning processes be integrated into business processes without disturbing the work?

For instance, by identifying people who are exemplary performers and understanding what they do. Then creating job aids to help others do the same. Performance support tools and practices are important. I have witnessed situations where, despite 12-week training programs, people couldn’t perform when they tried to do the work, and they needed at least another year to reach full proficiency. When we introduced screen-based performance support tools, their performance increased by 20 percent immediately.

Are HR managers familiar with your method?

A few HR managers are, but I’m sorry to say many HR professionals don’t have any great understanding of how learning and high performance happens. That’s not their core capability. Like many managers, they often find it difficult to separate ‘learning’ from ‘schooling’ – and see ‘learning’ as something you must go to class for. HR professionals and managers are often blind to the many opportunities for learning and developing in the workplace.

Managers, and some SMEs, say they cannot afford to support learning in the workplace. What do you tell them?

They can’t afford NOT to do it. The amount of money wasted on formal training, leadership and management development is huge. McKinsey and Company found one of the main reasons for the failure of most leadership development programs was lack of context. These programs are costly, too. In my experience, now with more than 200 organizations, there has not been one where using the 70:20:10 approach was more expensive.

Do you incorporate social networks? And to which of the 70:20:10 would they belong?

Yes. Social networks are very important – especially for knowledge workers. The better people are connected, the better they are likely to perform. We learn from others all the time as part of our daily work. Research has shown that the top 20 percent of managers by performance are likely to have stronger and more diverse networks than their less-well performing colleagues.

With informal learning – do employees gain more influence on what and how they learn?

Yes, they certainly do. However, there are limitations. What independent learners need to learn will be determined by the work they need to undertake. So, their manager will have influence on what they learn and often how they learn it. Manager understanding, and guidance, is important in most informal learning.

Are they willing and competent enough to take learning into their own hands?

Yes. We need to remember that working people are adults. One of the problems is that many L&D and HR professionals see them as ‘learners’ – meaning ‘students’ and almost ‘children’. Most adults are capable and competent enough to know which capabilities they need.

Charles – thank you very much for this interesting interview.

Credit press photo - Duntroon Consultants

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