Beyond the Classroom: Alternatives to Formal Training

“Learning should be a process, not an event.”  This mantra, preached by training professionals everywhere, is much easier said than done.  What would this look like if it moved from catch phrase to real life?

The 70/20/10 Model

The Center for Creative Leadership began promoting the idea that learning is an ongoing process.  While formal learning experiences such as classroom training, conferences, elearning courses and webinars are important, they only make up 10% of professional learning experiences.  20% of learning comes from supervisors and other supportive relationships.  The remaining 70% of learning comes from on the job interactions and experiences – the mistakes we make, the solutions we stumble upon and the lessons we take away from going about our daily routine.

The 10%: Formal Learning Experiences

This is the area that people typically think about when they think “learning” or “training”.  The list of formal training opportunities that employers may offer include:

  • In-house training classes
  • External, vendor-offered training classes
  • Conferences and seminars
  • Elearning courses
  • Webinars
  • Certificate and university degree programs

Having seen organizational budgets and having created departmental budgets, my observation is that even though this is where 10% of organizational learning happens, this is where just about 100% of the financial investment into professional development is spent.  Speaking of money, a 2010 McKinsey & Company study entitled “Getting more from your training programs” proclaimed that companies spend $100 billion (WITH A “B”!!) on training each year “but training typically doesn’t have much impact.”  Why?  Because managers (and entire companies) generally do a poor job when it comes to being strategic about the other 90% of organizational learning.

The 20%: Supervision & Support

In their book Transfer of Training, Mary Broade and John Newstrom provide oodles of research that states an employee’s manager is the single biggest and most influential factor when predicting whether or not skills and knowledge learned through formal training will actually be applied on the job.  Manager supervision and support includes activities such as:

  • Identifying specific skills gaps
  • Setting performance goals
  • Setting expectations and goals around formal learning experiences
  • Following up on goals and expectations once a formal learning experience has been completed
  • Providing ongoing coaching
  • De-briefing on-the-job learning experiences and mistakes to sort out potential lessons learned

When done in isolation – sending an employee for more training or using annual training dollars to attend a conference or asking an employee to simply sit in on a new hire orientation class she may have missed six months ago – learning experiences are often directionless and wasteful.  Managers can super-charge learning experiences through the first several bullet points above in order to offer clear direction to an employee.  The final several bullet points all help learning to “stick” and the investment in learning to pay real dividends.

The 70%: Lessons from the Frontlines (aka: On the Job Learning)

Most of the time, we’re neither sitting in a training class nor are we sitting in our supervisor’s office.  We’re doing our jobs.  And as we do our jobs, we’re learning – what to do and what not to do.  Informal learning opportunities include:

  • Mentors
  • Journaling
  • Stretch assignments
  • Participation in communities of practice
  • Participation in online discussion boards
  • Membership in professional associations or trade groups
  • “Water cooler conversations” with other co-workers
  • Job aids
  • Checklists
  • User guides
  • Tutorials
  • Employee manuals
  • Reading trade magazines or books (or participating in book clubs around professional topics)

The point here is that the classroom may be the highest profile venue for learning, but it truly is just one small sliver of where learning happens.  And it all goes to waste if these other things aren’t in place.

The question is: how can these non-training alternatives get a higher profile when driving toward better performance?

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6 thoughts on “Beyond the Classroom: Alternatives to Formal Training

  1. One way to improve the impact of the training session is to communicate with the manager prior to the class. Solicit their imput on the objectives and content. What needs to be covered in the class to ensure that the skills that are taught are the ones that are needed to do the job?
    Help them to explain to the employee why they are being sent to the training and how it will help them as well as the team. Often the manager has not attended the training and does not know what is involved. After the training, work with the manager to set up ongoing support, feedback, and coaching for the employee.

    • So true, Priscilla! The ideal scenario is one in which there is a triangular relationship between the trainer, the trainee and the manager. It’s definitely easier said than done, but there are definitely some ways that a trainer can build this process into his/her design – whether through a pre-workshop email to the participant offering a checklist of things to do before coming to the training (be sure to come with layers as the room temp may vary… and be sure to discuss goals and expectations with your supervisor beforehand). Internal trainers can take this a step further by speaking with managers directly. Have you found a successful strategy in communicating with managers?

      • One way is to provide the manager with a list of topics that will be covered and ask him/her to rate on a scale of 1-10 as to how important each topic is for the employee to successfully do their job. In addition, ask for input on other topics needed.

        Also ask the manager to sit down with the empoyee before the training to point out the topics of most imterest and to help employee begin to think how they will implement these new skills. If the employee sees that it is releveant, practical and immediately usefull, he/she will pay more attention.

      • Love these suggestions. Thanks Priscilla. There are definitely some simple things that trainers can build into the design of their lessons to help with the “stickiness” – and communication with a simple checklist or key points can be so powerful!

  2. Employers love to quote these stats. I get annoyed because I believe they’re often an excuse for skimping on training!

    It would be interesting to cite the percentages of time that people spend doing their jobs versus getting formal training: If employees were to work roughly 200 days annually and go on an average of (say) 2 days’ training per year, and if the 70% and 10% stats are right, then people spend 100x as long learning 7x as much on-the-job. At that rate, it seems formal training is over 13x more efficient than learning on-the-job.

    To my mind, many employers don’t like to pay for training because it’s a very visible cost, and the (very marketable) knowledge and skills walk out the door if employees get a better offer. But the damage done by learning from mistakes on-the-job is much less visible or quantifiable, so it’s generally ignored.

    You wrote that about 100% of the money spent on development goes into formal training. I’d also argue it’s 100% of the money you can SEE that’s being spent on training, but FAR more is lost by the business through inefficient on-the-job learning.

    Still, I think you’re absolutely right that formal training needs to be coupled with manager support and other measures (with dollars attached) to make learning stick.

    I love this quote by Zig Ziglar: “The only thing worse than training your employees and losing them is not training your employees and keeping them.”

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Craig!

      First – thank you for your previous tip about writing on a PPT slide DURING a presentation. I actually used that in a presentation I gave earlier this week. Worked like a charm!

      Now, to your most recent comments: the 70/20/10 comes from the Center for Creative Leadership – I have never found whether it’s based upon research or if it’s simply a model. In either case, I go with the mantra that all models are wrong, but some models are useful. I find 70/20/10 particularly useful and we’ve used it in my organization as the foundation of our “people strategy”.

      We found we were spending an overwhelming amount of time organizing training events only to find 6 months later that we’d need to train on the same topic because people weren’t adopting the new skills are strategies. This isn’t something unique to our organization – in my post (above) I cited the 2010 McKinsey study which estmated employers spend $100 billion/year on training yet only 1/4 of managers report a measurable difference in performance. That’s not good. Which is why I also cite the book Transfer of Training which provides very clear evidence of the impact of a supervisor (ie: supprtive relationships – the 20% part) in determining whether or not training will “stick”.

      So, all this said, I think the formula/model may be better stated 70+20+10 (ie: you can’t just pick and choose whether people should learn on the job OR through supportive relationships OR through formal training), it really needs to be a combination of the three. And to your point, it REALLY can’t just be on the job – the supervisor plays a HUGE role in determining whether something will stick – whether learned on the job or through formal training.

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