June 1, 2016

Making 70-20 Learning Visible

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How We Did It at ATD 2016

In the 70:20:10 reference model, it is easy to see the “10” because people are sitting in a classroom, taking an eLearning module or watching a virtual presentation. It is harder to see the “70” (Learning by doing) and the “20” (Social learning) because 70-20 learning is a lot like gravity:  It is always turned on and largely invisible.

There appears to be real interest in Informal Learning and Activating the Learning Side of Work as Kathy Granger and I spoke last week at the 2016 ATD International Conference in a standing-room-only session titled, “Learning Anytime, Anywhere: How to Activate Informal Learning at Work.” Here’s a brief summary on how we made informal learning visible during our ATD 2016 Session, showed its power to spark creativity and innovation, and watched it take off during the conference!

Recognizing 70-20 Learning

We showed three pictures of 70-20 learning in action.

Here’s the first. We asked: “Who are these women and what are they doing?” No one knew.

Betty Jean Jennings_Fran Bilas

The woman on the left is Betty Jean Jennings and the one on the right is Fran Bilas. Betty Jean and Fran were two of six women who were the first computer programmers working with the ENIAC computer at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946. They were members of a group of women who spent World War II at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland using big calculators to plot the trajectories of artillery shells. After the war they were recruited to “program” ENIAC, the first general purpose computer in the world. Since no one had ever programed a computer before there was no “10” or formal learning they could attend to learn how. So by definition they had to use 70 (learning by doing) and 20 (social learning) from each other to discover how to program.

Do you know who is in the picture below? Most people in our session got one name right…

Bill Gates_Paul Allen

Bill Gates is on the right and Paul Allen is on the left and they are using some new teletype machines connected to a time sharing computer at their school. Bill’s mother and other members of the Mothers’ Club purchased the teletypes with proceeds from a rummage sale at the school. Bill and Paul are using 70-20 learning because there was no one else in the school that knew how to program. After hacking into the time sharing computer to get additional “free computer time” they created a payroll program which they sold. Little did they know then that their 70-20 learning would lead to the creation of Microsoft!

The picture below is another great example of 70-20 learning.

Steve Jobs_Steve Wozniac w_early Apple II computers

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak are shown with early Apple II computers first introduced on April 16, 1977. Since a computer like this had never been created before, they had to use 70-20 learning to fuel their product development as there literally was no formal 10 learning they could attend to learn how to do so. They worked together to create a major technology breakthrough product.

Impact of 70-20 Learning

The first impact is that you likely are using a device to read this Blog that literally owes its existence to the Informal Learning of Betty Jean, Fran, Bill, Paul, Steve and Steve. Take away the programing and computer architecture of these pioneers, and devices from SMART Phones to Tablets to Desktops, and the Internet would not exist. This impact shows how powerful informal learning can be to produce major product and technology innovations.

The second impact is what happened at ATD 2016 with those who attended our session on Learning Anytime, Anywhere. By the very next day, another presenter in his session was talking about the ubiquity of informal learning that he now recognized because of what he learned during our session.

More interesting was the response to a 70-20 Challenge that Kathy and I gave to our audience members. We asked them to use Twitter to show examples of informal learning by using #7020learningatd during the conference and when they returned to work.

Thanks to their #7020learningatd Tweets, we now have many wonderful examples of informal learning they saw both during the ATD 2016 Conference and when they returned to their work. We promised our session attendees a report on what we learned from their informal learning tweets, and we’ll also post a copy of this report in a future 70-20® Blog.


We see three major implications:

  1. The power of informal learning is beyond what most of us recognize. It is the source of creativity, innovation and ultimately performance breakthroughs that fuel the competitive advantage of organizations around the world.
  2. Formal learning, like our “10” session at ATD 2016, remains an important way to build skills, knowledge and behaviors when combined with learning transfer. Organizations need to continue to offer formal learning to ensure employees, managers and leaders have the core capabilities needed to perform their jobs effectively.
  3. The speed of informal learning shared via social media, taking the concepts we taught and sharing them on four continents within a week, is truly breathtaking.

Thanks to everyone who joined us at our ATD 2016 Session and documented their varieties of informal learning.


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Written by:
Cal Wick Founder, Fort Hill Company

Cal is the Founder of Fort Hill, the industry leader in web-based learning activation solutions. Cal is a nationally-recognized researcher named “Thought Leader of the Year” by his peer group at ISA and an author of three highly-acclaimed books. He continues to direct his creative energies into 70-20, the latest innovation from Fort Hill.

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