October 21, 2010
When Trial and Error is Not Enough
My 20-year old son is helping his friend finish a basement. Neither of them has done anything like this before, so it has been quite an adventure. My son was telling me just the other day of all the time-wasting mistakes and all the things he would do differently the next time around. “Definitely paint the walls before laying the hardwood floors, especially if you’re a sloppy painter,” was, I think, one learning point born from painful personal experience. The total hours of the project are in the hundreds, with every afternoon and late evening spent overcoming the next new challenge on the road to a happy and successfully completed project.
While by the end of the experience he will have figured much of it out, I think he would agree that the process was much more difficult than it needed to be. Why is that? There are examples we all could share where learning something new was a frustrating experience, resulting in outcomes that we know would have been quite different if at the beginning we had known more of what we didn’t understand until the end. I think this occurs in part because of our fairly narrow view of how and where learning happens, and more importantly, what we can do to improve how and where learning happens.
Many people believe that most of what we learn comes from the classroom. That is simply not true. Over the course of a year, many enlightened companies will provide on average 2-5 weeks of formal training to their employees. This equates to roughly 5-10 percent of their time at work for a given year. For some, it is much less. The question is, what are these people doing the rest of the time? Work, obviously. But they are also constantly learning. The brain is one of our most important organs, and like all organs, it has several vital functions. One of those functions is to learn, to engage with the environment around us and make sense of it in a way that leads to actions that help us benefit and grow. So if we are constantly learning every day, why is that companies and society in general invest the majority of effort and resources into the 5-10 percent of time spent in formal learning situations, largely ignoring the other 90 percent? What would happen if we cultivated a culture where we explicitly supported the learning that occurs informally, every day? This is the thought behind a learning framework gaining popularity throughout industry, often referred to as 70-20-10. The idea is to create learning support programs based on the assumption that 10 percent of the learning happens formally, 20 percent in a coached environment, and 70 percent informally as part of one’s day-to-day activities.
The 10 percent formal learning can occur in a classroom, via a web-based course, through a webinar, or any number of other scenarios where there is a specific time set aside to engage with structured learning materials and activities. For my son, one formal learning option may have been to take a remodeling class at the community college before he began the basement project.
The 20 percent coached learning typically happens on the job, either with a supervisor or a more experienced employee who shows you what to do, observes you doing it, and provides guidance and feedback to help you improve. For my son, an option here might have been to invite a friend with remodeling experience to lead the effort, coaching my son and his equally experience-challenged cohort along the way.
Supporting the 70 percent informal learning could be providing knowledge tips, tools, and other resources to the learner so that they are available for reference and guidance at the point of need. Googling a topic online, tapping into your social network, reading a relevant how-to book, or watching a video tutorial are all examples of informal learning. When my son shared with me his woes regarding the remodeling project, I told him of a wonderful book we purchased several years ago that has step-by-step instructions for just about any home improvement activity you can imagine. After giving me the, “you’re telling me this now?” look, he agreed that it would have been a great resource during the project.
So what are you learning today? Where can you turn for help? You can always learn from the school of hard knocks. But as my son would say, that’s, well, hard. Instead, with just a little bit of creativity, you can come up with your own 70-20-10 plan, and give yourself the help you need, when you need it.
Robert Campbell, vice president and chief learning officer, is the founder and leader of Cerner KnowledgeWorks. KnowledgeWorks applies leading-edge learning theory, technology and best practices in content management and informal learning to help Cerner associates, clients and business partners gain competence quickly. In addition to KnowledgeWorks, Campbell oversees Cerner Marketing and uCern, the company’s collaboration and networking platform.Campbell, who has 24 years of experience in learning and development and instructional technology, joined Cerner in February 1996. Prior to joining Cerner, he was with Andersen Consulting Education, where he focused on creating effective learning solutions for Andersen consultants.