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During this blog series, I have aimed to take you all on an exploration of the various theories of learning, and to investigate what that means in the real world. In part one of the series, I explained the conflicting theories of learning, and concluded by saying that we needed a middle ground. Now I wouldn’t be much of a guide if I presented a problem like that without suggesting a solution.

For me, the middle ground comes in the form of the much touted 70:20:10 rule. I’m a big fan – I particularly like it as it incorporates elements from all of the main families of learning theory, and provides a well balanced approach.

The 70:20:10 rule tells us that 10% of what we learn is through formal learning. For most of us, references to formal learning will conjure up images of classrooms. This is not the only type of formal learning – in fact, any learning where the objectives, content and learning approach are externally defined are classified as formal learning.

20% of what we learn is through social interaction. We learn by asking a colleague or through other one-to-one interactions. And finally, 70% of what we learn is through experiential learning: learning by doing stuff. As we continue the discussion of what a learning organization is, keep this 70:20:10 rule in mind. 

Are we there yet?


Throughout the blog series I have been referring to this veritable Nirvana – so what is a learning organization? A learning organization is one where learning happens regularly and as a matter of course in normal business practice, where learning is embedded within the culture of the organization. Ongoing formal refresher training, accessible and appropriate reference material, supported informal learning structures, and other similar approaches are typical within such a business.

A learning organization reduces the cost of support, maximizes the return on software investment, reduces the number of mistakes made by users, and the time taken to fix those mistakes (along with the direct and indirect costs of such mistakes). Learning organizations also have a more engaged workforce, and as per my previous blog this has many benefits as well.

Move from push to pull models

In learning circles, we define push content as content that an organization pushes on to its employees or constituents. It is often content that is organized by instructional design experts alongside subject matter experts. The recipient often has no say in what that content is or the order of that content; because of this, most of the online learning pushed out is synchronous. The user also has no say on the importance of that content, or the extent to which it is mandated. Push content is often found in highly regulated companies, industries, or verticals, and is typically found on most learning management systems.

However, pull content is the opposite. This is content that employees or users in organization take at their leisure. Users can go and pull down whatever they want, whenever they want. It places the emphasis on the learners to decide for themselves what they need to learn, thus often being asynchronous. This does not negate the importance of instructional design. Instead instruction design takes on a different notion, developing and presenting content in a different format. This is being driven by the power of social media, and pull content is often found in smaller, more agile companies.

A learning organization, with an eye to the 70:20:10 principles, will utilize both push and pull content.  The combination means that learning isn’t something that is done to users at the behest of the organization, to a defined schedule. It becomes something that is truly embedded:  part of the natural order of business for the user community. Once learning is a central part of the day to day life of an organization, you’re developing a learning organization.

Tips for Building a Learning Organization

I have given a fairly extensive overview of all the areas you need to consider when trying to build learning into your organizational culture, as well as the huge benefits for those who are successful. However, it is easy to get this wrong and your organization is likely to be unforgiving if you attempt to do this twice. So my first and most important tip is to get help. And make sure that help comes from a trusted source.

Do not rely on one single approach. Everybody has a personal learning preference, and you will need to cater for as many of these preferences as practical. Remember our 70:20:10 approach…

Learn to manage and exploit user-generated content. At first glance, this could seem scary. For many organizations this is a step too far, leading to nervous-sounding questions like, “What if the user content is wrong, or of low quality?” The users themselves will have provided a degree of quality review – if the content is poor quality, it will quickly die of its own accord. Although I need to point out here that I do not mean that we allow a complete “free-for-all” for users to create any content they like. Empowered users and Photoshop make for a scary combination after the office Christmas party. Clearly the content will need to be moderated.

Content ages and becomes less relevant over time as the systems evolve, so there needs to be a constant review process in place to remove irrelevant, irresponsible or just plain wrong content. Revisit, review, refresh. This doesn’t only apply to the content itself, but also the methods by which this content is shared.

Take advantage of established social and informal learning networks. The reality is that this is already happening to some extent in your organization. Learn how. Understand what these approaches are and enhance them, encourage them, endorse them.

Don’t introduce something completely alien to the business and enforce its use. “Chris said we need to implement a social learning method so everyone must now use this wiki”. If no one in your business has ever used a wiki before, then this approach will not work just because you choose to implement it. Introduce things slowly, and allow them to grow organically (or not). Better to start with what is already being used, and then look to enhance with newer options in parallel.

Listen. Be responsive. If you start to take this stuff seriously, and your workforce knows that you are doing so, they are likely to be able to tell you what they need to be more effective. Don’t ignore these messages – if you do, no one will share these with you in future, and this will severely damage your efforts to build a learning organization.

Well that’s it for this blog series. I hope you found it useful. Stayed tuned for more in December, and into 2015 – I am currently planning a new blog on innovation adoption. If there are other learning related topics that you’d like to hear more about, please let me know.

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