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Putting formal development higher up the L&D agenda

The pace of technological advancement means the 70:20:10 formula for employee development may no longer work in today's workplaces

The 70:20:10 ratio is a widely mooted formula used by L&D professionals when it comes to employee development. However new research from Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School suggests that, for younger leaders in particular, formal development needs to be much higher up the agenda.

70:20:10 refers to the belief that employee development in practice is gained 70% from on-the-job learning, 20% from feedback/coaching and 10% from formal development. Researchers have increasingly challenged this model, suggesting that the formula could (and should) vary based on factors such as team performance, size of organisation and company culture.

Added to this, technological advancement has impacted most industries, creating an ever-faster pace of change. This means that, where previously employees may have been able to acquire new skills at an incremental rate, by learning from previous incumbents or mentors, the complex and ambiguous environment in which we now live means that on-the-job learning may not be enough to support employee development.

Our research collected data from 528 leaders to explore the skills and behaviours they wish they had known ten years ago and what they felt were the best ways they had learnt in the past and the best ways they anticipated to learn in the future.

Above all else, today’s leaders wish they had greater relational skills ten years ago – they wish they had been better at all aspects of communicating and building relationships. Given relational skills are important throughout leadership careers and most of this type of skills development happens as part of leadership development programmes, L&D professionals may wish to consider offering this to employees at the start of their careers.

The research also found that the development being offered to employees needs to be tailored, both in terms of seniority and gender. Younger leaders and less senior leaders emphasised formal development whereas older leaders and more senior leaders emphasised on-the-job learning. For the younger demographic, formal development came out as the top theme, with first line and middle managers reporting education and training as the most valuable factor supporting their career success. Therefore, perhaps more formal development opportunities should be directed towards junior and middle level roles within organisations, a trend that might perhaps go against what typically occurs.

To develop older and more senior leaders, emphasis might be placed on identifying learning opportunities, stretching assignments and responsibilities, as well as opportunities for coaching.

In addition, Ashridge research identified some gender differences in terms of skills that were considered important to future success, with female leaders being more concerned about a lack of emotional intelligence derailing their careers while male leaders are most concerned about a lack of knowledge and expertise. As such, L&D professionals should consider developing separate programmes for men and women to incorporate the development of the skills which are considered critical for the respective gender.

Many respondents cited the importance of learning from failure, often through miscommunication or poor time management. Value of feedback was also highlighted, emphasising the importance of both positive and therefore confidence-boosting and challenging and developmental feedback to personal growth. These results may offer guidance for L&D professionals when exploring development for their employees, bearing in mind experiential learning which offers opportunities for employees to learn from failure and receive detailed feedback.

While the 70:20:10 rule may have been appropriate when it was originally mooted in the 1980s, in today’s fast paced environment, our research data seems to be offering a different view: employees are purporting the benefits of formal development, particularly in junior and middle level roles.

Given the 70:20:10 model was based on research that we retain information more effectively when we gain it in a practical context, and that our latest research instead suggests younger leaders in particular need leadership skills development, it seems that L&D professionals need to offer tailored development with feedback and learning from failure as key components. In a time of rapid technological change and uncertainty, formal development needs to be far higher up the agenda.

Sona Sherratt is professor of practice - leadership at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School