In his Harvard Business Review article When Learning at Work Becomes Overwhelming, David DeLong points out that “learning requirements have reached unrealistic levels in many roles and work situations today.” Specifically, he is talking about knowledge-intensive fields, such as healthcare, at every level from top executives to office professionals and production workers. He cites examples from clinical nursing, but you are surely familiar with examples closer to where you practice.

This is a big deal and we need to adjust our thinking about learning and our roles in our organizations.

Get rid of the silos

We have known for a long time that formal classroom training is expensive and time-consuming. Today eLearning, professional reading, and all the other media that support skill development and knowledge transfer, add to those costs. As DeLong makes clear, the load they place on learners adds to employee stress, burnout, and turnover, hurting both individual and organizational performance. He also cites Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (see References), who argue that we are now in a race between education and technology. DeLong asserts the skills gap in any field is evidence that education, both formal and informal, is losing the race.

For learning professionals, whether we call ourselves educators or trainers or learning-and-development practitioners, this is a major concern. Traditional approaches alone, whether classroom-based or eLearning, will not win the race. Learning through social media alone will not win the race, and neither will learning on the job. Taken individually, without a strategic plan on our part and without appropriate infrastructure, those approaches will only increase the frustration and burnout as employees try to keep up.

And yet, today, what we see are “silo” strategies: learning and development tends to stick to courses. Few if any L&D practitioners employ the social strategies that Jane Bozarth has written about so well, and few if any provide infrastructure to support the “natural pathways” that Jay Cross, Harold Jarche, and other members of the Internet Time Group have illuminated. And almost no one takes on the challenge of parsing and balancing the learning load across formal, social, and informal approaches.

Let’s take a different view

Here is an overview of three elements that support learning and accomplishment (a larger-scale view of “performance”).

The support elements are:

  • Skills and knowledge
  • Shared experience
  • Individual experience

These are attributes belonging to individual persons. They enable performance and accomplishment; there are, of course, environmental factors that affect those outcomes (supervision, organizational culture, budget, opportunity, and so on), but those are not the concern here. The titles I have given those support elements, the attributes of our learners, do not refer to the means by which individual performers acquire those attributes, that is, to what we do in L&D.

Table 1 provides some context.

Table 1: Attributes and means

Performer Attributes

Means of acquisition

Skills and knowledge

“Formal” training, education: instructor-led, eLearning; coaching; performance support; employee handbooks; supervisor feedback; apps; games and simulations; practice with feedback; problem-based learning; past experience.

Shared experience

“Informal learning”: Peer learning and observation; advice from others (possibly experts, but not necessarily); supervisor coaching; social media; conversation; reading; television; networking.

Individual experience

“Learning while doing” (and not just at work); trial-and-error/experimentation; “school of hard knocks”; practice and feedback; success and mistakes; apps; games and simulations; self-mediated/self-directed study.

Learning professionals have tended to treat each of these elements, and the methods and means by which people acquire them, as separate areas of endeavor. Furthermore, as designers we have often:

  • Specialized in providing or supporting only one element (skills and knowledge) and often only one of the means associated with it.
  • Ignored the crossover or shading from one element to another: individual experience informs responses to shared experience; individual and shared experience inform responses to formal instruction; formal instruction, when applied, creates individual experience; people make connections between what they learn from experience and what they learn from formal instruction, leading to new ideas, new attempts, and so on.
  • Ignored an individual’s prior experience or access to shared experience when providing formal training; why force people to sit through what they already know?

It is important not to think of these three elements separately, and the ways in which learning and performance professionals deal with them (or don’t), without considering the relationship between the three. A holistic strategy for supporting learning and accomplishment will yield better results than any silo strategy. It will also help to relieve the load on employees by giving them some help with that load.

What can we do about it?

The 70-20-10 “rule of thumb” has had quite a bit of attention, and I’d like to suggest we reframe it a bit. It really applies more to our work as learning professionals than it does to the learners.

It is very difficult to calculate or quantify how much of what a person knows about their job comes from formal instruction, from social interaction, or from just doing the job. Rather than struggle with trying to build this into an organizational strategy for learning (any plan we came up with would have to vary according to the job, and within the job according to the personal life experience and physical and mental capacities of individuals), it makes more sense to apply the relative proportions to our effort devoted to providing support for each of the attributes.

Consider carefully how to parse the elements and the role of each element in determining performance. Without automatically defaulting to the current levels or cutting it out entirely, the smallest amount of time and budget possible should go to the formal development of skills and knowledge. Do include formal instruction where it is required to support performance and accomplishment, but keep it lean and realistic, with priority going to the most critical skills and knowledge. Regarding knowledge, remember the search engines.

Assign the largest amount of time and budget to developing, providing, and maintaining the technology infrastructure that supports “learning the ropes” through individual experience, and to helping employees leverage the affordances of that infrastructure.

Somewhere between these two is the appropriate amount of time and budget for providing social infrastructure technology, opportunity for sharing experience, and helping and/or motivating employees to use that infrastructure. Remember to treat the development and support of coaching capability as important.

Measure results as a way to look to what needs to be done to support learners accomplishing better results; don’t treat the data from assessment as an autopsy of learning. Learning is a living process, not a completed effort.

Finally, dumb luck (or, if you prefer, divine providence, the deus ex machina, a guardian angel) can result in someone having an experience that results in learning exactly what that person needs at a later time. We can’t plan for dumb luck, but we could also help people to understand the value of serendipity and the importance of always being ready to learn something, even when least expected.


Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee. Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Lexington, Massachusetts: Digital Frontier Press, 2012.

Harold Jarche. “Work is learning and learning is the work.” Blog post, 17 June 2012. Retrieved 11 January 2016.