Incomplete science has shrunk learning organizations. Time for a comeback.

If you listen to some of the pundits or review the marketing materials of technology platforms that offer instant on-line learning, you could come to the conclusion that there is no need for organizational learning. I couldn’t disagree more.

In today’s tight U.S. labor market, executives are increasingly concerned about how to retain employees, increase innovation and improve productivity. The demands on recruiting are strong, and executives are waking up to the understanding that the cost of turnover accelerates when replacements are hard to find!

Enter learning organizations.

Organizational learning and recruiting are often the first components of talent management to be downsized during a recession. When the economy grows, companies once again invest in recruiting. When labor markets get tight, they begin to invest in learning organizations to meet the development needs and career choices of their employees, especially millennials.

During this tight labor market, however, there has been an obstacle. It is the urban legend going around that learning is “70:20:10” – meaning that 70% of learning occurs on the job, 20% from mentoring and coaching and 10% from classroom training. This claim comes from experiential learning theory and the work of several academics.

Nothing could be further from the truth. This assertion comes from research on novel, significant new assignments for leaders. These leaders were required to manage change with diverse teams across traditional organizational boundaries. Job rotation across business divisions and functions was their primary sources of learning and leadership development.

More recent research

More recent academic research on leadership development, however, has questioned this finding. It asserts that earlier models about learning were too simplistic in their assumptions about how leaders learn and the complexity of organizations.

In a literature review for the Oxford Handbook on Leadership and Organizations, University of Michigan researchers D. Scott DeRue and Christopher Myers set the record straight. DeRue and Myers point out that earlier research was focused on the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) required of leaders.[i]  The research didn’t focus on the complexities of organizational structures and the changing dynamics of leader-follower relationships in our global, mobile and agile work environment. Finally, it didn’t account for results. DeRue and Myers concluded that there is actually no empirical evidence supporting this assumption, yet scholars and practitioners frequently quote it as if were a fact.[ii]

DeRue and Myers also point to research (McCall, 2010), which suggests that informal, on-the-job experiences and learning from other people, and formal programs and learning from other people are independent.[iii] These different forms of experience can occur in parallel. It is possible (and likely optimal) that learning in one form of experience can complement and build on learning in another form of experience.

Finally, it is possible that the “70:20:10” assumption leads organizations to prioritize informal, on-the-job experience over all other forms of development experiences. Some scholars argue that this allows leadership development to become a “haphazard process” (Conger, 1993) without sufficient notice to intentionality, accountability and formal evaluation (Day, 2000).[iv]  I have, unfortunately, experienced this, and watch corporations dismantle their formal leadership development programs due to this urban legend!

In their review, DeRue and Myers point to a study by Barling, Weber and Kelloway (1996) who conducted a field experiment of 20 managers randomly assigned to either a control group or a leadership training group. The training group managers received a one-day training seminar on transformational leadership, followed by four booster training sessions on a monthly basis.  The control group received no such training. Results showed that the participants in the training group improved their performance more than the managers in the control group.[v]

Technology platforms exist that offer organizations on-line training instruction for a small fee. They make the suggestion that they can serve effectively as the formal training organization. There is a role for technology platforms that can provide off-the-shelf learning on general topics, such as sexual harassment or other generic training that organizations do not need to spend the time or budget to develop themselves.

However, when companies need training to ensure a shared understanding of a business strategy, or to shape their own culture, they will probably be better off developing the training themselves, using their own internal experts or a combination of internal or external experts.

Learning needs to be much more than mostly experiential learning or left to chance.

Today’s learning organizations need to align their employees’ efforts with the strategies of the enterprise. To do that successfully, they need to conduct detailed training needs analysis and provide not just leadership development training, but also critical on-boarding to accelerate every employees time to full-productivity. They also need to provide targeted technical training.

Learning organizations can take advantage of on-line, real-time learning technologies and then design focused training using rapid prototyping methodologies. They should also use a mixture of learning forums (group sessions, video, digital, group or one-on-one coaching and mentoring.)

Tell me, what has been your experience with implementing a learning organization? I would love to hear from you!

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne.US. He works with key decision makers and human resources leaders on talent management, leadership development and coaching, innovation, and other strategic initiatives. Please e-mail Victor at or For innovation visit www.InnovationOne.US.

[i] D. Scott DeRue and Christopher G. Myers, “Leadership Development: A Review and Agenda for Future Research,” in The Oxford Handbook of Leadership and Organizations, ed. David V. Day (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). Download PDF from

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] W. M. McCall, (2004) “Leadership development through experience, Academy of Management Executive, 18, 127-30.

[v]J. Barling, T. Weber, and E. K. Kelloway, (1996) “Effects of transformational leadership training on attitudinal and financial outcomes: A field experiment,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 81, 827-832.

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