Learning – It Used To Be 100% Informal – No?


It – Learning – used to be 100% Informal. Then management started investing in Formal Learning. Some would say for ROI. Some would say because they just knew that to be right. Why even give it a thought – moving from Informal to Formal?

Was it because informal wasn’t cutting it and the numbers showed that – or was it that some slick sales person/army convinced them that 100% informal needed to move toward more formal Learning. Or Training. Or Education.

Or to a teeter-totter – where we go back and forth between the right numbers for this and for that – or now a third thing.

Me? I blame/credit the military.

They needed to make darn sure that thousands upon thousands – make that hundreds of thousands upon hundreds of thousands – of Learners learned the critical parts of THEIR JOB. And that it transferred.

ROI? More on the R’s of ROI later.

Not every last thing they would be expected to know and then do – in the life and death situations in their Performance Context. That would be too much. Too much to expect. Too much to actually learn well enough and then darn well enough – and then always every time – because the military paid attention to stuff like that. You tend to do so when your life and the lives of others and the state of the nation is at stake. Or the king’s state is at stake.


The R’s in ROI come from two sources: Risks Avoided and Rewards Achieved. When those are “significant enough” you would tend to do something to make sure that the end state is achieved.

In the days before TQM – Total Quality Management – and then later as Six Sigma – the concept was generally known as VR – Variability Reduction. How to reduce the variability in the Process that created variability in the Product. There was Design of Experiments – to test such things out on paper before live. Before the big money was spent – and possibly wasted.

You didn’t spend a million bucks on a problem or opportunity worth $100,000.00 – for that would generate a negative return on investment.

BTW – ROI – was created by DuPont in the 1920 to help them chose which investments to make as they couldn’t afford all of their opportunities. The ROI calculation leveled the analysis field with common views of the “cost of capital” and “payback periods” so that it would be harder for a particular champion to “game” the analysis and win funding for their pet project. It wasn’t used to look backward and prove ROI – there were too many variables that one couldn’t control or count – but one could look back to learn what could be learned to make future ROI analyses better. Lessons Learned and all.

The R in ROI in the Army was “to not lose a war” and the nation. Significant stakes. Enough so that calculating the “I” that you’re willing to spend/INVEST is unnecessary – a no-brainer one might argue.

But in business or other enterprises? Are there things to be learned formally at a formal investment cost for real Returns – such as Rewards Achieved and Risks Avoided? Rewards Achieved and Risks Avoided – two sides of the same coin, most often.

Yes. But not for everything. Not for 100% of everything for every job. One would have to pick and chose – and in business – be wise about it. Be targeted about it. Perhaps the guys and gals at the controls of the nuclear power plant needed to have near 100% of their job taught formally – and taught well.

And maybe Security. But HR? Or Finance? Or Maintenance?

Hold on – add Maintenance to the list – 100% coverage.

Because of the Rewards to be Achieved – and the Risks to be Avoided.

So some might get 100% formal – exhausting the funds – and ROI hurdle rates – and others might get 0% formal Learning/ Training/ Instruction/ Education/ etc., etc.

And others would get something in between. Some mix. Some would get 80/20 and other get 20/80.

Or 17.8/ 82.3 Formal/Informal – or if dividing up Informal into some new sub-categories – it might be 17.8/ 68.1/ 14.1.

Good Stewards of Shareholder Equity

Good Stewards of Shareholder Equity (where the real ROE focuses: return on equity) would only spend a buck to make more than a buck back – or avoid spending a buck.

Earned or Saved – a buck is a buck – and the Saved goes straight to the bottom line.

Poor Stewards, such as Learning Leaders who aren’t Business Champions first and last – and Learning Champions (only) in between – might not think like a business person. And so when at “the table” they talk nonsense about Learning and 20/80 and 80/20 without solid, rational business thinking behind their statements.


Which is why non-Learning Professional so often head up a Learning Organization/function. Too many Learning Champions – without enough Business Savvy.

Beware of Round Numbers

I immediately distrust Round Numbers. Especially if there are more than one of them – and even more when there are three – especially if I’m not told that they’ve been rounded off. Rounded Up – Down – and why. What were they in the first place before the need to round ’em off took hold?

For I always feel a sales pitch coming on when I see easy to grasp numbers being presented.

To keep it simple Simon (KISS).

100 Gets Divided and Conquered

So the Army (and others) felt a need to move off this 100% of Learning being Informal after some battle – lost or won – while licking their wounds and doing an after action review – to make it better next time. For in the Army there is always a next time – according to the historical data and trends – and according to The Planners.

Planning is big in the military. Thanks to some guy named Sun Tzu. And others – I forget all their names but you can hear them named in the Academy Award Winning movie “Patton” – as the script writers “were on it.”  Erwin and George were battling it out with tanks and trying to out think one another – and the state of the nation, no, make that the world, was in the balance. And learning about former army generals and strategic and tactical planning was the thing to do.

Now the 100% – or 20/80% and 80/20% – or the 0% – has a new playmate. 70-20-10.

It goes something like this…(per this post)…

  • 70% – On-the-Job Experiences – what I have called Un-Structured OJT since the early 1980s for Curriculum Architecture Design gaps that were not worthy of being closed.
  • 20% – Relationships, Networking and Feedback
  • 10% – Formal Training Opportunities

Which is useful for what exactly – I don’t know.

As an eye opener – for business leaders – who have a history of seeing it 100% or 0% or 20/80% or 80/20% – or what?

Shouldn’t some positions in the Enterprise be 0% Formal? Should some (albeit rarely) be 100% Formal?

And for some – the vast majority – shouldn’t it be in some range closer to a 20/80 Formal/Informal ratio?

What guidance does this formula, THIS set of round numbers, do for anyone?

Do they budget for labor, capital or expense differently based on this?

Should they? Do they talk about THIS when finally at The Table with the other leaders of the Enterprise?

What’s Next? 

Next – someone will come up with some new set of numbers when the old numbers are found wanting. Lacking results in dollars and/or in expectations.

Something jazzy, current, something like 9-9-9 and 73.

Hold the phone! Someone like me…now announcing…


  • 9% – very formal training – with skills building
  • 9% – very formal education – knowledge without skills building
  • 9% – formal communications – creating awareness without deep knowledge or skills building
  • 73% – learn it on the job informally as there’s just not enough R for the I for the Shareholders (remember them?)

I know it could be 73-9-9-9 – but that’s not as much fun. Or current in the US of A – anyway.

And – best of all – you can change your budgeting for labor, capital and expense – based on 9-9-9-73.

Think about that!

But Wait! There’s More!

Note 1: a formal F2F Formal workshop on 9-9-9-73* is in the works – and will be coming to you soon!

*Patent Shoes Pending.
(*Just kidding!)

Note 2: Truth in Posting – in my CAD – Curriculum Architecture Design methods – we always categorize the knowledge/skills during the Analysis Phase (#2) as needing a depth of coverage of A-K-S: Awareness, Knowledge or Skills-building – and if the gaps in the Curriculum Architecture receive a Prioritization from the Clients and Stakeholders on the Project Steering Team in the Implementation Planning Phase (#4) – of Zero (from a choice of either High, Medium, Low or Zero) – then they are left to Un-Structured OJT (now known as Informal Learning). So modular Content – of Instruction and Information – can be deemed: Formal Awareness Building, Formal Knowledge Building, Formal Skills Building – or Informal Learning/Un-S-OJT where the learner is left to figure it out on their own – with or without their neighbors/networks.

Back in the day I used to tell clients that what we now call Formal Learning might account for somewhere between 40 and 60% of what gets attended to on the T&D/Learning Path – and that the rest of it should be left to Unstructured OJT due to the ROI – in terms of there not being enough R for the I – from a business perspective.

They – my client’s clients – were concerned that we might be encouraging them to prioritize all of the “gaps” for eventual development/acquisition.

Oh no!


Note 3: Big Dog, Little Dog (a.k.a.: Don Clark) weighs in on this – twice – here – and here.


Note 4: There is even more – here – on this web site – about 70-20-10.

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One comment on “Learning – It Used To Be 100% Informal – No?

  1. My emphasis is on achieving an appropriate blend. For example a Technician managing people for the first time might benefit from a little formal training then some action learning tasks in and on his business that would include network related tasks plus – critically in my view – coaching / teaching from his boss


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