Activating learning with the 70-20 tool

An interview with Kathy Granger from Fort Hill Company about their online tool 70-20 and how it can be used to activate learning.

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In this podcast I'm talking with Kathy Granger from the Fort Hill Company, about a tool that they've developed called the 70-20 that helps support learning transfer and the activation of learning in the workplace. Just to start the discussion Kathy, what is 70-20?

Robin, it's great to be with you today, and what 70-20 is, is it's a learning activation platform that is a web-enabled application that works on any type of device, whether a person is using a smartphone, or a tablet or a desktop. The name of course is derived from the 70:20:10 learning model. Our focus with the 70-20 web application is on helping to activate and document the informal and social aspects of learning in an organisational setting. I'll say more about that, but that's hopefully a good starting introduction for what it is.

Cool. Can I just drill into what do you actually mean by activate?

What we mean by activate is: when people have a learning opportunity whether it is a formal program, an e-Learning experience or even an informal learning on the job, perhaps they're taking on a new assignment as part of a team. The application of learning needs to be activated with some area of focus for the individuals, so I'll give you a couple of examples:

If someone is coming out of a leadership development program and they've covered a number of different skills and behaviours. When we talk about activating learning, we want people to have specific things, or goals, or challenges that they decide to work on coming out of that program. To activate the learning they begin to use those new skills, behaviours or knowledge on the job, so the activation of learning is that bridging from acquiring the new knowledge, skills or behaviours in a learning setting, and then beginning to put it into action on the job. That activation is the idea of practice and application back on the job.

With 70-20, what we're doing is we have people focus on specific learning challenges and we activate their practice or their application on those challenges by prompting them to take steps to make progress on the challenges, record their progress that they're making, and ultimately and hopefully complete the challenge so that they actually have improved their performance and master the new skill or behaviour.

This is also really interesting because I mean essentially, I've heard Fort Hill Company for a long time talk about the term—and I almost feel like you're the world leaders in that learning transfer area. Learning transfer isn't a particularly friendly term. This is why I've just drilled into this 'activate' term because it felt more, actually a lot more descriptive and a lot more action-focused. I actually think it's a better description for what learning transfer is really being talked about.

It's interesting you say that Robin because I feel the same way. We coined the term 'learning transfer' back in the early 2000s. Fort Hill was started in 1999 and we were the first organisation on the planet that decided to tackle the problem of poor learning transfer coming out of training programs and to create early versions of web applications to support learning transfer. We did a lot of research, we created a number of different tools to support learning transfer, but it wasn't a particularly compelling or sexy term. (laughs)

When we think about 70-20, we really want to kind of spark people's interest and spark their motivation to take action. That term activation has entered into our vocabulary a lot more now than learning transfer has, but we're still essentially talking about the same process of putting new skills, behaviours and knowledge into play and your work so that you can actually become more effective on the job.

This is also interesting in terms of—this is essentially Fort Hill Company's second generation tool as well. Why did you develop 70-20 as a tool separately from your first generation tools?

We developed it because over the last few years, Robin, we're seeing just some massive changes going on in our client organisations. They were many, but a few that are top of mind, I mean one is just the influx of the younger workforce, the millennials that everybody likes to talk about, and their very strong use of technology all the time. Everybody have the smartphone with them, and with smartphones people have internet connectivity all the time.

A lot of clients were just seeing people bypassing the typical training and development opportunities that were being offered in a more formal setting, and problem solving on their own, and doing Google searches on their own, and just finding different ways to do self-directed learning. That idea of enabling the learning and development organisation to really transform itself to become much more current around learning in the flow of work rather than expecting people to learn when they come to formal programs is really becoming obvious.

Also just the use of social media and that whole notion of being able to transform the way L&D departments deliver their value inside the organisations to move from that old 'push' mentality where traditional push is really designing and delivering training, that the training department deems to be necessary versus enabling more of a 'pull' psychology of enabling people to pull to them the information and resources that they need to do their job.

It's been a really interesting time I think and I'm sure you're probably seeing it with your clients too. Over the last three to five years I think there's a really major change underfoot in a lot of L&D organisations that we see. That's why we really felt we needed to create a new tool to be much more current and much more cutting edge for all those changes that are going on in our client organisations.

That's a really interesting shift where it's also not just being talked about, people are actually starting to make it happen. Interesting that people have started to sit there and go: yes 70:20:10 is a starter idea, but when you get deeper you get into a more continuous learning culture. Some of the things you're talking about are trying to then think through how we really foster informal learning.

One of the things I'm still interested in talking a little bit about is you talked through this notion of being able to have challenges and then respond, and record those challenges, record progress and evidence towards that challenges. Is that the most powerful thing do you think in terms of fostering informal learning—of being able to put an employee to set a goal and then move towards it, or is there something else that’s the key?

It's a really interesting question because if you go all the way back to like 1971, Allen Tough wrote a book about informal learning way back many decades ago. He actually described adult learning as being a process of having highly deliberate effort that was focused on gaining knowledge, skills or behaviour or changing habits to improve capability. He actually defined that in his book in 1971.

We were really intrigued with that because even though that's almost a 50-year old concept, that he was talking about deliberate effort to gain certain knowledge, skills, behaviour, etc., we really thought that that was an interesting element of learning. When Cal Wick, our founder and I presented at ATD in May this year, we talked about the difference in informal learning being in the moment such as impromptu learning which you can define as, you know, I have a question, I have a term, I need to know to it, I'm going to do a quick search on Google, I'm doing a quick search on Wikipedia.

That type of impromptu learning is sort of in the moment and you might do it multiple times a day. In comparison, when we talk about a learning challenge which would be something that someone would work on in 70-20, we define a learning challenge as taking on a challenge that requires some level of deliberate effort that you need to work on whether it's over a few days, or a week, or a month. It has multiple steps involved and it involves multiple activities or actions.

To pick up on your question, what we wanted to do with 70-20 is we wanted to create a platform that would enable people to work on a wide variety of challenges over a full year. A license to use 70-20 is good for year, and in that timeframe an individual can work on an unlimited number of challenges, some of which can be related to formal programs. If I take two or three different courses a year and maybe a few e-Learning things, I can be working on challenges related to those formal initiatives.

But I also can create my own informal challenges. If there is something I need to work on that might be a performance gap that I've identified with my manager, I can identify a challenge to maybe work on my social media marketing skills, or pick up on something related to negotiating with vendors or whatever it may be. I can take on a challenge that is of my own creation of something I want to work on, or it can be related to formal programs.

We had to find a way in this web application to organise the user experience. You can create an environment that is around social or collaborative learning that can be rather unstructured, and it doesn't give people any sense of momentum, like: I start here and I end here. We really wanted that sense of moving towards an outcome on those challenges. That sort of ties into the activation idea Robin, because we think people activate learning on things they're motivated to learn, and then there should be some kind of a completion point, and then they pick up new challenges.

Hopefully that makes sense to you.

It does, there's like a huge amount of wisdom in that as well, in terms of a few different things. Especially that social learning side of things, I think social learning needs to be structured and I think that challenges are part of what you're talking about with that. It also just come across the notion, it also possibly sometimes needs to be really specific to the challenges so it help to hold that together as well.

We've done a trial of 70-20 internally, haven't really worked with many clients with it yet. One of the things I'm just interested,—the challenges—mean that you can do some different types of measurements that I think can be really exciting. Can you just talk a little bit about how that works?

Yes, actually I'm glad you brought that up. One of the things that we learned through our own experience, and also quite frankly with some negative feedback about one of our earlier generation learning transfer processes, was that all of the progress that individuals using our legacy systems, all their progress was self-reported. I might be working on a couple of development goals coming out of a sales training program, and I would track my progress, I'm just getting started, I've made significant progress and I finished my goal.

It was 100% self-reported and there was never any external second party looking at what I was doing observing my change and saying, "Yes Kathy, you've actually improved your performance on that." What we wanted to do with 70-20 was to build in both a self-guided level of progress indicators—we call it a learning outcomes index—and as individuals progress on their challenges, whether they're related to a formal program or something I want to work on myself, people self-assess on the learning outcomes index.

They start at zero when they're just getting started and haven't really done anything, and they progressed up to 100 points when they have completed the challenge and improved their performance on that particular skill behaviour. What we decided to do to address some of the feedback we'd gotten on our earlier system is that we wanted to have a validation step. Robin, if I reported to you and I was working on that new sales skill or negotiating skills, I could move through my progress rating myself from zero to 25, to 50, to 75, to 100.

When I complete the challenges and say that I have improved how to handle an objection skill, I would have my 100 points validated by you. Which means as my manager, you would actually get an email message from 70-20 indicating that Kathy Granger has completed her sales objection handling challenge, and can you review all of the progress she has posted? Think of your observation of her skills, and you can either confirm and agree that she has improved her performance, or you can say, "Kathy, not yet, you need to keep working on that."

It gives either the manager, the coach or the mentor the ability to verify or validate that the individual has actually shown visible progress and actually improved performance. That measurement piece is both a self-assessment of progress that is visible to our sponsor of the challenge, but it's also a validation step, it involves another person agreeing.

Which is really nice because it's one of the things when most people are not great at self-assessment, we either underestimate or overestimate. Having that checkpoint is really nice form in terms of that. It's actually interesting, in the Australian vocational education system, the third party testimonials are one of the things that are quite often one of the most powerful ways of measuring competency.

It's also interesting, we've started working with clients around the notion of learning logs which are just really free-form recording of learning and notes. I think it's this challenge idea, in recording the challenge, that possibly gives that sense of visibility and can also help to be in a spot where it takes more informal and it gives a visible measurement to it as well.


It's actually one thing and it's partly to do with Fort Hill Company's background in learning transfer—some of our clients are starting to get fairly mature with using the 70-20-10 learning model. I'm finding that one of their challenges is when they need to bring in new knowledge, they need to bring in consultants and trainers. The consultants and trainers really have trouble grasping the 70-20-10 model and implementing that. How does consultants and trainers starting to use it with their own clients?

It's really interesting you say that Robin, because most of the partners that we're working on—and I define a partner as a consulting firm whether it's small, medium or large in scale—the consultants that we're working with who are using 70-20 are people who are getting asked by their clients to create a much more holistic or comprehensive type of learning solution that is not just about designing and delivering content.

I think there is a real tendency among people who become experts in their field, and we see this actually a lot in executive education too especially in North American Higher Education and in exec ed providers. I think that people get very wrapped up in the pride that they have in their expertise and their areas of strengths as consultants, and they feel that if they can design and deliver a terrific learning experience which is pretty much a ‘ten’ with five out of five ratings, and they've done their job as the subject matter expert on that topic or content area—I think the fallacy there and the real weakness for a lot of consultants is that if that’s all they bring to their clients, they are bringing an incomplete solution, and they’re sub-optimising every possible element of the learning experience.

We are finding consultants who are coming to us saying "We realise we need to create a more end-to-end solution. We need to think about the experiential learning before and after the program. We need to think about the coaching and the performance support tools, and we simply don't have the technology wherewithal to provide that to people in a scalable, cost-effective way."

Which is why people come to us and say, "Could we incorporate 70-20 into my company's consulting deliverables so we have a more holistic solution?" That is the joy to me because obviously we have spent enormous amount of time, and effort, and money to design this platform, but we need to offer the platform to people who see value in it. It's always fantastic for us to collaborate with consultants who want to bring a more comprehensive solution to their clients because we can essentially become the subject matter experts on learning activation and using digital technology to support that.

Yes, and you're right. Quite often those organisations, they don't have to know it all, they don't have the scale to be able to do their own digital learning solutions but their clients are demanding it from there. Yes, a tool like 70-20 gives them that structure, it’s quite exciting I think. We're having more conversations with consultants and trainers and it's been one of the types of clients, we've done a couple of referrals to 70-20 tool as well. I just think it gives them a possible framework to be able to pick up very quickly to really extend what they're doing without having to add too much cost or complexity.

That's exactly right. We've been in this business for 17 years so we've been working with partners since our inception. We are really cued in pretty carefully to how to integrate this into another consultant's offering. We know that we become essentially a subcontractor to the consultant who is the lead person on the design and delivery of a solution for their client, but we can add tremendous value at a relatively low cost very quickly.

One of the things that I think has been so interesting is that our clients are beginning to think about how they create a learning experience. Some of our clients are talking now about a learning journey or a learning experience, they're dropping the word 'program' from their vocabulary a little bit more often. What's been really fun is that we see clients being a lot more creative in terms of how they create that surround for a particular learning experience.

I'll give you an example. We have a client that is using 70-20 in a global leadership development program, and it's actually a nonprofit, it does support children and families all around the world and war-torn areas. They don't have a huge budget, they needed to find a way to create high potential development program for people literally all around the world.

What they have done with 70-20 is they've been able to take what used to be a year-long experience which had one instructor-led starting a week at the beginning of the program, and then the rest was pretty much people left to their own devices, working in their respective geographies with occasional touch-points with a coach by phone and submitting forms via Excel spreadsheet back to the main corporate learning group.

What they've done with 70-20 is they've been able to create a platform that supports the entire learning process, from the minute people sign up for the program, all the way through the end of the process. That program has been transformed in such a way that the group of thirty or so participants are staying connected with each other in a virtual platform. They're working on program-level challenges that reflect the organisation's strategy and the leadership strategy.

They have shared challenges that they can view each other's progress, posts and accomplishments. They can coach and comment to each other. At the same time, individuals can work on private development challenges that they are working on with their executive coach. We've pulled together this entire learning experience which used to have a lot of disparate pieces if you will, and now it all lives on one platform.

The client program leaders that are based in San Francisco in US, they now have one platform they go to and they can see the entire experience of all of their participants, they can see all the coaching activity, they can see all the accomplishments on both the program-level challenges and the personal challenges. That has really transformed the way they think about the program.

I have a number of different examples, but what's been just the most exciting for us is that the tool itself gives our learning leader clients new processes and new approaches to create a very different type of learning experience for their internal clients. That's been really gratifying.

It’s actually interesting—there's been a lot of talk in service design around customer journeys, and generally in the design thinking area, there’s been less talk about experience design recently. I think it's become more embedded. I think learning is really behind with that, and using that sort of type of holistic thinking as well around that. That's a really, really nice example, and some of those shifts and moves. It's been a really interesting conversation around the tool, and also that take away around using the word ‘activate’ rather than learning transfer. If people want to find out more about the tool what can they do?

They can go to www.70-20.com. You can also go to forthillcompany.com, or people can email me directly and I'd be delighted to receive an email. You can reach me at granger@forthillcompany.com. I welcome any and all conversation.

Cool. Thank you so much for joining me today Kathy.

You're welcome Robin. Thanks for your time.