Where did the 80% come from?

I first heard that 80% of corporate learning is informal in a presentation in late 2001 by the late Peter Henschel, then Executive Director of the Institute for Research on Learning. IRL used an anthropological approach to research that enabled them to see things others were missing. Other studies, as noted below, confirm IRL’s basic finding.

A word of caution is in order here. Some studies say 70%, others 80%, and some even 90%. Why? For one thing, informal learning has many definitions. Furthermore, the ratio of informal to formal learning varies with context. Learning to ride a bicycle involves a higher proportion of informal learning than learning to fly a plane. Most of us learned to use chopsticks informally but learned algebra formally.

• Marcia Conner (2005) writes that “Most learning doesn’t occur in formal training programs. It happens through processes not structured or sponsored by an employer or a school. Informal learning accounts for over 75% of the learning taking place in organizations today.” Marcia also notes, “In 1996, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that people learn 70% of what they know about their jobs informally.

” • Many organizations report that 85-90% of a person’s job knowledge is learned on the job and only 10-15% is learned in formal training events. (Raybould, 2000)

• In 1997, the Education Development Center, Inc., a Newton, Massachusetts-based research organization, released findings from a two-year study of corporate cultures involving Boeing, Ford Electronics, Siemens, and Motorola. One of the most noteworthy findings of the study is support for estimates from previous studies that “attempted to quantify formal training’s contribution to overall job knowledge: 70 percent of what people know about their jobs, they learn informally from the people they work with.” (Dobbs, 2000, pp. 52, 54)

• “Not only do employee learning programs based on informal methods and self-study increase employee knowledge and productivity far more than more formalized methods, they also cost less, according to preliminary research by CapitalWorks LLC, a human capital management service in Williamstown, Mass. Approximately 75 percent of the skills employees use on the job were learned informally, the study found, through discussions with coworkers, asynchronous self-study (such as e-mail-based coursework), mentoring by managers and supervisors and similar methods. Only 25 percent were gained from formal training methods such as workshops, seminars and synchronous classes.” (Lloyd, 2000)

• Approximately 70% of Canadians say that their most important job-related knowledge comes from other workers or learning on their own rather than employment-related courses. The National Research Network on New Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL) at OISE/UT surveyed 1500 Canadian adults on informal learning. Principal investigator David Livingstone, summarized the results as follows, “The major conclusion from this survey is that our organized systems of schooling and continuing education and training are like big ships floating in a sea of informal learning. If these education and training ships do not pay increasing attention to the massive amount of outside informal learning, many of them are likely to sink into Titanic irrelevancy.” (Vader, 1998)

• In January 2005, an eLearning Guild survey of its members and found that “Over 70% of respondents found or sought information on their own initiative…. These results truly put more shape and depth to the 80 / 20 rule. Not only does it confirm the significant frequency of informal learning, it demonstrates that informal learning shows up in many ways: e-Learning, traditional book study, social learning, and experience.”

• Canadian researcher Allen Tough, at a presentation at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto in 1999, said, “Another finding was that we were looking at all learning efforts, including ‘professionally planned’ or ‘academic or institutional’ or whatever you want to call them; formal. We found a 20/80% split. We found about 20 percent of all major learning efforts were institutionally organized, or it was like a driving school instructor or piano instructor, something like that. It was one-to-one, but it was still somebody you paid to teach you, so it was a professional formal situation. And the other 80% was informal. We didn’t know what to call it. So we called it ‘professional plan’ and ‘amateur plan’, amateur being a positive word, not a put-down. That’s when I came up with this idea of the iceberg as a metaphor, because so much of it is invisible, because we were surprised to find so much adult learning is sort of under the surface of the ocean as it were. You just don’t see it. You could forget it’s there unless you keep reminding yourself that it’s there.”

Princeton University Learning Philosophy

To ensure that real learning takes place and endures, we emphasize and encourage a holistic approach by integrating both formal and informal elements. We believe that the most effective way to learn and develop a new skill or behavior is to apply and practice it on the job and in real life situations.

Our learning and development philosophy is built upon how individuals internalize and apply what they learn based on how they acquire the knowledge. We rely on the 70/20/10 formula* that describes how learning occurs:
  • 70% from real life and on-the-job experiences, tasks and problem solving. This is the most important aspect of any learning and development plan.
  • 20% from feedback and from observing and working with role models.
  • 10% from formal training.

We believe that the key elements to a successful learning process include both the “70/20/10 formula” and how individuals internalize and apply what they’ve learned.

Read more about the learning process.

* 70/20/10 learning concept was developed by Morgan McCall, Robert W. Eichinger, and Michael M. Lombardo at the Center for Creative Leadership and is specifically mentioned in The Career Architect Development Planner 3rd edition by Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger.

A European example:

How Managers Learn (in their own words) by Peter Caseboe (2010). “By far the most frequent and effective learning activity is having a frequent chat with a colleague. 82% of managers will consult a colleague at least once a month, and 83% say it is either very or fairly effective as a means of helping them perform their role when faced with an unfamiliar challenge.” “In terms of the most frequently used methods of learning to support a manager, our survey showed the top five to be:

  • informal chat with colleagues
  • use of search engines
  • trial and error
  • on-the-job instruction
  • use of professional literature”

Bear in mind that the 80% and 20% are averages. Rough averages. The lesson is that people learn a lot more about their work informally than formally. Classes are generally overrated; the wisdom of experience is frequently undervalued. Novices are going to learn a greater proportion formally; veterans will rely more on informal learning. Formal works best with explicit; informal is best for tacit.


When you dig down into the details, you’ll find that all learning is part formal and part informal. The only thing worth discussing is the degree of formality or informality, for it’s never either/or.