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Learning while working manifesto

Learning while working manifesto

Change, complexity and collaboration are becoming firmly rooted in the new world order for our workplaces. Knowledge work is rapidly becoming the new normal. The complexity of work in knowledge industries means that they are driven by highly trained professionals. Industries such as health care, pharmaceuticals, government, finance, engineering and information technology, and media and professional services often require a university degree as the minimum qualification for entry. These industries are experiencing rapid change. Deloitte consulting, in their Digital disruption short fuse, big bang whitepaper, lists finance, information technology, media and professional services as expecting significant and imminent digital disruption. Deloitte predicts that health care, education and government services will experience profound changes in the long term. The nature of work in these industries is complex. On an hourly basis doctors, nurses, accountants, teachers, researchers, policy advisors and assessors are making complex decisions. Working in these industries often means there is a never ending avalanche of new information and new research. What this suggests is that people in these industries need to be learning while they work. Learning needs to be an integral part of each day’s activities.

The 3Cs – Change, Complexity and Collaboration




It’s been said hundreds of times that change is the core activity of the modern workplace. Digital disruption is just one of those changes. Other profound changes include the rapidly ageing workforce and the loss of knowledge that goes with it, the changing buying habits of consumers, and the increasing prevalence of outsourcing and offshoring. The very nature of work is changing constantly. This means employees need to be more flexible and open to learning new practices and generating ways of working that add value to the organisation.

Learning and development needs to focus on helping organisations and individuals to be ready for the organisation's future. The challenge is that we don’t yet know what this future looks like. It is therefore even more important for L&D areas to be focused on fostering a mindset of flexibility and openness to new ideas and new practices. The faster the workplace changes the more learning needs to ramp up.

Complexity is the nature of business

Complexity is the nature of business

People are constantly being flooded with new information and the complexity of the decisions that they need to make keeps on increasing. Jobs that don’t involve this type of expertise are being automated.

Complexity is not the same as complicated. Complexity means bringing together diverse information in new ways and from a variety of sources, and making decisions and generating new understanding. Complexity is okay. It is not the enemy.



As expertise becomes narrower and deeper the need for collaboration between experts increases. A collaborative way of working is not just about experts working together within an organisation, it is also about establishing seamless partnerships with external professionals. As well as individuals working together, organisations small and large are working in clusters to innovate and take on new challenges. Social networking systems are the enabling technology for these new types of collaboration. Online sharing and collaboration are becoming the norm in our non-work lives, and organisations need to tap into this power.


Workplace learning and the 3Cs

Unfortunately, rather than focusing on the future and increasing learning in the organisation, what is happening is that most learning and development areas are focusing on another C word, compliance. Compliance training is important, but it is often driven by saving money, and by fear, which means the quality of the learning experience in compliance programs is often a low priority. It reduces learning down to something employees have to do. It doesn’t inspire them.  

We need a return of what Jay Cross calls our ‘natural way of learning’. At Sprout Labs we call it ‘learning while working’.

eLearning has so much potential but in many cases the result is a simple set of self-paced linear modules that are often slide-based information dumps with a quiz at the end; the only benefit the learner receives is that they don’t have to attend a boring face-to-face class. The use of eLearning is driven by reducing cost, not by transforming the learning culture. But learning technologies offer real possibilities for powerful social and peer learning, spacing learning over time, and personalised adaptive learning. Learning technologies can give us so much more than a slideshow.

Learning and development addresses the need to go beyond designing courses and working in a more holistic way. The challenge is how to go about achieving this. Sometimes we look for examples from other organisations but forget that each organisational context is different. There are approaches such as performance support and performance coaching but these give learning professionals only partial guidance towards a different way of learning at work. They are only one part of the whole learning ecosystem as we see it.


The potential of 70:20:10

In case you haven’t heard of the 70:20:10 concept of learning, it was developed by Morgan McCall, Robert Eichinger and Michael Lombardo at the Center for Creative Leadership in North Carolina in the mid 1990s. They said this about learning:

 informal learning social formal learning
70% occurs as people engage in informal learning processes such as watching others, participating in workplace routines and undertaking challenging tasks. 20% arises from mentoring and coaching (mostly from a manager or supervisor). 10% is the result of formal courses and reading.

70:20:10 has become widely known because it offers a simple explanation of how learning really happens at work and the need for learning programs to focus on more than just formal learning. It’s also amazingly flexible as it does not specify a particular strategy or use of technology.

70:20:10 is the future, because the future of learning is not just designing and delivering a course. It will focus on designing a mix of experiences and on learning from others. Formal learning, however, often still needs to be part of the mix and is often the starting point for a 70:20:10 model.

The difficulty with 70:20:10 is that it’s a concept for how learning at work happens. It’s not a framework. A framework needs to have a process and often requires considerable guidance. What is powerful about the 70:20:10 concept is that it's flexible and doesn’t lock learning down into having to work in a certain way. Sprout Labs is currently developing a Learning While Working Framework that provides some guiding principles and a process for designing learning at work.

Design thinking and learning while working

To design learning while working effectively, learning and development needs a holistic process that takes in the complexity of the multiple elements and their coordination. The solution lies in ‘design thinking’.

Design thinking is about taking hybrid creative and analytical approaches that designers use and applying them to any problem. In learning, when you hear the word ‘design’ you think about instructional design or graphic design. Instructional design and the ADDIE process (analysis, design, development, implementation, evaluation) is about designing, developing and delivering a course. Design thinking is a more generalised open process that enables learning people to go beyond just designing a course to designing an entire learning ecosystem. It is a process that enables learning professionals to rethink, redesign and rebuild how learning works in their organisation. It allows them to take concepts like 70:20:10 and create solid learning solutions that work within the context of their own organisation.  


What is design thinking?

Design thinking is two things.

1. A mindset 2. A process
mindset learning design process

The design thinking mindset

Design thinking is as much an attitude as a process. You can try to apply the process but if you don’t have the right attitude then the breakthroughs are not going to happen. The dominant thinking method in most organisations now is analytical thinking, but not all problems can be solved in that way – especially problems that are multi-dimensional like learning programs.

IDEO is one of the companies that has led the movement of using design process for solving business problems. IDEO outlines the design thinking mindset as:

  • being empathic with people who will be using the solution
  • being able to embrace ambiguity
  • being optimistic
  • working in an iterative way
  • being open to learning from failure
  • focusing on making things
  • having creative confidence.

The word ‘design’ often evokes concepts of creative thinking. Design thinking is different to creative thinking.

analyticalAnalytical thinking creative thinkingDesign thinking design thinkingCreative thinking
Focuses on the problem Focuses on the solution to the problem Most of the time there is no problem to be solved
Summative Generative Generative
Focuses on how to deliver the solution Focuses on the end user of the solution Doesn’t focus on the end user of the solution – the end user is often irrelevant
Focuses on splitting the problem into parts Is a mixture of holistic thinking and detail Holistic
The organisations Sprout Labs works with are generally technically focused. For them, design thinking is a nice melding of analytical thinking, which they are used to, and creative thinking.

The design thinking process

There are a few different ways to explain the design thinking process. We have chosen a simple five-step process.

design thinking process


During this phase an understanding of the needs of the business and its employees, and what is possible in the context, is developed. The focus is on developing a deep empathy for the world view of the employees.

exploring Exploring
During the exploration stage a series of possible solutions that can be prototyped and tested are invented.
prototyping Prototyping
One or more of the ideas from the exploration phase are then prototyped.
testing Testing
The prototypes are tested to see if they will meet the needs that were defined in the understanding phase. Often the exploration, prototyping and testing phase merge together.
evolving Evolving
Once an approach has been designed and implemented it’s important to reinvent constantly and improve relentlessly. This often means using the same tools from the testing phase to monitor, check and understand. 


Design thinking and learning

Design thinking gives us a powerful, flexible, open method for designing learning at work to empower rapid change, cope with complexity and increase collaboration. It is a combination of a learner-centred approach and innovative thinking that means learning professionals can generate new learning models that are going to work for their learners and the organisation. It’s both a mindset and a way of thinking that can fix the problems with learning in modern organisations.

Design thinking makes developing a 70:20:10 solution an achievable goal.


Learning while working framework

To go along with our manifesto Sprout Labs has developed the Learning While Working Framework to:

  • outline some principles on which to base a 70:20:10 program
  • provide some common design patterns for 70:20:10 learning programs
  • give more detail about design thinking in practice.