In Conversation: five questions with Charles Jennings

Jan 31, 2023 by Erin Becker

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Charles Jennings is recognized globally for his work designing and implementing learning and organizational performance strategies. For more than 40 years, he has led learning and performance improvement projects for multinational corporations, government agencies, not-for-profits, and other organizations. His career has involved roles as a Chief Learning Officer, a business school professor, and Head of the UK’s National Centre for Network-Based Learning. Charles has worked with the 70:20:10 model for 20+ years. This performance-centric approach helps build high performance through bringing learning and work together.

I appreciated Charles's thoughts on his inspiration for the 70:20:10 model, how learning and schooling are not synonymous, and why we should be open to solutions where learning is only part of the mix. Thank you to Charles for sharing his perspective on all things learning design, and I hope you enjoy his insights as much as I did!

This interview is part of a Nomadic blog series featuring different perspectives on L&D, leadership, and how companies are transforming the way they do business, learn, and grow. If you're interested in these topics, you might also enjoy my earlier interview with our CEO and co-founder Matt Burr, where we talk about how learning can support business transformation.


In Conversation: Five Questions with Charles Jennings

1. What brought you to learning design?

I worked in the academic world, in a business school, during the early communications and Internet revolutions and became aware that much of the business thinking about "learning" was quite narrow. I’d seen many organisations build their learning strategies around "schooling" thinking and design. Schooling design tends to be limited to structured formal learning. The course, the programme, formal learning pathways, and formal certifications are the main foundations in "schooling" design. Any learning that happens outside the structure of an organisation’s academy or curriculum is viewed as an extra.

Yet I was aware of research that suggests most adult learning occurs as part of the daily workflow. In fact, for working adults, the workplace is the "school" and the formal structures we spend so much time and effort on are the extras. So, over the past 35 years, I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to try and correct the imbalance by helping design more holistic strategies to exploit both formal and informal learning.

2. What was your main inspiration for creating the 70:20:10 model?

Well, I didn’t "create" the 70:20:10 model. It exists. 70:20:10 is a framework that simply describes the way adults tend to learn and get better at their work. Some early research at the Centre for Creative Leadership in the USA was the basis for Dr Robert Eichinger’s 70:20:10 meme, as he calls it. My contribution has been to develop 70:20:10 as a framework for learning strategy and design. We know the majority of adult learning comes from a range of activities; from new and challenging work; from taking on new roles; from sharing and learning from others in the workplace; and from reflective practice. In other words, nearly all adult learning at work comes from activity. Professor Kenneth Arrow, who was probably the greatest macroeconomist in all our lifetimes, argued that learning only takes place during activity.

Arrow, and many of his students, went on to receive Nobel Prizes for their work, so he’s a man worth listening to. What I’ve done is adapt and use the principles of 70:20:10 to help extend learning design beyond formal learning and link learning more tightly with performance. I guess the main inspiration for that has been my passion to help turn learning into something with measurable practical outputs rather than something that is just seen as a good thing to do.

3. What do you wish more people understood about learning?

I’ve already mentioned that one of the major limitations L&D faces is a tunnel-vision, seeing "learning" and "schooling" as being synonymous. They’re not. Formal learning ("schooling") has a place, especially when someone starts out in a new organization or takes on a new role in their existing organization. Structured learning helps us understand the underlying concepts we need to do our work and the norms expected of us.

However, I wish more people understood that training people on detailed tasks away from the workplace is rarely ever effective. I wish more people knew about some of the fundamental research on learning. Work by people such as Edward Thorndike and Robert Woodworth with their "Principle of Identical Elements," Eric Kandel’s work on learning and memory, and Jerome Bruner’s work on the importance of context, community, and meta-learning are all fundamental to how we design effective learning environments.

4. Any book, music, or movie recommendations you’ve been loving lately?

One book I’ve enjoyed lately is Simon Baron-Cohen’s "The Pattern Seekers." Baron-Cohen is a professor of psychiatry at Cambridge University. The book examines the human brain’s search for meaning and why people with Autism are more likely to be inventors and excel in areas where pattern recognition is required. Those of us involved in L&D can learn from Baron-Cohen’s research and views.

As far as music, I could make a long list of recommendations. I’m a musician myself and have played guitar and other stringed instruments since I was 10 years old. I listen to music every day and often come across great young musicians. Molly Tuttle is an example. She’s extraordinary and breathes new life into music from my era by songwriters such as Townes Van Zandt, John Hardford, and Neil Young. I also defy anyone to listen to Martin Simpson’s rendition of ‘Blues Run The Game’ by Jackson C. Frank and not be moved.

5. What advice would you give to someone just starting their career in learning?

My advice for anyone starting their career in learning can distill down to a couple of principles. Firstly, try to develop a mindset focused on performance, not on learning. That may appear contrary, but learning is a process which helps get you where you want to be while performance is the output of that process. Focus on the outputs you are trying to achieve with your work in learning before you even think about the best learning methods you can apply to get there.

The other piece of advice goes back to my point in the earlier question. Work hard to step beyond the tunnel vision of seeing ‘learning’ as ‘schooling’. Think holistically and systemically about how you can help people and organisations develop and embed a culture of continuous improvement. Sometimes this involves curricula, courses, and eLearning. Sometimes it involves other things. Be open to solutions where learning is only one part of the mix.


Thanks again, Charles, for sharing your thoughts. We agree with the nudge to think both holistically and systemically––always great advice––and will be checking out those great music and book recommendations soon!

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