• The Greqat Worm devouring itself
    A 1478 drawing by Theodoros Pelecanos of an alchemical tract attributed to Synesius. (Public Domain)

Some studies have shown that only 10% of corporate training is effective

Professor Michael Beer – Forbes, July 25, 2016

I have read many versions of the comment above, written various ways, over the last 30 years. Over the weekend I intervened in a LinkedIn discussion thread, headed with the quote above, which has so far attracted 47 ‘likes’ and 22 comments.

The thread  arose from a re-post of this Forbes Article, under the headline: ‘Companies Waste Billions Of Dollars On Ineffective Corporate Training‘. The journalist who authored this piece and everyone involved in the LinkedIn discussion prior to my intervention appeared perfectly happy to  accept Professor Beer’s hazy assertion that 90% of corporate training was ineffective.

This is puzzling, given that so many commentators worked in learning related roles. Surely the statement should have prompted some questions? Is it really likely that:

  • Multiple genuinely evidence-based, peer-reviewed studies would produce a result that rounds to exactly 10%?
  • Rational employers would have continued to fund learning related initiatives, year-on-year for this paltry return on investment?

I am puzzled by the persistence of this myth, which has appeared on the web, in business publications like Forbes, in training magazines (Chief Learning Officer, The Low-Hanging Fruit is Tasty, March 2006 Issue), books (The Learning Alliance by Robert Brinkerhoff and Stephen Gill), and even research papers (Baldwin & Ford, 1988).

If you trace your way back through these sources you soon discover that they all track back to a single rhetorical question posed in an article by David L Georgenson way back in 1982. On page 75 he asks:

“ How many times have you heard training directors say: ‘I…would estimate that only 10% of content which is presented in the classroom is reflected in behavioral change on the job’ ”

Georgenson, 1982

There are several key points to be made here:

  1. This is a question, rather than a statement of fact
  2. The 10% phrase is inside quotation marks, representing speech you might have heard
  3. The question was  a rhetorical device to grab attention
  4. The question relates to content “presented in the classroom”
  5. No supporting studies or research whatever were cited in Georgenson’s paper.

It should be stressed that David L Georgenson was a product development manager for Xerox Learning Systems and not a researcher carrying out any kind of evidenced based, peer reviewed study.

Sadly many other researchers subsequently extracted Georgenson’s question and then elevated this to a statement of fact that not only applies to all forms of classroom learning, but to all investments made in learning!

This has resulted in many misleading statements, citing Georgenson as a source:

“It is estimated that while American industries annually spend up to $100 billion on training and development, not more than 10% of these expenditures actually result in transfer to the job”

(Baldwin & Ford, 1988, p. 63).

“Georgenson (1981) [sic] estimated that not more than 10% of the $100 billion spent by industry actually made a difference to what happens in the workplace!”

(Dickson & Bamford, 1995, p. 91)

In turn, the researchers that quoted Georgenson, were quoted by fresh researchers, pundits and salesman. Over time the legend grew. 

Once the “10% myth” reached the Internet and this escaped into cyberspace it took on a life all of its own. It now pops up every few years to surprise a fresh generation of learning professionals.

There are specific reasons why spurious  claims are sometimes repeated with more certainty and passion than the facts would support. Like the alchemists of old,  some salesmen of today are seeking to convert dross into gold.  If what you have is evidently broken – then you clearly  need whatever they are selling.

Ironically – when Georgenson first posed his provocative question in 1982 most people would have answered him by saying “No – I have never heard any ‘training director’ say such a bizarre thing.”

However today, it is quite likely that you have – as a direct result of the myth that has grown up around his modest work.

Like the mythical great worm Ourobouros pictured above, the “10% legend” has now become self-sustaining, feeding on itself in the hidden places of the world for nearly forty years.

As learning professionals we all have a duty to avoid perpetuating this misinformation , especially in full view of the public and other members of the C-Suite.

So if the 10% myth pops up at an event or in a thread you participate in – please set the record straight!

For the early audit trail on this persistent and damaging myth please read this excellent paper by Robert Fitzpatrick.

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