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Two decades after it was first devised at Princeton’s Center for Creative Leadership, the learning development concept known as 70/20/10 is transforming Melbourne Business School’s approach to workplace learning.

The concept has spurred Mt Eliza, the executive education arm of MBS, to develop an interactive online tool called Thread, which is due to be launched this month. Mt Eliza has high expectations for Thread, with hopes that it can transform the executive education provider in Victoria, Australia, into a world leader in e-learning.

It is canvassing for a partnership with Ashridge – the UK business school that provides Mt Eliza with online modules through Virtual Ashridge – as well as with other international business schools.

While Mt Eliza will not comment on the talks, Matt Williams, design manager for Thread, says: “Whenever we need to partner with a European institution, it tends to be Ashridge”. The two schools collaborate on a Masters of Management programme and several executive education courses.

According to the 70/20/10 theory, most learning takes place at work with experiential learning accounting for 70 per cent of the formula. Relationships such as mentoring and coaching account for 20 per cent, while business school programmes make up the remaining 10 per cent.

A theory that appears to marginalise the contribution that formal education can make to executive learning may seem an unusual choice for a business school. Yet Paul Kirkbride, deputy dean of executive education at MBS, is enthusiastic.

“ 70/20/10 tells us that in the development of leaders and managers, a lot more of what they learn is actually learned through experience, at work,” says Prof Kirkbride.

“If you simply restrict yourself to what happens in the classroom in executive education, you are only dealing with a very small part of the issue,” he says.

In 2010, the school launched the Centre for Coaching in Organisations in partnership with Whyte and Coaches, a private provider. Last year, its focus was on developing an online system to support executive learning in the workplace.

Mt Eliza, in common with a growing number of executive education providers, has been “concerned to broaden the business [into] a much more holistic blended learning provider,” adds Prof Kirkbride.

The idea for Thread was prompted by a series of interviews the school conducted with executive education programme participants, ranging from graduates to senior executives .

“We started to think about different ways of engaging [clients] outside face-to-face [learning] and decided to interview participants to get first-hand-knowledge of their experiences,” says Mr Williams.

The school discovered that although participants valued the relationships they established in classroom-based learning, they found it difficult to maintain such contacts beyond residential course components.

While the school already uses online tools and has established partnerships with online universities such as Singapore’s Universitas 21 Global, Mr Williams says Thread provides “an opportunity to truly blend formal and informal learning”.

“What we are attempting to do,” he adds, “is support organisations with a complete learning system, not just with 10 per cent of formal education.”

Mr Williams depicts Thread as a “digital learning ecosystem” which “turns the traditional learning model upside down”.

“Gone is the bias towards courses and workshops,” he adds. “Instead, the learner at work is placed at the centre of their own development and connected to quality content, educators, coaches and a community of fellow learners.”

Participants are provided with a focus and context to their learning through Thread’s learning guide feature, which gives an overview and step-by-step breakdown of the components of a programme they may be undertaking. Members can watch digital lectures or read short articles written by Mt Eliza’s associate network of 800 global contributors. They can also contribute their own opinions, tap into executive networks and share workplace stories through Thread’s participant profile feature.

Thread has provided the online component for BHP Billiton’s flagship graduate scheme since July, however the resources company says as yet it is too early to comment.

The technology facilitates work-base project learning between graduate employees working in remote locations. It also connects participants with workplace mentors and coaches and helps graduates to maintain the peer networks they may have established during the residential component of the programme.

Mr Williams says that Thread uses “intuitive capabilities to tailor the content sent to members “based on their specific interests or needs”. Each day fresh articles, videos and participant profile updates are sent to member home screens based on the topics they have identified as of interest.

“Thread is designed around individual needs and organisational learning goals. It’s not just technology for technology’s sake,” Mr Williams says.

While online business education is a rapidly growing market in Australia, most growth is in the MBA market. Curtin Graduate School of Business in Perth and the University of South Australia’s International Graduate School of Business offer online MBA programmes, as does RMIT in Victoria through Open Universities Australia. Macquarie Graduate School of Management in Sydney, Queensland University of Technology and Griffith University in Queensland also plan to offer online components of their MBA degrees in the next few years.

Online programmes have been criticised as unable to offer the interaction and networking opportunities of traditional, classroom-based courses. However Mr Williams says that in contrast “a major strength of Thread is that it simulates face-to-face business networking and collaboration”.

“Traditionally, online has simply been content provision. Thread is actually very interactive,” says Prof Kirkbride.

“It has got a Facebook, Twitter kind of functionality in terms of people connecting with each other, following each other and finding they have got mutual interests, things they can work together on and learn from each other.”

Thread taps into a more egalitarian viewpoint of learning, he adds. “Executive education has been rather an elitist model. There has been a ritual of saying, ‘we realise there is a lot of expertise in the room’, and then proceeding to ignore it.”

He says another driver is the geographic dispersion of workforces. with companies facing cost and environmental constraints. Thread is a response to this.

Corporate clients can have their own “ringfenced area” on Thread, with individual learning guides and the ability to keep communications private through an application called “huddle”. However, the intent of Thread is to create a peer community of executives sharing opinions, perspectives and workplace experiences.

“The default is that it is open up,” says Prof Kirkbride. “When [members] open their front page, there will be information coming in from our faculty [and] from some of our feed providers like Harvard Business Review, but there will also be people putting up a post from a different organisation about their experience.

“Now some organisations might say - and we have had conversations with one or two - ‘we don’t want to learn from other people’. I personally think that is a mistake. But we can then construct it so that they just get what is within their own organisation.”

Incoming MBS dean Zaeger Degraeve, a Belgian-born London Business School professor, is “very supportive of the direction in which we are going”, says Prof Kirkbride.

Every Mt Eliza programme will eventually feature Thread, which will be integrated with iPad delivery.

“Thread is going to be totally integral for us,” he adds.

Clients are expected to range from companies with custom programmes at the school to individual subscribers and former programme participants. Companies can use Thread as a learning and development hub even if none of their executives is taking a course at Mt Eliza, Prof Kirkbride says.

“We may deliver some of their 10 per cent. We may not. Others might deliver that apart from us. But this can actually link everything together and be a single face that individual learners access and can have everything laid out.”

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