The Pivot Point

When Stephen Gill and I were researching and writing our latest book, Only Smart Companies Win, about what it means to create and work in a “Learning Culture”, we tried to imagine what it would mean to develop training programs in that culture.

Further research, initially done at IBM in the late 1980’s, and many others since then, show a disproportionate amount of learning – anywhere between 70 to 80 percent – takes place during the informal phase after the more formal classroom-based or online learning is completed . The upshot is eye-opening.
What little learning we get (20-30%) during the formal training stage is rapidly forgotten. This means every $1.00 spent on training returns on average 20¢ – 30¢ of value.

Plus the majority of training programs today are based on the old push model. The training stops when the initial, formal 20% training period is over. Learners are on their own as they enter the workplace with 70-80% left to learn.

In a Learning Culture, the training would be designed to catapult the learner into the more critical period of informal learning, where the research tells us that as much as 70-80% of the learning occurs . We imagined a future in a Learning Culture’s ‘pull’ model in which learners could get the information they need whenever and wherever the information is necessary. That would be just-in-time learning.

A training program in a Learning Culture would focus on how employees can get the most from informal learning. It could include:

  • Listing key Takeaways from the formal training
  • Using the formal training materials at work
  • Applying learning and getting useful feedback
  • Knowing where to find important apps like KnowledgeStar
  • Understanding when and how to best use just-in-time tools
  • Knowing how and when to find the experts
  • Remembering basic procedures from training
  • Learning how to experiment, fail and learn
  • Collaborating around learning
  • Teaching what you know
  • Testing yourself on learning
  • Keeping a learning journal

We quickly realized the implications for change between the old and new models of training is significant. The old Training Culture push model delivers formal training and stops. The new Learning Culture pull model uses formal training as a jumping off point for informal learning. Formal training in the Learning Culture is just the beginning. Formal training programs would be the first step in the learning process , and would be more focused on laying the groundwork for the skills that need to be adapted, tested and acquired.

In the new model there is a clear continuum from formal to informal. And that was the problem we uncovered. How do you identify the switch from formal to informal learning? What do you need to do to create the most useful bridge between these two aspects of the learning process? We call this the “The Pivot Point”.

The Pivot Point is Critical

The Pivot Point is the moment formal training ends and informal learning begins. Focusing training on the Pivot Point is important for several reasons:

  • Learners need to be aware of what is involved when they pivot from formal to informal learning (and back again).
  • The focus on the Pivot Point will make sure employee’s training is supported when they return to the workplace.
  • A plan for a well-timed hand-off from the formal to the informal can be developed to support employee performance during their informal learning.
  • The training can take the Ebbinghaus curve into account and provide tools to reinforce the basics upon which learners need to build skills and knowledge as they adapt what they learned in a formal training program.
  • Training can be designed to mirror the actual environment in which learners will work to make the pivot as seamless as possible.
  • This approach will reinforce the new goal of training: to prepare learners to successfully pivot and learn how to improve their skills during their informal learning period.

How the Pivot Point works

Figure One: The Learning Process and The Pivot Point


All learners start out unequal. That simply means no one brings the same level of skills to a training program. Yet a training program can still be one-size-fits-all. All learners will need certain basics as they go forward from the formal to the informal part of the learning. Those basics, listed earlier in this paper, can be covered in ways to help bridge the transition between the two parts of the learning process.

The initial learning curve represents the research done by Ebbinghaus and others. The research shows that there is a precipitous drop in what someone learns during the formal program. The learning curve peaks during the learning process at the Pivot Point, immediately at the end of the formal program. If nothing happens past the Pivot Point learners start to drop off the curve and forget their lessons.

At the Pivot Point, informal learning takes over. This may be towards the end of the formal training program even as the learners are still in class completing a survey or a smile sheet. We believe that learning is a process of employees adopting what they learn in a formal setting and then applying that learning to the workplace during the period of informal learning. What is adopted needs to be tested and expanded upon – in a sense relearned in a new context – and goes through a series of similar, shorter learning curves.

We learn by strengthening connections between related elements, and only so much strengthening can happen in any one day before we literally need to sleep before more can be achieved. That’s why an “event” model of learning has a low likelihood of actually leading to meaningful change. Instead, learning needs to be spaced over time, with sufficient practice to achieve the retention we require. Consider ways to reactivate learning at intervals after the initial learning presentation.” Clark Quinn

Each of these later learning curves in the series has a downward side where there is a falling off of new learning. The difference is that each succeeding curve in this extended learning process becomes less steep. They remember more, need to learn less, and forget less as well. As employees draw closer to an expert level, the curve is almost a straight line.

“There are several ways to strengthen the relationships between related elements that lead to learning. We can represent the concept that guides performance, ideally in a new way. We can present another example of applying the concept in a new context, which both helps establish transfer to appropriate situations and, of course, supports greater retention. Or, best of all, we can provide another opportunity for the learner to practice applying the concept in context. All these activities, spaced over time, will support extending the learning, but, of course, the most important is sufficient spaced practice.“ Clark Quinn

The Pivot Point is when formal training needs to handoff to informal learning. Formal training needs to lead up to the pivot and create a bridge that helps learners move along the learning process continuum. Training programs in a Learning Culture can no longer be seen as the end of learning before working, but, instead, as a critical beginning to being able to learn to perform a job or task at the highest level.

When we start to see learning as a continuous process from formal to informal (and maybe back again), we realize the value of the Pivot Point. And we realize that with planning, we can make that pivot a seamless move from only pushing knowledge and skills, to employees pulling what they need, when they need it, where it’s needed.

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