May 25, 2024

The 50:50 learning model

Author: Kerry Snider
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Corporate L&D is a key component of any business’s overall strategy. It helps ensure employees are constantly engaged and grow along with the organization. Yet startup businesses may not have enough funds or resources available to make this learning happen for their employees.

Nonetheless, there are options to facilitate talent development within tight budgets and on small teams. According to our research, there are a variety of low-cost (or even free) and out-of-box training initiatives that startups can take advantage of and provide for their employees.

Structures in a startup are informal and agile. People, roles and responsibilities tend to change fast, and a default training program is not agile enough to keep up. Additionally, when you are in the startup phase there are not enough people to train to give you ROI on a formal course. Therefore, learning has to be ad hoc and informal.

In this context, is the 70:20:10 model (70 percent experiential learning, 20 percent social learning, 10 percent formal learning) still relevant to startup firms?

In our research conducted with participant startup entrepreneurs and consultants, we found that small businesses are invariably self-driven and social at work. They learn a lot on the job, but equally or even more from others, and hardly any from formal training. We want to make a bold hypothesis here based on our preliminary research, with no intention to undermine the power of formal training: The learning models in startup tech firms should be roughly distributed as 50 percent self-learning and 50 percent social learning.

Before we delve into the details of what these two components entail, let’s outline certain ground rules that the startup firms followed while hiring their talent. These traits were closely connected to the learning habits and attitudes expected in a startup culture:

•Attitude to self-learn, be self-driven.

•Someone who accepts ambiguity and thrives in a setup with informal/agile structures.

•Attitude to take on any and all kinds of tasks.

•Someone who not only excels at a technical level but with a flair to train/mentor others.

•Attitude to network fearlessly and ask for help.

•Task-based job interview: Observe how they learn, explore and collaborate to finish the task at hand.

These traits indicate the need for the employees to be self-driven and social when they work for startup firms.

Self-Learning: Trial and Error, Research and Plenty of Questions

Self-learning is the de facto expectation from startup employees in order to keep pace with change. They are assigned to work on projects from day one and they learn the ropes on the job with a lot of self–inquiry and use external resources to finish the job at hand. And this repeats.

Self-learning covers a wide spectrum. The following are a few types of self-driven approaches shared by our participants:

On-the-job training: Employees are assigned low-priority tasks on existing projects and allowed to explore to learn deeper. For instance, when they are onboarding, they start by working on bugs, allowing them to understand the existing codebase and get familiar with the environment. They get support when needed and learn everything on the job.

One of the startup founders shared a self-learning approach to onboarding. While onboarding new employees, they are often tasked with an assignment to interview colleagues. This exercise acts as a means to introduce the newbie into the system while allowing them to experience the nature of tasks.

Read, research and reflect: In order to learn on the job, a certain level of preparation is advised, which can be instilled through constant research and keeping a tab on trends. Access to innumerable internet and digital resources allows the employees to observe the trends and learn. Besides research, startup entrepreneurs recommend employees inculcate a few habits like code reading, questioning seniors, following trends, etc.

“If research (Google) takes more than 30 minutes, ask someone!” advised Bala Murugan, co-founder and CEO of Guvi, an online technical learning platform.

Sponsorship: Due to the low cost requirement, many startups are investing in facilitating their training/performance needs through books, Coursera-styled mini e-courses, access to research journals, certifications and conferences. They sponsor the employees to venture into any of these off beat modalities and use the knowledge gained back at work and also to guide others.

Social Learning: Shadowing, Coaching and Knowledge Sharing

One of the best low-cost and easy-to-implement training solutions is social learning. An employee can shadow a more experienced team member to better understand their role, day-to-day responsibilities and processes. Benefits include real-time and direct feedback, and knowledge sharing helps teams level up and reinforce a culture of learning.

In our research with startup founders, we found a variety of social learning interventions being implemented by them, which follow:

Mentoring: A mentoring program can help new employees learn more quickly about an organization and how to meet the expectations of their job. Many startup founders encourage setting up mentor-mentee pairs, where existing employees help the newbies or juniors learn, grow and develop their capacity to take on new challenges.

“Besides shadowing seniors in projects, we encourage newbies to observe the senior to learn the company culture,” Murugan said. “For instance, if they notice a senior sharing or saving the lessons, they get the idea-sharing culture of a firm.”

Coaching — internal experts: Training need not be a costly affair if your employees are involved in your training strategy. Your top performers are quite skilled and might be capable of hosting many soft skill and technical sessions, as well as mentoring and coaching junior-level employees. Among our participants, there was a common pattern to leverage internal talent to coach fellow employees.

For instance, Lalitha Potukuchi is a director and communication expert at Lava Infotech, a software development provider. She guides her employees both on optimizing the code for a fix and also on etiquette and client conversations, drawn from her own experience.

Inculcate a direct and open feedback culture — this is key for a successful coaching culture.

Coaching — external experts: Talking to external experts is one of the most interesting and effective models to implement in a startup. Nearly 80 percent of our participants indicated that they rely on their network of friends and colleagues to help their team upskill. They believed that many known outsiders are willing to help and it goes a long way because the guidance is coming from an industry expert, which is a lot more realistic and cuts to the chase to actualize a project. Here are a few examples of how this is being implemented.

At Guvi, Murugan said friends from other companies review their code. This way, perspectives from outside environments add to their strategy.

Lava Infotech also relies on external expertise. “We hire a consultant and ask him or her to guide the team to execute the project,” Potukuchi said. “This brings in a practical insight.”

Varun Reddy, who heads HR for a confidential management consulting firm, said they encourage employees to network meaningfully. “LinkedIn is the No. 1 source not only for networking, but also for learning,” he said.

Finally, at e-commerce company Flipkart, employees plan and host industry meetups once a quarter and also attend conferences to find the industry guides, said consultant Deepa Gopalakrishna.

Peer review: A similar concept to internal coaching, the peer-review model operates at the project level yielding specific results and focused feedback. Our participants indicated that 1:1 peer review is a very common intervention happening in person or remotely in startup organizations.

There is nothing new about peer review; it exists as part of the project life cycle. However, due to time and budgetary constraints, startups began perceiving the review sessions as focused coaching moments for employees. Many opinionated that each on-the-job review session is worth a training class, where seniors correct and help improve the work done — like training in action.

Few peer-review models include on-the-job peer reviews. Showcasing your work, show-and-tell sessions, open-house discussions on the subject of work, and retrospectives, as part of the Agile method, help in better planning and learning from experience, thus enabling the best results for the next release of the product/process. (For those unfamiliar, the Agile method is an approach to project management used in software development to assist teams in responding to the unpredictability of constructing software. It uses incremental, iterative work sequences known as sprints.)

“Lessons from project reviews must be stitched back into the corresponding project summary for it to be useful in the future,” Gopalakrishnan said.

Knowledge sharing: “It’s not just about the work and delivery, it is also about sharing what you know and what you learned,” Murugan said.

According to research by software company Panopto, sharing what you know can save up to five hours per week of your colleagues’ time. Sharing the know-how will save them from repeating the cycle and enhances productivity.

This idea of knowledge sharing highly resonated with our participants because they tend to encourage their teams to host weekly sessions, internal tech meetups, symposiums, seminars and lunch-and-learn sessions, basically creating a safe social space for employees to reflect and share what they know.

Collaborative learning, self-driven attitude

Lack of funds or structure is no barrier to learning in tech startups. In fact, this may enable and encourage more powerful and engaging social and self-learning strategies. Social collaborative learning with a self-driven attitude is the overall learning strategy to survive in a startup world. It becomes more important for employees to realize the power of knowledge sharing in social environments.

After having schooled in a teacher-student classroom-style setup, it may be a challenge for some to liberate themselves to self-learn or co-learn. The key then is for workplaces to incorporate knowledge sharing in the company culture and practices. This begins in the hiring process. Employees need to be self-driven and social when they work for startup firms. This then extends into the everyday ways of operating. By using Agile development models, for example, employees must work, learn and explore together to make projects successful. The organization must then facilitate growth needs wherever possible, such as through mentorships or sponsorship.

Ultimately, passion for work and a drive to continuously learn forms the impetus for a successful social learning model within the startup environment.

Videhi Bhamidi is a product consultant and Kasper Spiro is CEO for Easygenerator. They can be reached at

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