Learning and the 80/20 Rule: What’s an Italian Economist Got to do With Learning?

I was watching my daughters pick the last of the tomatoes off the vines in our garden, and I started thinking about the 80/20 rule and how it could apply to learning.  When talking with firms about developing a new approach to learning,  the subject of capacity inevitably comes up.  Where are we going to find the time for these new approaches?  And then it hit me – maybe no one knows about the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 Rule.  So this post is for anyone who has wondered where they are going to find the time to make big changes to their learning programs.

Who is Vilfredo Pareto and what did he do?

In the early 1900s, Italian Economist Vilfredo Pareto was in his garden and noticed that a small percentage of pea pods held a large percentage of his entire pea crop.  He measured and found that roughly 80% of the peas came from 20% of the pea pods.  He was intrigued by this discovery and, as an economist, wanted to see if these numbers existed anywhere else.  He  focused his studies on land ownership in Italy and, sure enough, he noticed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.

What is the Pareto Principle?

In 1941, a management consultant named Joseph Juran stumbled across Pareto’s work and began to apply the principle of 80/20 in the business world.  He saw connections between Pareto’s observations and the work he was doing and ended up developing the Pareto Principle, or the Law of the Vital Few.  The law states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.  This common rule of thumb is often used in business to define what to focus on. 

Here are a few examples:

  • 80% of a company's profits come from 20% of its customers
  • 80% of a company's complaints come from 20% of its customers
  • 80% of a company's profits come from 20% of the time its staff spend
  • 80% of a company's sales come from 20% of its products

So what’s this got to do with learning anyway?

In 2002, Dr. Stanley Malcolm, the former head of learning technologies at Aetna, wrote an article called, “Less Than a Penny for Learning”.  What struck me about the article was how critical he was of the value of traditional training programs.  He outlined a few different ways to use the 80/20 Rule as it pertains to learning.  I especially like the part about focusing on the 80% of learning that takes place on the job.  I reached out to Dr. Malcolm and we had a great conversation about the Pareto Principle as it pertains to learning.  After the call, I came up with several examples of how we can use the 80/20 Rule in legal technology training:

  • 80% of the firm’s profits come from 20% of its employees
    • Are we spending enough time providing support to the “Vital Few”?
  • 80% of a firm’s profits come from 20% of its clients
    • Why not align services to focus on the lawyers and staff who serve these clients?
  • 80% of workflows use 20% of the applications
    • Are we focusing on the critical applications that are most important to the firm?
  • 80% of our value comes from 20% of our programs
    • Have we identified the learning programs that are tied to business value?  Can we grow them? 
  • 80% of our results comes from 20% of our time
    • Are we making the most of our time at the office?  Are we not only efficient but effective?

The 80/20 Rule helps identify the most important work that we do as learning professionals.  More importantly, it helps identify the things that are NOT vital – things we should do less of, or stop doing altogether.  I know that all of us are being asked to do more with less.  Maybe the secret is not more resources, but stronger focus on the 20% that matters.

Note: One thing to keep in mind is that the Pareto Principle is a rule of thumb, not a silver bullet.  It can be a helpful “filtering mechanism” as you rethink your learning programs. 

Traveling Coaches is here to help! We have programs that can help you elevate your learning programs, improve your communications and help your lawyers and staff embrace change. Feel free to comment and keep the conversation going.