Are urban myths good enough?

by Viv on December 8, 2008

If you read TJ diligently, you would have seen that I had a letter published in the December edition. Rarely have I seen somebody supposed to be arguing against me illustrating my point so clearly. It seems that as far as TJ is concerned, so long as something is widely applied it must be true…who cares about science or evidence?!!

To recap, I wrote:

“Dear Editor,

In October’s TJ Tim Drewitt wrote an interesting article about the transfer of learning back into the workplace.
However, one assertion that caught my eye was: “We all know the statistic that only 20 per cent of learning is applied back in the workplace”.
Do we? Whilst I’ve heard this percentage bandied about before, what was missing was anything to back it up.
I hate to see pseudo-science such as this masquerading as fact – the sooner that training writers (and editors) stop publishing claims like this, the better for the profession as a whole.”

The editor’s note in resonse was: “Tim was referring to the 80/20 rule, or Pareto principle, which states that, in many instances, 80 per cent of the effects come from 20 per cent of the causes. It was suggested by Joseph M Juran, who named it after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. The principle is widely documented and applied.”

OK, but how do we know that Pareto applies here? If I was to apply Pareto to my commute to work, I’d be concluding that when I walk to the station I cover 80% of the distance in 20% of time, that my cup of tea on the station provides me with 80% of the refreshment in the first 20% of gulps and that 80% of the passengers occupy 20% of the carriages on the train. Pareto is a rule of thumb which can’t just be applied willy nilly.

The value of Pareto is that it makes us challenge the assumption that causes and effects are distributed uniformly. However in the absence of corroborating evidence, claims invoking Pareto can only ever be an assumption.

I think that Tim could have worded this more honestly e.g. “It’s difficult to measure how much learning is applied back in the workplace, but lets assume that the Pareto principle applies here.” To claim that this is something we know i.e. it is a fact, is misleading.

The intention behind my pickiness is to ask L&D professionals (and specifically writers and editors) to make the distinction between assumption and fact. If we present something as a fact on our courses or in our literature which isn’t, it can only result in hearsay that is damaging to the credibility of the profession in the long term.

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