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The Top Performer’s Guide To Learning on the Job [2023]

The Top Performer’s Guide To Learning on the Job [2023]

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Ever heard of the 70-20-10 model for learning and development?

It suggests:

  • 70% of learning comes from job-related experiences. 
  • 20% of learning occurs during interactions with others.
  • 10% of learning stems from formal training. 

This is valuable intel for training managers—and encouraging information for anyone working in a field unrelated to their college major, embarking on a successful career without a degree, or quietly Googling their way through a skill gap.

Informal, hands-on learning on the job has left traditional training in the dust.💨

"What I've learned is that 75-80% of people learn things by doing."

Eric Fernandez

Business Operations Manager at Commsor

In case you like your testimonials with a side of survey data, check out the following “learning by doing” stats:

  • Rising popularity → A whopping 68% of employees now prefer to learn or train in the workplace. 👀
  • Rising importance → According to Gartner, the number of skills required for a single job is growing by 10% year over year, and over 30% of the skills needed three years ago will soon be irrelevant. 🤷🏽‍♂️

Being able to pick up new skills on the fly is already topping the list of hard and soft skills we’ve typically associated with career development to date.

What else is rapidly becoming clear? People who have experiential learning down to a science seem to know something the rest of us don’t. 

In this guide, we’ll cover learning on the job basics (definitions, benefits, techniques, and tips), before digging into what we’ve learned from top performers. 

Experiential learning vs. formal training

What is experiential learning, and how does it differ from formal training?

Experiential learning is learning by doing. ⛷️

It’s hands-on in a way that formal training often is not, and requires active participation, experimentation, observation, and reflection. A classic example is an internship or an apprenticeship, where classroom knowledge may only take you so far. You may hear someone who values learning on the job use an expression like “experience is the best teacher” or “street smarts beat book smarts.” 

Formal training is, well, formal. 👨‍🏫

Structured and organized programs are usually delivered by a qualified instructor or teacher, and come with a clear curriculum, learning objectives, and assessments to measure progress and skill acquisition. Formal training will often, but not always, culminate in a degree or certification.

While we’ll focus more on informal learning and the future of work in this guide, both are valid methods of training employees

20 benefits to learning on the job 

You’ve probably heard the advice to learn something new every day. 

It comes from a good place—learning new things can be incredibly rewarding. There's the satisfaction of knowing you’re growing and stimulating your brain. The pride of having made progress towards a goal. And the confidence that comes from doing what you weren’t sure you could do. 💥

If you ask us, those feelings beat feeling like you’re stagnating any day of the week. 

So what makes learning on the job especially advantageous? 20 things—to scratch the surface.

For You For Your Company
Practical, hands-on, real-time experience A cost effective way to develop individuals and teams—and drive business growth
Greater ability to develop skills at the time of need The ability to enable employees to make skills decisions dynamically
Increased efficiency Increased productivity 📈
Improved problem solving and communication skills Increased adaptability, resilience, and innovation in the face of rapid change
Enhanced creativity and higher quality output More compelling competitive advantage
Deeper sense of purpose 🧡 Deeper employee engagement
Higher job satisfaction Improved customer experience
Better job security Better retention
More opportunities for advancement More opportunities to promote from within
Expanded earning potential More attractive employer brand

Separate but related: The sky’s the limit on the types of skills you can master outside of formal job training. 

Common examples include:

  • Communication skills
  • Technical skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Relationship-building skills
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Customer service skills
  • Sales skills
  • Analytical skills
  • Strategic thinking skills
  • Time management skills
  • Project management skills

If you work for a SaaS company (👋!), we have it on good authority you can also gain industry and product knowledge through experience.  

5 on-the-job learning techniques 

So now you know why learning on the job is important, what’s in it for you and your company, and which skills you can add to your repertoire as you think about your career progression. But what are some ways you go about adding them to your wheelhouse?

There’s no shortage of on-the-job learning techniques out there. Let’s zero in on five we’ve seen high achievers have a lot of success with. 

A list of five on-the-job learning techniques favored by top performers.

Self-directed learning

Self-directed learning is exactly what it sounds like. You take the initiative to identify your own learning objectives. You hold yourself accountable to your own learning process. You assume responsibility for your own development and growth. And as an added bonus? You get to focus on topics that are most meaningful and relevant to you. 💃🏿  

Job shadowing

Say you aren’t quite sure you’ve found your calling yet. (Spoiler: you are not alone. 🫶🏿) You might be a good fit for a job shadow—where you can observe a teammate go through their day-to-day duties and get a better sense of what goes into their role. You can ask questions as you watch, jump in and get firsthand experience, and learn directly from a subject matter expert.

Job rotations

To gain exposure to different aspects of the business and develop a broader skill set, see if your company would be open to letting you move between roles or departments for a designated period of time. 

You may be the first to ask, or there may already be a program in place. For example, HubSpot has a post-MBA, two-year rotational program for top performers called the Accelerated Leadership Program. Accepted candidates work directly with executive leaders in four different functional areas, and ultimately accelerate their path to joining HubSpot’s leadership team. 🤝🏽

Stretch assignments 

Find us a manager who wouldn’t be thrilled to have a direct report raise their hand for a stretch assignment. We’ll wait. ⌛ 

By actively seeking out a stretch assignment, you get to show that you aren’t afraid to experiment, take a risk, and fail forward. Stretch assignments are challenging by definition, and involve tasks or projects that are purposely beyond your current skill level. 

Peer-to-peer learning

Here’s another way to make your boss happy—and go from being a hard worker to a top performer. Instead of requesting a formal training session or ready-made resource, tap into your peers and start sharing knowledge and best practices across your team. 

P.S. If you’re looking for a way to document processes painlessly, hold the 📞. There’s a Chrome extension for that. 

Overcoming challenges and obstacles

Learning on the job may have lots of upsides, but that’s not to say it’s without its ups and downs.

Here are three challenges you might come across—and ways to overcome them.

Time constraints

One of the biggest challenges to learning on the job is finding the time. We all have work that has to get done (and if you asked your department head—needles to move!). 

One strategy for overcoming this challenge is to incorporate learning targets into your goal setting process. Try setting aside a specific block of time for professional development each month, with a proposed action plan to maximize workplace learning. 🤓 You could also give microlearning a try.

💡 Tango Tip

Tie your learning goals back to company goals, so you can clearly show which areas you'll be able to impact with your newfound skills.

Limited resources

Your team may have limited resources for training and development, which can make it difficult for everyone to access the know-how they need to do their best work. Leveraging free or low-cost resources may help. Can you tempt a friend and authority in your field to join a team meeting, lunch-and-learn, or All-Hands in exchange for a special delivery? 🍩 

Resistance to change (and/or lack of support)

This one is tough. In an ideal world, you’d encounter no resistance to wanting to learn new skills or streamline existing processes. If you do run into trouble, try communicating the benefits of the learning opportunity and inviting stakeholders into your learning process. A mentor may also be able to help guide you through a conversation with your boss, if they aren’t 100% onboard with the importance of learning and development. 

Learning on the job: 6 things top performers do differently

If learning on the job were a piece of cake, we’d all have glowing performance reviews. And as the (amended) saying goes—if it were easy to become a top performer, everyone would do it. 

But in every organization, there are usually a few superstars who seem to have cracked the code. So what do they know that most don’t?

A Tango-branded graphic with a list of ways top performers approach learning on the job differently.

In short: Top performers know learning on the job is much harder than it should be, and they’ve figured out how to make it easier, faster, and more valuable.

How, exactly? We’re glad you asked. 

Top performers go beyond centralized learning.

Some learning should be centralized at a company level. (Related: If you’re lucky enough to have a Learning and Development team or a knowledge manager, you’re lucky enough. 🙂) 

But there’s a lot of skill building that can and should take place at a team level, by people who are closer to function-specific learning needs, materials, and goals. Top performers look for opportunities to leverage best practices and tools—and make moves when it would be more logical to take a decentralized approach. 

They identify the highest impact activities in their role.

There’s always more to learn—especially when it comes to the aspects of a role that drive the highest impact.

Top performers excel at figuring out which initiatives, projects, and tasks are going to drive the most impact. And if they don’t have the skills they need, they address their skill gaps ASAP. 

They leverage tools that make quick work of learning on the job.

While there’s no denying the value of documentation, doing documentation is…pick an adjective. Dull? Thankless? Time-consuming? 

Top performers know:

  • Making knowledge accessible to everyone drives operational excellence. 
  • There are ways to document way more, in way less time. 
  • The easier it is to create documentation, the more documentation people will create.
  • The more documentation there is, the more information gets captured, shared, and discovered across the entire organization.
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They understand how their work rolls up to team and company goals.

Think of a top performer you know. We bet they’re pretty good at:

  • Connecting the dots between what they’re working on and what the larger team is working towards.
  • Proactively seeking ownership of projects that will carry the business forward.
  • Ensuring their contributions are visible (and valued).

They emulate other top performers.

What are other people in the same role, field, and/or industry doing to be so good? Top performers aren’t afraid to ask questions—and adopt what’s working.

Fun fact 🤓 → A recent study by Harvard Business Review says 60-70% of our time gets eaten up by “exception handling,” or the need to address unexpected events that existing processes don’t account for. Top performers make it their mission to resolve exceptions to the rule, and share how they did it with others. 

They leave things better than they found them.

If it isn’t documented, did it even happen? 🤔 Top performers view knowledge and/or skill acquisition as Part I. Part II—creating the materials to help others be successful too—is just as important. 

They believe:

  • Hoarding know-how helps no one.
  • Knowledge is most valuable when it’s shared.
  • Process makes perfect. 🥇
  • If their teammates and/or customers can follow a documented process and learn how to get work done (the right way), then everyone wins. 

The bottom line

If you take away one thing from this post, it should be this: learning on the job is everyone’s job.

If you want to excel, learning won’t be your only objective. To quickly convert your new knowledge into institutional knowledge, you’ll turn right around and teach others what you’ve learned, too.

The most in-demand skills are shifting in real time, every day. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Work trend report, the top 10 skills of the future can all be developed on the job.

What does that mean? The better equipped we are to develop skills at the time of need, the easier it becomes to do our best work.


What does learning on the job mean?

Learning on the job refers to the process of picking up new knowledge, skills, and abilities through practical experience. 

What is the importance of learning on the job?

Learning on the job has a variety of benefits for both individuals and organizations. 

For employees, on-the-job learning can drive: 

  • Practical, hands-on, real-time experience
  • Greater ability to develop skills at the time of need
  • Increased efficiency
  • Improved problem solving and communication skills
  • Enhanced creativity and higher quality output
  • Deeper sense of purpose 
  • Higher job satisfaction
  • Better job security
  • More opportunities for advancement
  • Expanded earning potential

For companies, on-the-job learning can result in: 

  • A cost effective way to develop individuals and teams—and drive business growth
  • More dynamic skill acquisition decisions 
  • Increased productivity 
  • Increased adaptability, resilience, and innovation in the face of rapid change 
  • More compelling competitive advantage
  • Deeper employee engagement 
  • Improved customer experience 
  • Better retention 
  • More opportunities to promote from within
  • More attractive employer brand
Is it OK to learn on the job?

It’s absolutely OK to learn on the job. In fact, it’s likely one of your most valuable “other duties as assigned.” Learning on the job is a widely accepted way to develop skills and knowledge. Employers will often even provide training and support to help employees learn and grow in their jobs.

How do I learn on the job?

Popular ways to approach learning on the job include: 

  • Self-directed learning
  • Job shadowing
  • Job rotations
  • Stretch assignments 
  • Peer-to-peer learning

Less common ways to take learning on the job to the next level include:

  • Going beyond centralized learning
  • Documenting—and sharing—your discoveries
  • Leveraging tools and technology that make quick work of learning on the job
  • Championing continuous learning—at scale
  • Tracking knowledge sharing metrics

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