It’s not surprising to see L&D professionals hanging their hats on microlearning to address the needs of the “overwhelmed, distracted, and impatient employee” that was introduced in the now infamous 2014 “Meet the Modern Learner” report by Bersin by Deloitte.
In that report, analysts pointed out that today’s learner now has less time for development in an already overcrowded work week. That challenge is compounded by a diminished attention span. The result has been the rise of the mobile-friendly, just-in-time, searchable “training” index of lessons meant to be inhaled in less than 10 minutes. Microlearning is how these smaller chunks of learning have become known.
Using the principles of brain science, well-crafted microlearning breaks down content into bite-sized, digestible pieces of information designed to engage, motivate and facilitate learner retention. These chunks of learning, generally five to eight minutes in length, are commonly presented as videos, GIFs or even gamified elements that transfer discrete, individual concepts.
Compared to traditional training, microlearning is 50 percent cheaper, 300 percent faster to develop and drives 20 percent better retention, according to a 2016 analysis conducted by Jobenomics, an independent job advocacy group.
That said, despite its growing popularity, some warn we should limit how we apply it. “The core issues with the microlearning craze are much bigger than the tiny shadow it casts,” said Kris Girrell, executive coach from Innerworks and consultant for a mobile leadership app.
Girrell noted microlearning is useful in transferring simple, concrete concepts but by its fragmented nature is less than ideal for teaching complex ideas or building performance over time. As most of the skills we cultivate in business are neither simple nor concrete, microlearning can only go so far as it is currently packaged.
Connect the Dots Through Curation
Microlearning is not a panacea. But some psychologists like Girrell reimagine these bite-size snacks within a deeper learning context. The key is not to focus on the microlearning tool but on how practitioners can curate content within the tool.
A standard microlearning platform is typically released as a self-directed YouTube-like searchable database. Often the amount of content and the interface with that content can be overwhelming. The technology aids in filtering, aggregating and locating information but without an overarching structure the method is random and bottom-up rather than business-driven and top-down.
In the case of microlearning, a change in the way L&D professionals curate content and guide users can dramatically alter the learning experience. Purpose-driven curation, touted by professionals such as Elliott Masie, means starting with the end in mind, aligning critical skills to company strategies and breaking them into component lessons that themselves are comprised of other smaller and more basic concepts.
Traditional educators have always been challenged to streamline complex concepts into easier-to-digest parts as well as to create multiple learning modalities to suit different preferences. Curated differently, microlearning can be a great tool to provide easily interchangeable, customizable building blocks within this larger learning context.
On the surface it may seem counterintuitive. If we connect the dots aren’t we stripping away the very nature of self-contained and self-directed microlearning? That’s not necessarily the case. As a case example, our company, Avanade, a global professional IT services company, is experimenting with purpose-driven microlearning in an industry changing so rapidly that traditionally developed training can become obsolete before it even hits the market.
Within our just-in-time tool featuring bite-sized, expert-taught video lessons, a dedicated curator has designed multiple intersecting pathways, connections and entry points allowing users to navigate the content based on their own needs, availability and learning styles but ultimately still connected to corporate strategy.
Content for Users About Business
There are a number of tools on the market that can be used for purpose-driven microlearning, ranging from specialized microlearning products like Grovo to peer-to-peer video creation and assessment tools like Practice. Many learning platforms such as Axonify, Degreed and Pathgather are compatible with microlearning and most traditional learning management systems have plug-ins to make microlearning content available.
After months of research and discussion, Avanade chose Big Think Edge, a video-based web portal that features interviews, multimedia presentations and roundtable discussions with well-known speakers in a variety of fields including Virgin founder Richard Branson, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Harvard professor Linda Hill and former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley. The belief was that the choice of speakers ranging from professors to professional basketball players would engage Avanade’s diverse employees who include both millennials as well as long-tenured technologists.
Upon entering the platform, users can choose specific minicourses that currently include topics like design thinking, executive presence and leading the self. Alternatively, Avanade users can choose a separate set of learning “pathways” titled “Consulting Excellence,” “Managing for 2020,” “Career Adviser Growth Hacks” (microcoaching), or Avanade’s self-service “Competency Library.”
Minicourses are organized as progressive sets of modules and often attended by cohorts of individuals whereas pathways are series of related content presented together in no specific order. Both minicourses and pathways include applied learner guides with just-in-time activities, reflection prompts and an interactive board for posting comments and hosting discussions.
There are many choices in how and what to learn but the aim is not to make those choices overwhelming by applying a business meta-framework that overlays the minicourses and topical learning paths. At Avanade, we rolled out the content most closely aligned to key business initiatives first with a calendar of planned content based on the evolving needs of the company. Additionally, we try to release content that integrates with other L&D programs to create best practice, blended curricula on as many fronts as possible.
In this way, Avanade users can access customized, just-in-time material while also ensuring they receive the right learning at the right time based on changing business needs.
The first pilot of the design thinking minicourse typifies how curators identify and time the content release. The learning and development team worked with the Avanade growth and strategy team to introduce the content to all of Avanade, starting with a competency-based prework program for a high-potential leadership program for directors.
Anecdotal feedback was positive, with some participants noting that the bite-sized content worked well and allowed the busy directors to take in pieces of content as time permitted. “Knowing that there is a logical small chunk made it much easier to squeeze more in than I’ve originally planned,” one director said.
While Avanade is still in the early stages of rolling out purpose-driven microlearning, anecdotal evidence continues to be positive and hits on the internal site continue to increase as the learning team finds purposeful, targeted ways to link the platform to relevant business initiatives.
According to “Digital Vortex: How Digital Disruption Is Redefining Industries,” a 2015 report from IMD and Cisco, four in 10 companies are subject to displacement through digital disruption within a matter of a few years. As a result, organizations may be rushing to technology solutions without capturing their full strategic value.
“At the end of the day, microlearning or any emerging technology is only as good as the degree to which it intentionally links us to our organization’s strategy,” said Antoinette Handler, Avanade senior executive and HR veteran.
It is ultimately the role of learning and development professionals, not the technical tools, to connect the dots between well-designed content of any sort and the purpose for which it was created.
Amy Bladen Shatto is a director and global head of leadership development at Avanade Inc. Jonyce Ruiz is project manager, leadership development at Avanade Inc. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.
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