How to Make Microlearning Matter

The latest trend in corporate learning is to break big lessons into small chunks—but getting simple can be complicated.

By Annie Murphy Paul May 1, 2016
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5Paul.jpg 0516cover.jpg“You want to take my people out of the distribution center for how long?”

That’s the question Vivian Rank heard from managers time and again when she tried to organize offsite training opportunities at Supervalu, an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based supermarket chain with 28,000 employees.

As Supervalu’s senior manager of talent management, Rank learned quickly how challenging it would be to integrate educational opportunities into the busy schedules of her organization’s workforce. “Many of my company’s employees work on the sales floor or in a distribution center,” she says. “They have limited time to devote to learning.”

That’s one reason she implemented a Web-based training solution that uses microlearning techniques—that is, it breaks lessons into small chunks of information that employees can absorb on the job. It might take the form of a 4-minute video tutorial or a series of brief online learning modules that employees work through at their own pace. Compared to offsite training, “microlearning is a very welcome alternative,” Rank says.

Fueled by video and mobile technology, microlearning has been billed as a way to enable today’s employees to absorb information quickly and often—between tasks, not while sitting in a classroom or attending a seminar.

Indeed, it is a training approach that is aligned with the way people live—and learn—today. “It’s not just Millennials—we all have a Google-search mentality now,” says Stephen Meyer, president and CEO of the Rapid Learning Institute, an Eddystone, Pa.-based e-learning company with a staff of 50. “The Internet has changed the way we think. We have less patience for preliminaries. We expect to get the information we need now.”

Of course, near-instantaneous knowledge transfer may sound too good to be true. Can learning really happen in 5-minute increments? The answer is yes, but there are caveats. For the learning to be effective, HR and training professionals must carefully craft their offerings and understand that not all training and development can happen on the fly. Microlearning is best leveraged to supplement and reinforce what employees already know. Here are the micro lessons you need to make microlearning a success.

Making the Case

If you are not convinced that microlearning could work for your company—or are looking for ways to build a case to senior management—consider the following benefits:

Microlearning can meet the needs of decentralized workforces. In an increasingly globalized economy, bringing together members of widely scattered teams for an in-person class or seminar may be impossible. “The biggest reason our clients turn to microlearning is that they have a distributed workforce, so they can’t put everybody together in the same room,” says Will Holland, founder and president of Akron, Ohio-based e-learning firm Expand Interactive.

It can be accessed on demand. Kim Ruyle, president of Coral Gables, Fla.-based talent management consulting firm Inventive Talent Consulting, has been working in HR long enough to remember the motorized carts loaded down with thick technical manuals that would make their way through factories. A person then had to dig through the stacks of volumes to find the one piece of information he needed at a particular moment. Today, all relevant learning can be searched for and identified instantly on smartphone screens, wherever workers happen to be.

It can quickly adapt to workers’ changing needs. In a dynamic and fast-paced workplace, companies need learning tools that can be updated almost instantaneously, says Pieter de Vries, a professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. He has researched microlearning and developed resources for corporate clients, including a large energy company.

“When this company came to us, they already had a lot of learning resources. The problem is, no one was using them,” de Vries recalls. “Instructional designers would create these wonderful courses, but, by the time they became available, they were already outdated. Workers would say, ‘This course addresses problems that aren’t on our list anymore.’ ”

3 Ways to Supercharge Microlearning

  1. Incorporate retrieval practice. Research has shown that we retain more when we’re asked to call up the material from our memories instead of passively rereading that same content. To give your microlearning resources a boost, phrase the information you want your employees to review in the form of questions. The microlearning platform Qstream, for example, helps sales representatives stay current with a “challenge”—a series of quiz-like questions—pushed to their mobile devices every few days. Users have to draw on their own knowledge base to respond, and, in the process, their understanding and recall is strengthened.    
  2. Include a social learning aspect. “Social interaction is a great accelerator of learning,” says Mark Clare of Purdue Healthcare Advisors. “We encourage our people to talk about what they’re learning, to swap stories with each other.” Another approach is to combine videos with weekly in-person meetings focused on the same concept. That’s what Stephen Meyer of the Rapid Learning Institute does. The ideas learned are reinforced through discussion and role-playing.
  3. Use “interleaving.” Psychologists have found that people learn better when different types of information are “interleaved”—that is, mixed up in unexpected ways—rather than presented in a completely orderly and predictable fashion. If you’re preparing a series of microlearning modules about a new software program, for example, include one that concerns a different kind of skill, such as setting goals or engaging in constructive criticism. Employees retain more when they are occasionally surprised with a learning task that draws on a different set of mental muscles.

By contrast, producers of microlearning resources can skirt this problem by responding nimbly to employees’ requests and formulating lessons that take only minutes to put together.

It makes the prospect of learning seem more doable. Microlearning appeals to employees who are pressed for time or who have fleeting attention spans. And because lessons can be easily called up online, they play into the search-engine mentality of today’s workforce.

Developing a Program that Works

As writers and teachers well know, it takes a lot of work to present information in a way that is easy to absorb. Follow these steps to maximize learning:

Break lessons up into core information units. Take the time to fully understand the topic you want to teach. That means getting beyond any jargon and industry buzzwords so that you can grasp the core concepts and explain them in the simplest possible terms.

“It’s good discipline from an instructional design point of view,” says Nick Howe, Boca Raton, Fla.-based vice president of learning and collaboration at Hitachi Data Systems, a global information technology company. “You have to strip down your message to its essential components.”

Doing so avoids imposing what Howe refers to as excessive “cognitive load”: more information than the brain’s limited working memory can hold at one time. “It was very easy to be lazy and sloppy with those macro-courses, to just throw a whole bunch of stuff in there,” he says. When instructors “have such short time frames to work with, we’re forced to do our jobs better,” Howe adds.

Build in an “aha” moment. Even the shortest video should offer the viewer an insight or new way of thinking about a familiar problem, says Alex Khurgin, director of learning innovation at the New York City-based e-learning company Grovo.

One way to make sure that insight sticks is to incorporate an opportunity for what learning scientists call “metacognition”: the experience of stepping back and contemplating what you’ve just learned. “Even in 5-minute learning sessions, you can provide opportunities for reflection,” Khurgin says—perhaps by posing a question that requires viewers to pause and imagine how they might do their job differently in light of what they just learned.

Give employees something to do. Incorporating action steps into lessons is also important. “Offer employees one new idea and one new behavior to try,” recommends Mark Clare, a principal with Purdue Healthcare Advisors in West Lafayette, Ind., and an adjunct faculty member in the School of Professional Studies at Northwestern University. “You want people to try out that new behavior and notice something new … happening as a result. That triggers some curiosity, some interest, and that in turn gives them some motivation to keep going.”

Make it relevant. Of course, lessons need to be highly pertinent to people’s jobs. “Microlearning should be ‘referenceable,’” Khurgin says.

“Referenceable means that people have to be able to reference the information at the moment of learning and doing, and that depends on the context,” says Bill Pelster, a Seattle-based partner at international management consulting firm Deloitte. “For example, a video would not be a referenceable resource for a one-on-one meeting, but a checklist would be.”

To ensure that you’re providing employees with the information they need, track what workers are asking for and searching for. “We keep tabs on the search terms that people enter into our learning management system,” Pelster says. “If people are not finding what they need on the company’s intranet, that’s a sign that we need to create a learning resource.”

Anatomy of a Microlearning Module

Microlearning lessons are brief and to the point, which is why you need to put serious thought into every element included. Here are the main components to consider for each lesson:

Title. The title you choose is important, says Mark Clare of Purdue Healthcare Advisors, because it will determine how your employees approach the resource and even whether they will engage with it at all. Clare recommends a simple formula: “Tell employees what this thing is and what it will do for them.” An example might be “Using Social Media to Improve Customer Service.”

Body. Focus the body of the lesson around two objectives: giving employees an idea to think about and an action to carry out. Use graphics or video to achieve the greatest impact in the shortest amount of time—and don’t forget that learning is about emotion as well as information. “Video can convey affective content very powerfully—that’s how movies make us feel scared or sad or happy,” notes Kim Ruyle of Inventive Talent Consulting.

Evaluation question. As with any training initiative, it’s important to assess how well the module worked. But a 3- or 5-minute learning episode shouldn’t be encumbered by a survey that takes as much time to complete as the lesson itself. Try asking just one or two questions—perhaps “Did this resource give you the information you needed?” or “Would you recommend this resource to a colleague?”

Respect employees’ autonomy and achievements. “We give people access to a whole bunch of microlearning modules and allow them to choose which ones they want to act on,” Clare says. “That puts the control in the hands of the learner, which is much more motivating to them than being told what to learn and when.”

Khurgin stresses the importance of self-efficacy: “For people to change their behavior, they have to believe that they can change. For that reason, we try to provide people with ‘small wins’—we give them recognition, we give them feedback that shows them that they’re making progress.”

When to Use It

Effective as it can be, microlearning is not right for all training and development. It can be a good option if you:

Choose topics employees are already knowledgeable about. People new to an activity require immersion in the subject for a substantial amount of time before they can develop a basic grasp of the topic and add to their knowledge base. “Microlearning works best for information updates in which the contextual setting is already familiar to the learner,” Pelster says. “It would not be suitable for someone learning about a subject for the very first time.”

Pick simple subjects. Likewise, a very complicated procedure may not lend itself to brief, broken-up learning segments, Holland says. “Memory degrades over time, so by the end of the microlearning series, people have forgotten what they learned at the beginning,” he explains. “When people receive complicated information in this way, they don’t have the capacity to connect all the dots.”

Use microlearning to reinforce previous training. Precisely because memory fades, microlearning is ideal for reinforcing learning that has already occurred. “People forget what they’ve learned if they don’t revisit it,” Holland says. “Learning shouldn’t be treated as a one-shot deal—it must be an experience that unfolds over time.”

“We still do traditional classroom-based learning, but we’re also very big on following up with short bursts of information about how to apply the knowledge that people acquired in those more traditional settings,” says Karen Huneycutt, HR manager a Muscatine, Iowa-based furniture manufacturer Allsteel. “For example, we might take some of the content covered in the classroom session and use it to produce a 10-minute webinar that refreshes people’s memories. Or we might send an e-mail that says to people, ‘Remember that tool that we learned about in training? Here’s a recap, and here’s a way you can apply it at work today.’ ”

How to Assess Its Value

After you’ve implemented a microlearning program, how do you know it’s working? Below are several suggestions:

Ask targeted questions. “Whether someone finishes a module or not is no longer the criterion of whether a module is effective,” says Supervalu’s Rank. “What matters is that they got what they needed.” A quick question posed in a follow-up e-mail can generate this feedback.

Track traffic and downloads. Another approach is to log how often materials have been accessed. “We use the number of downloads as an indicator of a video’s effectiveness,” Pelster says. “If one video gets 4,000 downloads and another gets only three, we know that the first video is really hitting the mark.”

Look at on-the-ground outcomes. De Vries of Delft University recounts his experience working with a large energy company where workers were reporting that a particular type of engine was breaking down every four to six weeks. “We asked engineers at the company to figure out what was going wrong and then to record a short video of themselves demonstrating the fix—a video that they then uploaded so that anyone working for the company could access it,” he says.

There was no need for formal evaluations: The manager at the company told de Vries: “You don’t have to bring in all your questionnaires. We already know it worked because the machines aren’t breaking down anymore.”

That flexibility and effectiveness are among the reasons microlearning is transforming corporate training—one tiny increment at a time.

Annie Murphy Paul is a journalist based in New Haven, Conn., who specializes in the science of learning. She is at work on Brilliant: The New Science of Smart, which will be published by Crown in early 2017.

This article relates to Consultation, one of the nine competencies on which SHRM has based its certification. To learn more, visit www.shrmcertification.org.

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