The Microlearning Hype: Is It All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

If ATD ICE had created a word cloud for the most talked-about “new” concepts, techniques, etc, microlearning would have been the biggest word. Though the term has been around at least 20 years, it’s suddenly become “hot” and its definition has most definitely morphed. This post is not designed to argue against it. It’s intended to clarify its limits and optimal uses.

With 20+ years in this industry, experience has taught me to be skeptical of fads. This is particularly true as I gained experience in designing solutions that got business and performance results. Those solutions required significant time investments as well as strong implementation strategies to support them. Experience (and the research) show that there is no magic solution to help people build skill and knowledge. Skill-building and experience come over time and with considerable effort.

Big moments (dare I say, micro-moments) provide significant insights that we carry forward. But our true skill building comes from investing effort and energy over time. By “big moments,” I mean intense emotional experiences that leave their mark on us. Ones that prompt a desire and intention to act or believe differently. Even after years go by, we can vividly recall certain situations and the lesson learned from it. For instance, I can recall the day my husband had a heart attack. I can also recall very small details of the day each of my children was born. I remember how I felt in situations like these and use those feelings to guide decisions I make now.

Where You Invest Your Time, You Invest Your Knowledge & Skills

Conversely, big investments in time relate to how we learn to do difficult, complex things – things we cannot learn in five minutes or in five-minute increments spread over time. On the personal side, think about relationships (with a spouse, a child, or a friend). Good relationships are the result of significant time investment and skill development. You have to learn how to be self-aware and then other-aware. You have to learn communication skills and teamwork skills. These skills are not hard-wired into us, though they may come more easily to some of us than others.

On the work side, think about a major skill or body of knowledge you’ve invested time in learning about. One big investment I’ve made in the past few years is to build my skills in agile project management so my organization could shift to this methodology. This required lots of reading, conference attending, and, most importantly, on-the-job experience. No one of those things would have given me the skill set I needed. I needed to go “deep,” and deep isn’t done in 5 minutes’ time. Further, this huge time investment required strong motivation on my part to learn. I invested time and tried different things. I made mistakes, reflected on those mistakes, and adjusted behavior. Then I talked to colleagues and learned from them. I adjusted my behavior to improve.

How to Incorporate Microlearning into Your Training Strategy

The problem with the current excitement over microlearning is that some folks are cutting it away from its original intention. They imply that big things can be learned in these tiny increments. However, we cannot learn large topics and complex skills in just five minutes/day (or even 15). Imagine if your child’s school announced that arithmetic would now be taught in just 5 minutes (or heck, even 15 minutes) per day. Or imagine that someone could be taught to code, be a great leader, or be a terrific salesperson in just five minutes/day. It’s a bit ludicrous, isn’t it?

As you consider the variety of tools available to support microlearning and its best uses, consider these things:

1) Microlearning has morphed since its origin.

Microlearning, as it was originally conceived, was about the microelements that could roll up into a bigger lesson. It was about considering the “micro” perspectives associated with skill-based learning (smallest blocks of learning associated with a much larger skill set).

In other words, let’s break a really big curriculum into small parts, and let someone master one small part before moving onto the next small part. If you are trying to help someone build a really complex skill, microlearning is possibly one tool you will incorporate. However, it will not be the primary tool because it would take far too long to get to success. Instead, think of microlearning as micro-reinforcement rather than the way people initially learn.

2) There’s a huge difference between being able to “find/locate” something and truly learning something.

Much of what is touted as microlearning is really about implementing technologies that enable workers to search and locate things when they need to figure something out. I recently wanted to create a timer to go into a Powerpoint slide. So I googled “creating a timer in PowerPoint” and followed the steps. I do not know how to create a timer. I will have to search again the next time I need to do it. That’s okay because I don’t need to do this very often. Remembering how isn’t efficient because of the time and effort required for me to do so.

3)  Spaced repetition and retrieval practice are what enable us to remember what we learn – and are what microlearning either provide or tee up.

For you to say you learned something, you have to be able to retrieve it later. Breaking a long lesson into short chunks of five minutes doesn’t enable learning unless the design allows for lots of spaced repetition and retrieval practice. You need something that triggers your brain to recall and/or apply the information you learned.

4) Jobs that are highly repetitive are suited for microlearning.

This is because spaced repetition or retrieval practice is built into the jobs themselves. Workers can complete a short micro-lesson (perhaps on how to correctly stock a shelf or how to process a bank deposit transaction) and then do this same task over and over again in their real jobs.

4) Google and “search” within websites have taught us that we can find/locate almost anything we need.

L&D’s job is to help figure out when it is more efficient or effective for a worker to continually look something up versus when it makes sense for someone to truly know”something. L&D professionals need to be clear on when they are creating a micro-tutorial that gives people info when they need it, and when they are really trying to build skill or knowledge that requires no searching for info at the point of use.

If you want people to execute a task daily or weekly, for example, you don’t want them to look up instructions every time. (Imagine having to read the directions on using your coffee maker and making coffee every time you used it.) If workers do a task monthly, they probably still want to learn it without having to refer to instructions, though it will take them longer to learn. Tasks done even less frequently benefit most from some sort of find/locate resource associated with them.

5) Want workers to behave in a different way or demonstrate a skill or attitude consistently? Microlearning can help you achieve your goal but won’t stand solo.

Right now, my company is working hard to develop people’s understanding of emotional intelligence. We’re also trying to build this skill within leaders. This involves a book club with readings, monthly conversations, and revisiting of goals each person set. But it’s not enough. People need daily reminders to change or build behaviors. This is where microlearning can be a sweet spot. For example, we could push out a daily (or weekly) micro-lesson or practice opportunity to support the larger learning and cultural effort.

How to Stay Grounded

L&D professionals have a responsibility to the businesses to be extremely clear on the possibilities as well as the constraints of the suddenly hot term “microlearning.” Remember, C-suite people will be intrigued by fads, trends, or techniques that dangle the promise of making their companies more profitable. On the surface, reducing the amount of time people need to spend developing skills, seems like a great thing. Less time to learn means more time to produce, right? And that should increase profits.

Also remind yourself that from the vantage point of the C-suite, the role of L&D is not to develop people. It is to make the business more profitable, to enable company growth, and to support its need to stay compliant with regulations. L&D accomplishes these goals by designing and implementing solutions, infrastructure, or processes that help people achieve a company’s strategic goals or needed operational results. Typically this requires people to have specific skills or knowledge. But it’s ultimately up to L&D to figure out how any training or learning initiative links to a company’s strategic or operational needs.

If you grow and support people with intention, the company will grow. So before you jump onto the microlearning bandwagon, identify what business results you hope to achieve and analyze how or if microlearning helps you achieve those results. If the rationale for adopting the microlearning trend is solely a cost-cutting one, be wary. Cost-cutting may produce a quick bump in profitability, but its effects tend to be short-lived. Growth in people requires long-term investment, focus, and time – not micro-investment.

  • Ben

    Thanks for saying something sane about this topic.

  • This is a great analysis of micro-learning and your points are very practical. Particularly whether something is truly learnt versus knowing where to find the information next time. As you say, some jobs do suit micro-learning much more than others and finding the sweet spot for any of them is crucial for an L&D strategy. Thanks

  • TJ Coyle

    I guess my take on this may be contrary to what you’ve laid out. I see micro learning as a way to build that hour long course in its entirety just as we always have but just build it in chunks. It can then be consumed as needed and become part of a searchable knowledge base. Take the entire course or just what you need…your choice.

  • Simon Bertoli

    So many good points in this article… cant say i disagree with any of it.