The Myth of Microlearning

The Myth of Micro-Learning

There’s a new buzz phrase going around town these days in the L&D and talent development communities: “microlearning.” An infographic on the modern learner, published by Bersin and Associates” in late 2014, seems to fuel this fire.

Meet the Modern Learner - Microlearning can help

The biggest take-away many are getting from this infographic is that today’s workers—the modern learners—have only 1% of their workweek to devote to professional development and learning. That equates to 24 minutes per week if you assume a 40-hour work week. Which is a measly 4.8 minutes per day to focus on learning.

The concern I have is that we make an assumption that we can or should winnow down all of our learning initiatives to fit within this 4.8 minutes per day (or 24 minutes per week).

Not All Training Fits the Microlearning Model

We can, however, handle reinforcement of training in 4.8 minutes a day. Learning science-based platforms such as Knowledge Guru, qStream, or Axonify can be very useful in delivering micro-reinforcement in this context. For additional ideas on how microlearning can be beneficial for training, check out this article.

Microlearning is not useful when people need to acquire/learn complex skills, processes, or behaviors. Imagine trying to learn any of these behaviors or skills in 4.8 minutes per day:

  • A musical instrument
  • Project management
  • Agile software development and processes
  • Instructional design
  • Any software tool
  • Teamwork skills
  • Sales
  • A product (e.g. launching a new one)

What our industry needs is better clarity on when we need to formally train people when we need to reinforce knowledge or skills people are building on their own, and when we simply need to keep key principles or practices front and center (e.g. safety and security practices).

The BLP Way

A few years ago, we opted to create a “learning lab” environment in our own organization. We knew we wanted a means of building technical and project management skills. It became apparent that if we wanted innovation to happen, we had to give it time to happen. This sparked the idea of “skill-builders,” which are formal side projects that employees can do on company time. This year, we formalized it to the point where an employee can allocate five full work days to their skill-builder.

Here are the criteria for doing a skill-builder:

  • The skill-builder needs to link tightly to a competency the company has agreed is important to us. (e.g. We use AfterEffects quite a bit in our work. So, if a graphic designer wants to learn AfterEffects, he or she can craft a skill-builder around it.)
  • BLP needs to make sure the employee has sufficient time to do it; ideally, they will be able to work in 1/2 – full-day “chunks” on the skill-builder as it is too hard to stop/start when you are in learning mode.
  • A formal document needs to be created that describes the project, what skills it will build, and what resources are required, and how it links to BLP business needs.

An Example of the BLP “Skill-Builder”

Here’s an example of what one team member, Jackie Crofts, recently did with her skill-builder: she produced a fabulous AfterEffects video that we will use as a “product tour” of Knowledge Guru. She had only base knowledge of AfterEffects when she started.  More critically, Jackie is a fabulous illustrator, but she had minimal skill in using stock imagery and in doing graphic design work. She is a pure artist, which is great when we are designing games; challenging when we need her to focus on marketing collateral.


Let’s not get so excited by this concept of “microlearning” that we fail to recognize when it is appropriate… and when it is absolutely not appropriate. If we had only allowed Jackie to spend 1% of her workweek building AfterEffects skill, she would never have built the skill she did. Also, note that we did not send Jackie to a formal AfterEffects training course. We provided her with access to tutorials and to a colleague with AfterEffects skills, but she was mostly self-directed with her skill-builder.

So, is microlearning the right answer for reinforcement? Absolutely. Will microlearning help when it comes to actual skill-building? Not really. People still need dedicated time to build their arsenal of knowledge and skill. However, not all of this time needs to be spent in formal training. It does need to be time they can devote to learning for more than 4.8 minutes per day or 24 minutes per week. The payoff to organizations who give employees this time will be huge in terms of the innovation and productivity gains over the long-term.

Have training needs of your own? Whether microlearning is the answer or not, you’ll need a plan. You can start with our Simple Template for Planning Your Training Program.