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Microlearning: how it can be used in the modern workplace

In today’s working world there’s huge emphasis on speed of delivery and efficiency of response. The drive for enhanced performance is now being further encouraged and supported by the rapid advance of ICT and AI.  

This hectic environment puts pressure on employees. They need to work better and quicker, but with their time being squeezed where’s the room for the learning, knowledge and support they need to do so?  

One answer might be to approach the whole question of training provision and knowledge acquisition in a different way.  Let’s look at the problem in more depth and then examine the advantages microlearning can bring to bear in the quest for more effective training and ease of knowledge acquisition.

A knowledge economy?

We speak rather blithely of the Knowledge Economy, where knowledge is not only a key aspect of performance, but also a valuable commodity in its own right.  Yet if we prize knowledge so much, why is it that we make it so inaccessible? The tools are there to provide access to knowledge on the go, 24/7, but often knowledge is locked away in training courses, behind a LMS, or in the heads of a few people, where it disappears when they move on.  How can we run a knowledge economy effectively when our main commodity is so difficult to supply, acquire, retain, and apply?

The pressure on modern learners

We expect our employees to be flexible, adaptable, and agile.  The reality is that they’re mostly overwhelmed. In the fast-paced modern workplace they’re expected to operate more efficiently, any time anywhere, with little downtime while being bombarded with information from multiple sources on multiple devices.  

It’s no surprise then that employees in turn become impatient with training that is inflexible and removed from the point of need.  They look instead to Google, YouTube, or wikis in search of fast, accessible responses to immediate needs. The Meet the Modern Learner survey found that 70% of employees surveyed use search engines to acquire the knowledge they required.

Employees’ tacit recognition that they need more knowledge is in part driven by the increased complexity of their jobs.  Consider the current regulatory environment with the burden it places on employees to work compliantly.  Consider too the complexity of the products companies are selling, whether they’re financial or technical.  It’s no wonder the same Modern Learner survey found that a whopping 75% of respondents reported feeling stressed at work.

A modern learning solution

It’s been estimated that the modern employee has just 1% of their weekly working time is available for training and development.  That’s about 25 minutes a week on average. If your organisation is still offering courses that last 3 hours, you can see the problem.

It’s not that employees don’t appreciate the need for training, it’s that they require it to be faster, more targeted, and personalised, and at a point where they really need it, in the workflow.  They want to speed of a Google search response, but one that gives them the right solution, not just a long list of possible answers.

Here’s where the microlearning approach can make a difference.

The appeal of microlearning

In essence, microlearning is about distilling key information and knowledge into easily-digestible, bite-size chunks.  The chunks contain small snippets of learning, no longer than about 3 or 5 minutes duration, that focus on vital teaching points and critical learning moments.  

Nuggets of microlearning can be made available across devices from desktop PCs to mobile phones and they’re always available and easily updatable.  Microlearning provides resources at the point of need, in the working environment – and that doesn’t just mean at the desk. It’s ideal for employees who are constantly on the go and have only brief moments in their working day when they have time to learn something new or refresh their memory.

Microlearning in practice

Microlearning resources can be anything from simple text, an activity, a piece of video, some refresher questions or even a tweet or blog.  They are accessible through web apps or browsers. They’re always available, but they can be intentionally pushed to employees by using the power of AI recommender systems.  Notifications alert learners to what they need to do and when they need to do it. The learner can select a time in which to complete a chunk of learning but can’t indefinitely postpone it.

Microlearning also can be used for repetition of key points and spaced practice.  Research into cognitive science has shown that while we have limited capacity to store and recall information from any given piece of learning, we can employ strategies like repetition and reinforcement to build memory and acquire knowledge.  

For example, microlearning allows us to practise something repeatedly over time to fasten it in our memory.  We can strengthen memory further by forcing our brain to recall information by what’s called retrieval practice.  We can build learner confidence by providing assessments which encourage employees to recognise and acknowledge what they know, rather than emphasise what they don’t.

Where microlearning can make a difference

The big appeal of microlearning is that it’s a targeted intervention, rather then a one-size-fits-all learning approach.  Pieces of learning can be assigned to specific job roles. Rather than take a whole cohort of employees into a training room or sit them down in front of a bank of PCs for a whole hour or more, microlearning is in place for employees to do their jobs better while they’re working.

Microlearning can be effective in deepening product knowledge amongst sales staff.  They have the response to customer queries at their fingertips. Customer support staff have easy access to knowledge that will help them respond to difficult customer queries on complex service products.  Warehouse staff can brush up on an aspect of Health and Safety compliance while waiting for the next delivery.

Putting microlearning into action

To provide a microlearning solution, you need to re-configure and re-design your training.  It’s not sufficient just to slice up your existing courses. You need to move L&D closer to the workflow to identify those microlearning moments and provide the appropriate resources.  Adaptive content development tools, like Learning Pool’s Adapt Builder, have a variety of features that can deliver content in engaging, attention-grabbing ways that modern learners respond to.

But you can also use your microlearning resources to support employee performance.  Introducing a learning chatbot, like Learning Pool’s Otto, into the mix means that you’re not only pushing learning at employees according to the job tasks, but you’re also allowing them to pull information when they have a specific learning need.

Plugging knowledge gaps

This is another potential benefit of employing a microlearning strategy.  If you allow learners to pull information from a knowledge bank, you can track their requests.  The data you gather from these interactions will tell you how your resources are being used and, perhaps more importantly, where resources are lacking.  If your customer support staff are repeatedly requesting information and not finding it, you know your organisation has a significant knowledge gap.

In the past that may have meant revising elements in a course.  In the world of microlearning plugging that knowledge gap can mean introducing a short piece of text, a quick Q&A or a snippet of video to cover a particular learning point.

Locating microlearning with AI’s assistance means that the learning taking place is learning that is shared within the broader organisation.  L&D and HR, for example, can see how their training resources are actually being used and can design their resources for real use cases.

A demand for knowledge

The theory of producing small chunks of learning has been around for a long time: think of learning objects of the usable and reusable kind, nano-learning and learning nuggets.  But those were largely supply-side theories. Now we’re seeing the demand for small, agile, adaptable resources that create an easily-accessible repository of knowledge.

Microlearning helps moves learning into the workflow.  It can utilise the adaptive, interactive, and collaborative features of modern AI-driven technology and better satisfy learner demands.

In short, microlearning can address the need to create knowledge-rich employees and support them in a time-poor working environment.  

About the author

Paul Healy has worked in the learning industry since 2003 in sales, learning consultancy, and programme management. He specialises in assisting companies with change management and innovation agendas.

artificial intelligence
performance support
modern workplace
micro learning
modern learner

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