Three emerging trends that will change everything.

If the past predicts the future, soft skills e-learning is on a bleak path. Will we continue to see embarrassingly low utilization rates? Negative ROIs? Unhappy end users? Frustrated learning professionals who can't crack the code on technology-enabled training in management, leadership, interpersonal communication, and sales?

The good news is that we're seeing rays of hope. And they're lighting a new path. But going down that path won't be easy because it requires producers, and providers, of soft skills e-learning to adopt a new paradigm.

Evolution of e-learning

To understand the "new" e-learning, and the excitement it brings to soft skills training, we need to understand where e-learning has been. Let's examine what went wrong with soft skills e-learning. We've seen three waves.

The first wave was the age of computer-based training, which was born in the mid-1960s. It was mostly techies talking to techies about techie stuff on mainframes. Almost nobody ever saw early CBT.

The second wave was the age of instructional design. In the early 1980s, instructional designers who were skilled at producing instructor-led training, books, manuals, and courseware now had an exciting new medium: the personal computer. CBT went mainstream. Initially it was still mostly algorithmic training in hard skills areas. But in the 1980s and 1990s, we started seeing soft skills training delivered initially via CD-ROM and later over the web.

In 1999, investors poured $800 million into self-paced e-learning. Aspiring entrepreneurs hyperventilated that technology-enabled learning could replace humans in training, giving learners control over their own development and reducing costs dramatically.

They were wrong. E-learning, particularly soft skills e-learning, bombed. A Masie/ASTD study in 2004 showed that for nonmandatory training on enterprise e-learning platforms, only 32 percent of users ever logged in.

So what happened? Some experts suggested learners weren't ready for e-learning. Not so. E-learning developers weren't ready for it. They were using legacy instructional design to create modules that were long, boring, clunky, and at times downright irritating.

The third wave of the e-learning revolution is the age of information design, which began roughly in 2010. Because of it, e-learning has been getting better, and investment increased fourfold to $400 million from 2010 to 2012.

Design for the nonlinear mind

Information design is the art of creating content that engages people. It's a partner to instructional design, not an adversary.

Two questions drive information design: First, "What's my medium?" Marshall McLuhan said famously, "The medium is the message." That is, the medium is more influential than the content it carries.

An e-learning module is essentially a video, a medium that operates under a different set of rules from traditional learning methods. If you're designing an e-learning module and you don't realize you're creating a video, you will fail.

To the second question, "Who's my audience?" the answer isn't "a sales rep" or "an HR executive." The answer is, "a learner watching a video on an electronic device."

In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr makes the case that the Internet, particularly search engines, has rewired our brains. He claims that the information design model from the Gutenberg printing press until the Internet was pretty constant—information-delivery vehicles, such as books, presented information in a way that was linear, logical, and complete.

Carr cites research showing that when we watch a video on the Internet, we want the exact opposite of that. One study, conducted by the consultancy nGenrea, found that young professionals "don't necessarily read a page from left to right and from top to bottom. They might instead skip around, scanning for pertinent information of interest."

The nonlinear mind of the digital age wants "information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts," says Carr.

Looking back on the age of instructional design, from 1980 until 2010 or so, the reason e-learning performed so badly is because "legacy" e-learning developers had an impossible task. Not only were they creating content for a new learner whose brain was wired differently, but they also were creating content in the medium of choice for the digital native, online video, which had its own new set of rules.

Today we understand that soft skills e-learning is video. The medium is the message, and we need to play by its rules, marrying smart "information design" principles with time-tested instructional design principles. We're now seeing three emerging information design trends that will engage modern learners and help their managers coach them more effectively: rapid learning, single-concept learning, and e-learning as a coaching tool.

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Rapid learning

Rapid learning, or bite-size learning, is short-form e-learning for today's short-attention-span workforce. Most learning professionals believe short modules are best for many reasons—higher utilization, less time off the job, a more positive attitude toward training, and higher manager engagement. A 2014 survey from the Rapid Learning Institute showed that 90 percent of learning professionals said providing more short-form e-learning was either a high or medium priority.

One of the first things we discovered when we launched our bite-size learning platform in 2009 was that managers were using short learning modules to kick-start meetings. They'd have participants watch an eight-minute module on their own before the meeting. Then they'd watch it together at the start of the meeting and follow up with a 30-minute discussion about the content, often including role play. Try to imagine doing that with a 60-minute e-learning module. A simple design decision—make it short rather than long—is potentially transformational.

Single-concept learning

We've all experienced "fire hose" training, where a trainer presents massive amounts of information in one event. And we've all viewed long e-learning modules. This cramming approach is efficient, but the research is more than conclusive—it creates cognitive noise and results in low knowledge retention.

No wonder we're seeing a surge of interest in bite-size learning, particularly chunking and learning compression. Chunkers and learning compressors have good intentions, but their approach often is still about starting with massive amounts of information and then figuring out how to reduce it and make it more digestible.

Single-concept learning, or "thin slicing," takes the opposite approach—it starts with a very small learning insight.

Thin slicing is a term used in psychology to describe how our brains can intuitively spot narrow windows of experience, and with very limited information draw powerful and surprisingly accurate conclusions. This is the topic of Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink.

Applied to learning, thin slicing is about isolating a single learning concept and, with very limited information, delivering a powerful impact. Thin slicing says, "Let me deliver one narrow concept, create one behavior change, and achieve one desired outcome."

Here's an example of single-concept learning that might help a manager who, say, needs to fire an employee who's a high risk to sue. A thin-slicing approach starts by isolating the one factor that's most likely to trigger a wrongful dismissal lawsuit. Legal experts will tell you that people don't sue because they're right; they sue because they're angry. And the biggest reason people get angry is that they're surprised.

A clear strategy flows from that simple concept: Document the poor performance, give repeated warnings, and make sure that when termination day arrives, the person pretty much expects it. A legacy approach would include that same advice, but it would likely get lost in a fog of other information, and it wouldn't be framed by that single thin slice of insight—"Make sure the person isn't surprised."

E-learning as a coaching tool

After it became clear in the early 2000s that the initial wave of e-learning had failed, we saw a surge of interest in blended learning: combining self-directed e-learning with other learning methods, such as instructor-led training or managerial coaching. Managerial follow-up on instructor-led training or e-learning enables learners to get the message through multiple neural pathways and is, thus, more effective.

But coaching won't happen if managers continue to think it's too difficult. For most managers, training and developing people is outside their comfort zone and too time-consuming. They tend to frame talent development through a wide lens, as in "I've got to teach my managers to lead" or "my sales reps to sell." Those tasks seem overwhelming and managers tend to end up doing nothing.

Technology-enabled, single-concept learning that emphasizes coaching rather than training is the answer. If managers can frame talent development through a narrow lens, as in "I'm going to train my managers to give positive feedback" or "train my sales reps to handle the first 20 seconds of a cold call," the task seems doable.

Blended learning that provides single-concept learning tools is a potential game changer when it comes to manager involvement in training. With bite-size, single-concept learning, the goal is narrowly defined and unintimidating. Pre-event planning is minimal. The coaching event itself could be as little as six to 10 minutes. And follow-up is brief and consists entirely of coaching feedback.

Tasks that seem easy to do tend to get done. When managers engage in single-
concept learning, they achieve small victories. And as they accumulate small victories, they start building success momentum and develop a core competency as coaches.

Big breakthrough

The pull of the past is strong, but we're on the cusp of a paradigm shift in soft skills e-learning. Most learning professionals now realize that short form is better. They're acutely aware that multiconcept learning creates cognitive overload, making it tougher to get users to engage in e-learning, sustain their interest, and retain what they learned.

We now have viable models for short-form e-learning, and the recognition has set in that learning events don't have to present a broad range of concepts; you can learn important things in eight minutes.

E-learning's dirty little secret—poor utilization—is out, and if learning departments want to use e-learning, they're going to have to demonstrate higher engagement. The new e-learning is the path to an exciting breakthrough.