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Q&A With Authors of What Works in Talent Development: Designing Microlearning

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The following is a Q&A with Carla Torgerson and Sue Iannone, the authors of What Works in Talent Development: Designing Microlearning, an ATD book about the four main uses for microlearning: preparation before a learning event, follow-up to support a learning event, stand-alone training, and performance support.

What, from your experiences in L&D, prompted you to write this book?

Carla: I’ve been an instructional designer for more than 15 years, working for large companies and consulting firms across a wide variety of industries. Interested in the latest trends in instructional design and learning technology, I was working in interactive e-learning before most people knew what e-learning was. I worked at one of the first mobile learning firms in the United States, and when people first started talking about microlearning, I started exploring how it could be used. I’ve now designed microlearning content for several organizations around topics as diverse as sales, cybersecurity, and healthcare. I wrote this book because I wanted to share what I had learned about microlearning and how to use it effectively with other workplace learning practitioners.

Sue: Microlearning is something I was building years ago as a corporate trainer in the pharmaceutical industry. We just didn’t call it microlearning back then. I had a situation where salespeople needed to learn how to handle customer objections. While we had provided this knowledge in a classroom setting, back in the field there were objections that didn’t arise as often as others, and there were new ones that cropped up.

I would often receive phone calls from salespeople requesting guidance. I thought, “What can I do to help them? Can I create a tool with information that is quick to read, easy to learn, and in a format that works for salespeople who work out of their cars?” The answer was “Yes!” I designed one-page objection handlers, similar in style to infographics but with a bit more text. A salesperson could read it while in their car before a call, learn the information needed to address their customer’s concern, and get right back to selling. These objection handlers were microlearning in its earliest form, and the salespeople loved them. In more recent years, I’ve become an advocate for building training that is straight to the point and only focused on what the learner needs to do their job well. When I met Carla and saw her work in microlearning, I recognized the power of our collective knowledge and experiences, and we could help other learning professionals who have struggled with building microlearning for the learners that they serve.

What is microlearning?

Carla: Microlearning is short-form instructional content that is just long enough to give learners what they need at that moment and get on with their work. Research from Josh Bersin shows that the average worker in the United States spends just one percent of their workweek on training and development. And of course, that’s highly distributed during the day. If you got to the end of Friday afternoon and had 24 minutes with nothing to do, what would you do? Would you take an e-learning course? Of course not. You’d leave early for the weekend. The point here is that workers have limited time for training, and it comes in short bursts distributed throughout the day.

As I have worked in microlearning, I discovered that people broadly use the term “microlearning,” and it makes it hard for practitioners to compare approaches. It is much easier if you consider four main ways microlearning can be used: preparation before a learning event; follow-up to support a learning event; stand-alone training; and performance support. In workplace learning, you’ll find that depending on the use, the learning content will last anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. But it’s less about the seat time and more about giving the learner just what they need to help them become more effective at work while providing it in short pieces that they can fit into their busy day.

How is microlearning used in workplaces today?

Sue: There are several ways we see microlearning being incorporated into the workplace. The most successful learning professionals don’t use microlearning for everything—they target microlearning for a specific and discrete learning or performance need. Carla mentioned the four main ways microlearning can be used. An example of preparation before a learning event for new hires could be an infographic that illustrates the company’s corporate values. A simple email that reviews key knowledge covered for a specific job task is follow-up to support a learning event. We’ve developed a five-minute interactive e-learning module on new corporate cybersecurity guidelines implemented as stand-alone training. Overall, I would say that performance support tends to be the most popular use—for example, a job aid provided to employees to reference when completing a task that isn’t tackled often.

What are some of the challenges of using microlearning?

Carla: Interestingly, the biggest challenge of using microlearning is the thing microlearning is supposed to address: time. I’ve seen cases where the training team developed modules that would all take just five minutes or less to consume. Since the modules were short, it was easy for the employees to say, “It’s just five minutes; I’ll do it later,” and not make it a priority. The key here is that we need to find ways to help employees make the training a priority among all their other priorities. This is often done by either having the training be critical to doing a job task or setting deadlines or expectations around how the content will be consumed.

The other challenge is that learning professionals can get too focused on the seat time of what they create. The microlearning module must meet a need for the learner; otherwise it’s a waste of time, even if it’s just five minutes. Have you ever been watching a video on LinkedIn, YouTube, or Facebook, and even though it was just a few minutes long, part way through you thought to yourself, “This is a waste of my time,” and stopped watching? Of course—we all have! As adults, we are always assessing how our most precious commodity— time—is used, and instructional designers need to remember that.

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What are the biggest myths about the use of microlearning today?

Carla: The biggest myth I hear is that because the learning content is shorter, we can produce it faster. While it’s true that you can create a five-minute video faster than a 60-minute one, it will take the same amount of time to create a library of 12 five-minute videos as it will to create one 60 minute video. In addition, you still need a plan to ensure the learning is educationally sound. We don’t advocate for “analysis paralysis,” but you need to understand the performance need and learning objectives and consider how to effectively teach the content.

Another myth is that microlearning is only videos. We are all familiar with this modality from LinkedIn and other social platforms, but particularly in formal learning settings in the workplace, interactive e-learning, short PDFs, or even infographics and podcasts can also be used to train employees. I recently worked on a project where we wanted to teach pharmaceutical sales reps about how the U.S. healthcare system works. U.S. healthcare is confusing! The content was relatively complex, but we purposely wanted to stay at a high level. We created a solution that was made entirely of infographics, and we broke the content into sections so each segment had three to five infographics. This was a great way to keep the information high-level and easy to understand and to provide a good reference piece. Ultimately, we need to think about the learner’s use case to know what will meet the their needs best.

Sue: I often hear that microlearning is just for millennials. I can’t help but roll my eyes when I hear this. We are all modern learners—distracted by this face-paced world and short attention spans, juggling multiple devices, and trying to keep up with the demands of our jobs. Microlearning is one tactic to address a performance need regardless of your age. My nine-year-old used flashcards to learn multiplication. At the same time, the higher up you go in an organization, the more potential value microlearning could deliver for the learner and the organization. Think about a senior executive, who is not likely to be a millennial, has even less time for training, and needs to learn quickly to continue to operate effectively in their role.

Additionally, that person is more highly paid than junior employees. You’ll want to focus that executive’s time on their operational duties as much as possible. I remember a project we did where we needed to close knowledge gaps for the general managers of a large biotech company. They didn’t have the time to spend a week in training. We developed mini podcasts to help them learn about customer perspectives which they had been missing. The podcasts ranged in length from two to seven minutes and quickly provided targeted insights recorded from actual customers. And for the record, I am not a millennial, and I love being on the receiving end of microlearning!

What are some tips for designing effective microlearning?

Carla: My biggest tip is to break your content down into a single learning objective—the smallest, discrete piece of learning that can be created and still provide value. When designing live classes, instructional designers often focus on the terminal objectives or the big picture, but when we go micro, we need to focus on the enabling objectives, the specific skills that are needed to address that big picture. For example, I am right now working on a project to teach pharmaceutical sales reps about ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. There is a lot of complex clinical knowledge to learn, but we looked at how to break it down to the most discrete pieces of content, such as the definition of motor neurons and an understanding of the upper motor neuron symptoms of ALS and the lower motor neuron symptoms of ALS, and so on.

Another tip is to ask yourself if you’re effectively using the learner’s time. Even a piece of learning that is five minutes long can be a waste of time if it drones on or if it doesn’t give the depth that the learner really needs.

How do you evaluate a microlearning effort?

Sue: This is one of the more challenging areas to tackle for many learning professionals, whether it is microlearning or another training effort. Every organization’s situation is different. In one case, you may not have the right tools to capture the data you need. Or, you may not have access to the right data to really understand if your microlearning was successful. I also believe that as learning professionals, our knee-jerk reaction to measurement and evaluation is sometimes a negative one because it isn’t perceived as a fun task. I know it wasn’t always fun for me. But I started to get excited about evaluation when I could show business impact and realized that it elevated my credibility with my stakeholders. I was no longer viewed as just the training lady but as the performance consultant.

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The good news is we wrote a whole chapter just on this subject to demystify evaluating the success of microlearning. The simple answer is to start by thinking about the effect you expect to see as a result of implementing a microlearning resource. What would success look like? Is it reducing errors during a specific step of operating a piece of equipment, or maybe identifying a new customer type and buying needs? Then, consider what kind of metrics you could collect given the format you chose. For example, tracking the number of times your microlearning was downloaded and viewed can be helpful—you know that the learners completed it. But the real power is when you can show business impact, such as an observable change in behavior back on the job. This could be captured through manager surveys or a report that shows reduced errors on the manufacturing line.

Does it cost more (or less) to use microlearning instead of more traditional e-learning?

Sue: It generally takes just as much time to create a piece of microlearning as a similar length of any other form of learning. If the scope of the learning is the same, then the cost likely will be too. For example, we find some of our clients think it will cost less to develop a “microlearning solution” than a 30-minute e-learning module, but then they realize they need six five-minute e-learning modules to achieve their objectives. It’s still 30 minutes of learning content, so it costs about the same as that one 30-minute e-learning module.

However, savings can come if you are able to determine content that doesn’t need to be covered. You save your designer’s time and your learner’s time. Also, if you use microlearning to create spacing and repetition that makes the learning “stick” better, or you create content that’s available just in time when the learner needs it, then the training will be more effective. This is cheaper in the long run because you won’t need to train those topics again in the future.

What about the future? How do you think microlearning will look in workplace training five years from now?

Carla: I used to think that microlearning was an industry buzz word that would disappear as quickly as it came. But microlearning has stuck because it is founded in good practices that we’ve all been doing for decades, and it just makes sense for us and our learners. As a result, I predict microlearning will be in heavy use, and people will use it to improve their skills more efficiently and effectively than ever before.

As technologies like xAPI and LXPs gain more traction, we’ll be able to measure use of learning materials better and tie that use to performance. We’ll also be creating learning pathways that are unique to each person, and automatically modified based on that assessment data. Workplace learning will be increasingly customized and personalized. I think that every learning professional who is responsible for designing learning will need to include microlearning as one of the go-to tools in their toolbox. Why? Our learners are demanding it, and it makes sense to give them exactly what they need, when they need it, so they can get back to work.

About ATD and ATD Press

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is the world’s largest association dedicated to those who develop talent in organizations. ATD’s members come from more than 120 countries and work in public and private organizations in every industry sector. ATD Press publications are written by industry thought leaders and offer anyone who works with adult learners the best practices, academic theory, and guidance necessary to move the profession forward. For more information, visit td.org/books.

Designing Microlearning
ISBN: 978-1-950496-12-9 | 240 Pages | Paperback

td.org/books/designing-microlearning
To order books from ATD Press, call 800.628.2783.

To schedule an interview with Carla Torgerson or Sue Iannone, please contact Kay Hechler, ATD Press senior marketing manager, at khechler@td.org or 703.683.8178.

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