I hosted an interactive panel discussion on microlearning during the 2018 ATD International Conference and Expo in San Diego. Between the 4 panelists with considerable experience on the topic and the 400+ attendees, it’s safe to say that it was the BIGGEST microlearning discussion ever conducted. Participants submitted questions online, and we did our best to answer as many as possible during the session. We then published our responses to all 170 questions via LearnGeek. But there’s one question that stands out – because I hear it so often in conversations about microlearning …

Have you found some topics for which microlearning works especially well, and conversely, are there some topics where microlearning isn’t altogether as effective?

People quickly buy into the potential for microlearning when it comes to “hard skills,” such as safe lifting procedures or operating a cash register. A cloud of doubt seems to emerge for “soft skills,” topics like emotional intelligence and leadership. This isn’t particularly surprising. L&D has traditionally struggled to define and measure outcomes for soft skill training. Microlearning is focused on measurable business results. On the surface, it would appear that these two concepts don’t mesh. However, that’s not the case.

To explore why, let’s revisit the definition of microlearning…

Microlearning is an approach to training that delivers content in short, focused bites. To be effective, microlearning must fit naturally into the daily workflow, engage employees in voluntary participation, be based in brain science (how people actually learn), adapt continually to ingrain the knowledge employees need to be successful, and ultimately drive behaviors that impact specific business results.

Part of the challenge with soft skill training is that we tend to overlook pretty much every principle included in the definition of microlearning. We send people to multi-day group workshops. We engage them in one-and-done activities. And we almost never extend that learning experience back into the workplace. Frankly, microlearning is the exact opposite of how we typically approach soft skill challenges. And that’s the problem!

Now I’m not saying you can teach someone how to be an effective leader with a 3-minute video. They’re called “soft skills” because they are fundamentally difficult to learn. However, the principles of microlearning still apply. After all, learning is learning. Microlearning will not be your entire strategy when it comes to these topics, but it can be an important component and growing and sustaining these skills over the long term. In fact, approaching these challenges with a microlearning perspective will help you solve some of the problems you have always faced with soft skill training.

Let’s use leadership training as an example. How do companies support their managers today? Well, it varies wildly. An unfortunate number of organizations don’t provide any real support. People are promoted and expected to figure it out on the fly. Many organizations provide heavy front-loaded training to classrooms filled with new managers. Then, they’re expected to figure out how to apply a pile of new information on the job with little to no follow-up. A select number of companies offer more robust programs with everything from instructor-led sessions to mentoring to roundtable discussions. But even these heavily-administered activities tend to be few and far between due to managers’ considerable workloads. And, regardless of the depth and complexity of the training program, almost no one measures the impact of leadership training on business results.

Now let’s insert our microlearning principles. First, rather than tackle LEADERSHIP as a broad and rather nebulous concept, we would identify the specific behaviors that successful managers need to exhibit in order to solve meaningful business problems (ex: having a challenging conversation with a team member). We would then distill the fundamental knowledge required to execute these behaviors. Finally, we would determine how to best grow this knowledge across the management team in a personalized, adaptive way. This may include a blend of in-person and digital learning tactics, including discussion sessions, practice activities, reinforcement scenarios and on-demand resources. These tactics would be built into the busy schedule of the average manager and require minimal time removed from the operation. For example, a manager may be asked to answer 2 questions every day as a way to practice their skills through specific scenarios in just 5 minutes. And the entire experience would be designed for continuous measurement to ensure not just training completion, but also knowledge growth, behavior change and business results.

So YES, microlearning can be applied to soft skills. Don’t think of microlearning as your entire strategy for complex skill development. Rather, microlearning can strengthen your existing tactics while applying evidence-based principles to ensure knowledge transfer, long-term retention and measurable results.

JD Dillon

Author: JD Dillon

JD Dillon, the principal learning strategist at Axonify, has spent 15 years designing and implementing learning and performance strategies for respected global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company, Kaplan, Brambles, and AMC Theatres. With his practical approach and ability to integrate science, technology, storytelling, and pure common sense, JD delivers modern solutions that enable employees, improve organizational performance, and drive business results. In his current role with Axonify, JD works with an award-winning team to boost employee knowledge and performance for leading organizations through the application of modern learning practices and cutting-edge technology.

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