Making microlearning sustainable on the frontlines

Tell me if this cycle sounds familiar: You get something new and exciting, whether it’s the latest kitchen gadget, a new exercise regime or a new LMS. At first, everyone’s cooking/exercising/logging in at every chance they get. Then, little by little, the hype fades. The kitchen gadget gets tucked away in a back cabinet, the running shoes gather dust, the LMS goes weeks without a login.

How do you make sure your frontline microlearning initiative doesn’t meet the same fate? 

Microlearning is an approach to training that delivers content in short, focused bites. Its  success depends on sustained, ongoing learning to reinforce and build knowledge over time. So it’s worth thinking about how you’ll overcome the fatigue factor and make microlearning really stick. 

Gamification is not the whole story

From your Fitbit congratulating you on 10,000 steps to your to-do list turning green when you complete your task, gamification is everywhere in our daily lives. While points, leaderboards, badges, gameplay and contests can all be used to grow adoption and boost motivation, they’re only part of the equation. 

Research has shown that gamification works best when people want to achieve the goals they’re gamifying.

Katy Milkman studies this, and wrote about it in her recent book How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.

“Gamification seems to work when it helps people achieve the goals they want to reach anyway by making the process of goal achievement more exciting. […] This latest science suggests it makes lots of sense for apps to continue gamifying our achievements, so long as they’re promoting goals we’re intrinsically eager to reach.”

That brings us to our first and most important component of a sustainable microlearning strategy. 

Make sure your training solves real problems

The minute training feels like busywork or checking a box, people start to disengage. 

On the other hand, if training taps into employees’ intrinsic desire to get better at their jobs, deliver better service or support to customers, smash quota, stay safe or any other goal, it’s far more likely to succeed. 

That’s why it’s critical to develop training that’s relevant, fresh and focused on solving real-world problems that employees actually encounter on the job.

Jamie Furey, VP of Talent Management, Learning and Diversity at Lowe’s, recently led her team in making the shift from event-based training to microlearning in the flow of work. They worked closely with business units to develop unique content for each department in the store.

“We’ve really coupled the two together so only do you have a new compelling platform to experience training on, but we are also giving you a way to elevate your performance because we have brand new content that’s bite-sized, it’s visual, it’s different, it’s easy to consume. And so those two together have made for an incredible experience for our associates,” said Furey. 

When training actually helps associates get better at their job in tangible ways, they see the value. And that’s more powerful than any prize. 

Deliver fun, personalized microlearning on a platform they love to use.

Make microlearning a habit 

Of course, you can’t just create great content and hope people will flock to the platform to learn. Luckily, the field of behavioral science gives us plenty of tricks to help turn one great learning experience into an ongoing learning habit. 

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, lays out four key rules for establishing long-lasting habits

1. Make it obvious. To make learning obvious for frontline employees, it has to fit in their day. That means it must be quick and accessible on the devices they’re already using, like handhelds, POS systems and tablets. Another way to make learning obvious is by ‘habit-stacking,’ adding a new habit onto an existing one. For example, employees could add a 3-5 minute training session to their routine of clocking in and starting a shift—and just like that, it’s embedded in their day.

2. Make it attractive. This is where those gamification elements come in. You can make learning attractive by pairing it with an action employees enjoy (for example, playing a quick mobile game) or following up an achievement with an instant reward (like a digital confetti burst or a badge). 

3. Make it easy. You can reduce the friction involved with learning by making it super easy to access, log in and see what training needs to be done for the day. When there’s no guesswork, employees can get in, train and get on with their day.

4. Make it satisfying. We get satisfaction from seeing progress. Accumulating points, rising up the leaderboard, finishing up a learning path—these are all ways to build an immediate sense of satisfaction into the learning experience. 

Another important aspect of habit formation? The social element. 

As Clear writes, “We tend to adopt habits that are praised and approved of by our culture because we have a strong desire to fit in and belong to the tribe.”

When leaders throughout the company talk about the value of training and learning and embed it into coaching and performance reviews, that creates the social conditions to make learning a habit. Leaderboards and competitions can also help reinforce and foster that, by building community and positive peer pressure around training.

“People get really excited about training when other people notice that they’re doing it. When their boss asks them how it’s going… When they start seeing themselves get rewarded for doing their training… When they see that they’re actually getting a bit better at their job and their boss is noticing it too,” Furey said. “Those are key pieces of a learning culture.”

Explore more science-backed techniques to make microlearning stick with The Ultimate Guide to Microlearning.


Lindsay Windover-Kroes has spent her career writing in the tech and education sectors. She’s passionate about helping others do their best work, from the head office to the frontlines.

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Let’s work together to drive frontline performance in all the right ways.