Micro-Learning: Changing the Way We Learn at Work

July 26, 2016

By Cara Pilgrim
“In today’s business environment, learning is an essential tool for engaging employees, attracting and retaining top talent, and developing long-term leadership for the company.” — Global Human Capital Trends 2016, Deloitte University Press, learning and development play such a critical role within an organization. So how do we tailor our learning initiatives to fit this new direction in learning?

In a study done by ATD (Association for Talent Development), research shows that companies dedicate approximately 30 hours of training per employee, per year. If you do the math, that boils down to just five minutes a day that is devoted to employee training. This isn’t much time considering learning and development play such a critical role within an organization. So how do we tailor our learning initiatives to fit this new direction in learning?

Technology’s Effect on Learning in the Workplace

The way we learn at work is shifting, which means we need to shift how we learn. If there are only a few minutes allotted for learning in a day, it is important to take full advantage of the time available. According to ATD, the internet and mobile devices are two critical factors of micro-learning. On average, we check our smartphones around 200 times a day, and thanks to technological advancements, we can access any type of information we need with the click of a button—and quickly. The habit of using technology has already been formed, so why not apply this to how we learn? That’s where micro-learning comes in.

“Technology allows us to rapidly deploy content by using micro-learning,” said Wendi Walker-Schmidt, former director of engagement solutions-learning at Inspirus. “We should be pushing to use technology that people are already using because it is a habit that’s already been formed.”

The main objective of learning in the workplace is to shape behavior, improve overall performance, and support organizational goals. Rather than presenting the material all at once, micro-learning takes the key parts of information and breaks it into smaller pieces of learning, also known as chunking. One small burst of learning at a time can help employees retain more information and in turn, apply that knowledge to the workplace. Only have a few minutes here and there? No problem. Micro-learning should take about five minutes at a time and can easily be blended into a workday. From values, leadership, and safety courses to job-specific training, demands for learning are constantly increasing, and micro-learning is a way to retain the information we need.

It’s About the Pull, Not the Push (But We Still Need the Push)  

Allowing employees to be in control of their own learning has a huge impact on the knowledge they absorb. Let the user decide what they want to learn, instead of pushing required content. Accessibility is key: Give options and allow employees to access learning programs when and where they want. Micro-learning is all about splitting up content into multiple modules that can be accessed at any time. We understand that this can vary when dealing with both salaried and non-salaried workers, but don’t worry, we’ll get to compensation in another blog post.

“Let employees take charge of their own learning. Offering a variety of courses where people can pull down the ones that interest them rather than having things pushed to them is really going to increase their engagement,” said Walker-Schmidt.

Micro-learning Complements a Learning Management System (LMS)

Casual learning, a form of micro-learning, combines short bursts of content with interactive games and quizzes. Information can be reinforced through repetition and a game-based approach to increase retention and help move the knowledge from short-term to long-term memory.

Although micro-learning does not replace an LMS, it can help increase the effectiveness of learning programs and can be used to build pre- and post-learning skills. For instance, when learning CPR, the best method would be with an instructor in order to receive hands-on training. However, micro-learning can be used before and after the course to reinforce what was learned during the actual CPR class. As a component of an LMS, not a replacement, micro-learning can strengthen a learning culture and its programs.

Managing Cognitive Fatigue

We all need a break from the day-to-day routine sometimes, and that includes our minds too. Because micro-learning breaks important information into small chunks, employees are less likely to have cognitive fatigue or mental exhaustion. Cognitive fatigue can be caused by taking in too much information at once, making it hard to concentrate. Micro-learning solves this problem. Spending just a few minutes at a time on a specific chunk of learning can break up the monotonous act of studying content for hours. The hope is that after learning is enforced through repetition and practice, the information will soon come naturally, also known as automaticity. With automaticity, we have the ability to perform actions as an automatic response without having to think about them at a conscious level, decreasing the chances of cognitive fatigue.

So How Does Learning Relate to Employee Engagement?

Learning is one of the many components of employee engagement. The strength of an organization’s learning programs can make for a highly engaged company. Learning and development not only educate employees, but it keeps them engaged, and motivated and increase their work performance. Those side-effects of effective learning programs circle back to employee engagement, and organizations will see an increase in company performance and employee satisfaction. People who love where they work are going to stay where they work.

“We as humans have an intrinsic need and desire to learn,” said Walker-Schmidt. “It stimulates that part of our brain—it’s that lightbulb moment people have. I think the more lightbulb moments we can give, the more people will want to stay at their jobs.”