What is Microlearning and Why Care About It?

Humpback whales are “filter feeders,” collecting their prey by swimming forward with their mouths wide open. Although they do eat and require larger prey such as sardines, anchovies, salmon, haddock, and other sea life, it is incredible that a creature 12–16 meters in length and weighing 25–30 metric tons can survive mostly on krill and other zooplankton—creatures that are practically microscopic. So, what does this have to do with microlearning? Humpback whales feed their bodies in the same way that we should be feeding our minds. Now that you see where I am going. Let me paint you the big picture of the microlearning methodology.

The Salmon

You attend a ½-day or 1-day workshop on any given subject. This is an experience, usually live and in-person, which defines and models the desired behavior and enables participants to practice and draw a connection to their everyday work life. Such learning events often end with an action plan that focuses on how to continue to execute upon this newfound knowledge. Many learning experts call this an “encoding event. Research shows that for most people, an encoding event can only sustain the strategies and models people have learned for a short period of time. Life gets in the way. Email, a new boss, the kids’ homework, illness, transportation concerns, the cost of living, and so on all take attention away from applying new learning long term.

The Sardine

In the 2019 LinkedIn Learning Report, we learned what we already knew: People really want social learning. 71% of Gen-Z, 69% of Millennials, 56% of Gen-X, and 54% of Boomers want a more collaborative learning experience. Cohorts are in. We get it. These groups are the perfect vehicle for a “retrieval event,” something that is usually established in the encoding event, but not always. Retrieval events refresh or “retrieve” prior learnings. Many researchers are convinced that retrieval events can produce more-powerful learning activity than the original encoding event, but the former isn’t possible without the latter. Retrieval events come in many forms: informal and in-person “lunch-and-learns,” synchronous 60-minute facilitated webinars, post-workshop surveys or assignments, even groupware like Google docs that is asynchronous in nature and allows everyone to weigh in on their success (or lack thereof). All of these require between 10 and 60 minutes and are meant to sustain and track people’s progress.

The Plankton

Most L&D professionals know that the Salmon (the encoding event) and the Sardine (the retrieval event) are proven learning models to follow. We know they work. We also know that lifelong learners go a step further. They find a way through both technology and their everyday habits to sprinkle bits of learning throughout their day. Here are some ways individuals and companies are bringing microlearning to the workday:

  1. Practice mindfulness.

Smart learners pay attention and are “in the moment.” For example, if you are meeting with the legal department to discuss a new licensing contract, you can leverage that meeting by being present and internalizing the legal strategies and tactics the subject-matter experts in front of you are using. Ask smart questions. Let them know you care. And don’t forget that when you are the SME, you can take away great learnings from others’ questions, opinions, and inquiries from the lifelong learners in the room. Indeed, the student becomes the teacher.

  1. Use a chat interface.

If your company isn’t already using a chat interface (such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, Telegram, etc.), consider doing so. This is a masterful way for colleagues, cohorts, departments, divisions, or entire companies to share bite-sized learning. More-advanced applications include creating a learning channel or content-specific channel. One can even enable “learning bots” that deliver content snippets on a timed or random basis.

  1. Schedule learning moments.

Put a daily, recurring 3–10-minute “learning moment” in your calendar. Whether you are trying to improve your ability to lead others strategically, coach direct reports, or code in a new software language, make sure you schedule time to do just that. If we don’t make the time in our schedules, we all know that the days, weeks, and years will get away from us.

The next time you see one of our Humpback friends breach the great divide between their world and ours,  be sure to take in the grandeur of the moment—but also remember that these giants of the deep can’t survive without the Salmon, the Sardine, and the Plankton. To learn more about how CMOE can help your business with its learning and development initiatives, contact us any time or visit us on the web.

About the Author

Mark Parkinson

Mark Parkinson is a Vice President at CMOE, overseeing marketing and sales of leadership, employee, and organizational development projects. He also provides consulting and facilitation services. He has expertise in how social media trends, corporate KPIs, and mobile technology affect the workforce, especially from a generational point of view. Mark is driven by the opportunity to enable good managers to become great leaders.

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