Could micro-learning make employees more engaged?

Disengaged employees, an always-on culture and the constant need to update skills during a period of technological upheaval; there are many challenges facing learning and development (L&D) professionals. With employees increasingly seeking personalised, digital learning, it is no surprise to see a trend towards micro-learning. But is packaging training programmes into bespoke, bite-sized chunks really the best way to upskill a workforce?

Address the challenges they face and concerns they have, rather than just dumping content on them

Micro-learning – on-demand, single outcome-focused training often delivered through digital formats – is on the rise. More measurable than day-long training programmes and more cost effective than allowing employees time away from their desks, micro-learning is seen as a way of improving employee engagement and skills in an era of constant disruption.

Micro-learning puts L&D in employees’ hands

According to Gallup’s 2018 State of the Global Workforce report, just 15 per cent of employees worldwide are actively engaged in their jobs, costing an estimated $7 trillion in lost revenue annually.

The intended outcomes of micro-learning certainly seem to match what employees want. A recent report by global learning consultancy Kineo examined the learning intentions of 8,000 employees across 13 different industries. It found a huge gap between the quality of training offered and the needs of employees. Of those surveyed, 85 per cent said they struggled to access training in their workplace, with only 16 per cent of employees finding the learning programmes offered by their employers effective.

To combat this, employees wanted to take L&D into their own hands. Some 71 per cent wanted to choose when and where to undertake their own training, 68 per cent believed they would pick up skills faster if they had more control over their learning and 66 per cent had opted to invest in self-training outside the workplace.

“Only by letting employees learn on their own terms, fitted around their schedules, will organisations enable them to train in a way that is in sync with the needs of business,” argues John Yates, director of corporate learning at City & Guilds Group, of which Kineo is a member.

“A more personalised, blended learning approach, delivered at the point of need, is critical if employers want to build an engaged and skilled workforce that’s fit for the future, and prevent investment from going to waste.”

Learning objectives vs learning strategies

For many organisations, the trend towards micro-learning is irreversible. The new cohort of generation Z employees has grown up utilising digital content for learning – think YouTube, online forums and social media – and are used to learning small amounts of information in short bursts, as well as filtering through various sources of information. In doing so, they become used to learning at their own pace, in their own way.

For L&D leaders, the challenge of how to ensure these learning desires marry with the needs of the business, and are measurable, remain.

It’s important to focus on learning outcomes, rather than different types of learning methods, says Kim Edwards, senior manager of talent and leadership development at Getty Images.

“I’m not keen on the term ‘micro-learning’, as I’m not sure distinctions between different methods of learning is helpful. The assimilation and application of knowledge should always be made as easy as possible, which means structuring it in small, short modules that are more approachable and memorable, and therefore more likely to be put into practice,” says Ms Edwards.

She believes that company culture plays a huge part in encouraging positive attitudes towards learning. Getty Images takes a blended learning approach to training, offering programmes both online and face to face. It also encourages each employee to consider an annual personal development goal and gives all staff access to an online on-demand learning platform, which can be used via mobile and when working from home.

Ms Edwards says Getty Images is exploring how social learning can be better utilised in the business, through both peer-to-peer learning and user-generated content from in-house experts.

“We’re looking at allowing employees to upload their own content, like short video recordings, to a platform where it can be assessed and shared. This will help us better prove the effectiveness of the training, knowledge application and behavioural change, but also enables more sharing of experiences,” she says.

Are our attention spans really getting shorter?

Not all L&D professionals are convinced that the trend towards micro-learning is inevitable or even desirable.

Nick Shackleton-Jones, director of learning and performance innovation at PA Consulting, believes the idea that we have shorter attention spans and need more bite-sized, micro-learning content is fundamentally wrong.

“Attention spans haven’t significantly reduced; people still binge-watch Netflix series. But there is so much more out there to compete for our attention,” he says.

“When employees say ‘I don’t have time for training’, what they really mean is ‘your training is a waste of time to me’. They always have time to Google a problem,” adds Mr Shackleton-Jones.

He believes the danger of micro-learning is that employers focus too much on the structure and ease of use of training programmes and not enough on the actual content.

“The key to engaging employees in training is to address the challenges they actually face and concerns they have, rather than just dumping content on them. Training teams need to invest more time in actually understanding their audiences,” he insists.

This is a view shared by James Cory-Wright, head of learning design at Kineo, who wants training professionals to “abandon formal learning structures”.

“Think of training as information and break it down into its most granular form. Then, present it as easily, clearly and accessibly as possible, in as many formats as possible so employees can access it on any device or at any time. In other words, deliver learning content in the same way it is accessed outside the workplace,” he advises.

Micro-learning might be the most accessible, personalised way for employees to learn new skills in the digital era. But without careful consideration of the content created and the outcomes required, it won’t improve engagement. As ever, success lies in truly understanding your people.