Why is L&D still hesitant about microlearning?

In microlearning by JD Dillon

L&D is still debating microlearning.

It’s real! It’s just hype.

It works! It’s utter nonsense.

People want it! They don’t even know what it is.

I get polarized responses when I ask L&D pros around the world about microlearning. Some praise the impact microlearning has already had in their businesses. Others sneer at the mention of the term and immediately dismiss the concept.

Honestly, why can’t we figure this one out as a community, take advantage of what is proven to work, dump the rest and move on to the next important conversation?

Well …

We’ve done a poor job defining it.

What is the industry standard definition of “microlearning.” It doesn’t exist, and that’s where the problem starts. As a profession, L&D doesn’t have a governing body or predominant professional organization. Therefore, we struggle to define our practices in consistent ways. For example, what’s the difference between “eLearning” and “digital learning?”

Of course, learning is a complex, contextual concept. What I do in my business to help people improve their performance will not match what you do, even if we’re applying the same concepts. However, how you apply a concept within your organization should add to it, not completely redefine it. L&D must demonstrate improved consistency in order to improve our business impact and gain professional credibility. Otherwise, everyone will keep doing their own thing, the wheel will get repeatedly recreated and the community will continue to fragment based on what each person believes does/not work.

BTW, I’m happy to donate my microlearning definition – learning that fits – to the industry to help solve this problem.

Vendors have added to the confusion.

Ask any L&D vendor if they “do microlearning.” They’re going to say “YES!” They’ll then redefine microlearning to match their product/service offering. In some cases, vendors have made tweaks to the stuff they sell to help L&D pros create and deliver shorter content. But that’s not really microlearning (according to my definition, which is now the standard as previously agreed upon).

Some vendors share great insights and proven practices. The majority publish junk marketing designed to sell a product/service. Vendors have time and resources to pump out “thought leadership” that looks credible but comes from people who have never actually worked in the profession. This adds noise to an already confusing conversation. L&D pros only have so much time to read up on the latest concepts. This makes it a lot harder to figure out what’s real and what’s hype.

Vendors should be continuously challenged to align their offerings with the profession’s broader understanding of concepts. They should be required to provide evidence of how their product/service has enabled L&D pros to successfully execute this concept in real life. Otherwise, their “thought leadership” should be dismissed outright.

We don’t share enough success stories.

L&D has plenty of “thought leaders” but not nearly enough real-world stories. This is probably true for most professions, and it’s a definite challenge in L&D. There are some great practical microlearning examples out there from folks like Diane Elkins and Shannon Tipton (and my team at Axonify). But too many conversations on this and other trending L&D topics focus on the simple stuff (basic theory) rather than the hard stuff (making it work). If we want stakeholders to buy into a new concept, we must provide evidence of how it can impact the business. We need more success stories.

Many L&D pros aren’t permitted to share their work due to internal restrictions. Plus, they have jobs to do and may not have a lot of extra time to speak, write, podcast, etc. L&D executives must look beyond their four walls and prioritize their community by finding opportunities to partner with professional organizations, such as ATD, the Learning Guild, and the LPI, to share meaningful stories. Vendors can also help by elevating their clients rather than themselves. They should do the heavy lifting for clients so they can easily share their experiences, including solution-agnostic practices, rather than taking the easy route of sending marketing and sales people to deliver sponsored industry presentations.

It’s more complicated than you’d think.

Microlearning is not like instructor-led training or virtual reality. It’s not a format option L&D pros can choose to apply for certain projects. The principles that make microlearning work, including learning science, contextual awareness and outcome-focused design, are bigger than the term itself. They should inform an organization’s entire learning and support strategy. That’s a much bigger change than just making training content shorter. But that’s what it takes to get long-term business value from microlearning.

L&D teams should leverage the microlearning conversation as an opportunity to reassess their overall approach to learning and support within the modern workplace. This includes everything from design processes and technology to measurement and team resources. Microlearning principles can help L&D embed learning as part of the day-to-day employee experience. It can make “learning in the flow of work” a reality. Microlearning is more than just a type of content. It’s a fundamental reimagination of how we help people do their best work.

Stakeholders still want all of the content covered.

Shorter training sounds like a good and bad idea to stakeholders. They want employees in the operation doing their jobs, not sitting on the sidelines completing training. At the same time, they want them to know all of the information because, in their eyes, comprehensive training is part of holding people accountable for their performance. We know people don’t learn this way, but this is how most people who don’t think about L&D stuff every day think learning works.

This is another reason microlearning cannot exist in a vacuum as a sometimes-applied L&D tactic. Stakeholders are going to expect that every word from the 300-slide PowerPoint deck is covered in the training but only provide 30 minutes for employees to complete it. Microlearning principles can help us balance these requirements while providing a better learning experience. We can still cover all of the content, but do it by using right-fit formats. Structured training covers the stuff employees need to remember. Daily training sessions introduce new topics and reinforce the most critical points. On-demand resources cover everything else.

L&D doesn’t control the workflow.

The idea of making learning part of the everyday working experience sounds great. But there’s a fundamental problem: L&D doesn’t control the everyday working experience. Management determines workplace priorities, resources, schedules, etc. We can attempt to influence job design in favor of continuous, meaningful learning. However, we ultimately have to fit our solutions into the employees’ everyday reality.

This is why microlearning has to be defined as more than just shorter content. The rest of the principles included in my now-infamous definition help L&D teams provide solutions that can fit into the average workday for anyone. It doesn’t matter if you support airline pilots or grocery clerks or professional salespeople. Microlearning enables a balanced approach to continuous learning. People are pushed the training they need based on proven knowledge/skill gaps while they can also pull the resources they want in the moment.

Microlearning works – when its done well. To get real world results, we have to acknowledge that microlearning is more than just shorter content. It’s a blend of proven principles that helps people make better decisions, build their knowledge over time and improve their job performance.