In todays’ time-crunched, attention-deficit and multitasking world

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In todays’ time-crunched, attention-deficit and multitasking world, micro-learning seems to have cropped up as a possible solution to corporate learning and personal development. However, what exactly is micro-learning remains a bit of an elusive concept with different people defining it in different ways. Should it be something that takes less than 5 minutes to consume? Can a 10-minute learning byte be defined as micro-learning? Would a commoncraft-style video be considered micro-learning? Is an infographic summarizing and presenting data and text micro-learning? In my earlier posts, I have written about the possible roles it can play in formal, informal and incidental learning. I have briefly explored the possibilities of transition from courses to micro-learning in the context of workplace learning. Wikipedia has a good definition of the concept:

Micro-learning can also be understood as a process of subsequent, “short” learning activities, i.e. learning through interaction with micro-content objects in small time frames.

I have tried to define some of the key characterized and put them together in the diagram below. However, these are in no way definitive or the only characteristics but a set of guidelines…The way the term is being bandied about now would make one think that it is a new phenomenon designed to solve a myriad of workplace learning challenges. The term and the concept has suddenly captured the imagination of workplace learning professionals and course designers as well as clients due to a variety of reasons:

  1. The rise of mobile devices and ubiquitous connectivity
  2. The deluge of available information and decreasing attention span
  3. The need for just-in-time and just-enough information to get the job done
  4. The entry of enterprise collaboration platforms in organizations
  5. The distributed and dispersed nature of workers leading to a need for online collaboration

Most of these phenomena are interconnected and impact one another. It is critical not only understand the drivers behind this sudden surge but also how it can be implemented in workplace learning strategy.

The Drivers

An influx of mobile devices have changed how people interact with content. It is now more likely to be in short bursts or 2~5 minutes, several times a day rather than for long durations once or twice a day as was the case when we were primarily tied to our laptops or desktops. Our work is also becoming location agnostic. We are no longer tied to a desk and a building to get our jobs done. Neither are we always co-located with the teams we work with. This free-flowing nature of work requires rapid exchange of information and sharing of knowledge in byte-sized chunks that are easy to assimilate. Working out loud is one of the means to make collaboration and work effective in today’s context. Similarly, technicians in a remote location can quickly record a video of the issues they are facing and post it on their internal collaboration platform for a solution from the experts who may be located half way across the world. This instantaneous kind of information and knowledge exchange, peer support, and sharing of tacit knowledge happen in short bursts. Because these interactions are typically need driven and occur spontaneously, we don’t classify these as micro-learning instances. But IMHO these are very effective micro-learning occurrences that take place in our daily lives – professional and personal – and make it possible for us to function effectively.

A deluge of content coupled with an ever decreasing shelf-life of knowledge is forcing people to access a huge mass of information just to keep on top of things. This telling article from HBR – When Learning at Work Becomes Overwhelming – talks about the unrealistic levels of learning requirements from workers today. This constant need to add new skills and knowledge is leading to a reluctance to spend too much time on something that may prove to be irrelevant in a couple of months’ time. The focus is on the bare minimum needed to get one’s work done effectively. Is that a good thing or bad is the topic for another post. The reality is that individuals and organizations are looking for options to keep on top of things in the easiest possible manner.

Add to these an ever decreasing attention span, technology disruption, complex and distributed workflows – and one can see why micro-learning seems to be looming up all too frequently. It seems somehow to be irrevocably tied to all the items mentioned above. Organizations, in a bid to make learning accessible and digestible, are trying to include micro-learning as a part of their workplace learning design strategy.

However, by welding micro-learning to technology, we could be missing the core principles. The questions to ask are: How novel is micro-learning? Is it a new phenomenon or a new and catchy phrase gaining popularity in the L&D and business world because of its linkage to mobile learning?

Any learning or insight that can occur in a few minutes or so is a form of micro-learning. By wedding it to technology, we are perhaps giving it a new form but the concept is not new.

  1. A mentor giving feedback on a task done can be micro-learning unless it is an extended feedback session.
  2. An email with a few lines of instruction is micro-learning.
  3. An app with a 2-minute recipe is micro-learning.
  4. A comment from a peer on one’s work.
  5. Tweet chats, telephone conversations, IMs, coffee time discussions – any and all of these can be micro-learning

Micro-learning can be formally designed and built into learning programs in various forms or it can occur asinformal exchanges of knowledge and information either online or face-to-face. L&D today needs to include micro-learning as a strategy and incorporate formally designed micro-learning into programs as well as facilitate informal interactions that lead to individual learning and organizational problem solving.

Implementing Micro-Learning in the Workplace

Working out loud on the enterprise collaboration platform is not only narration of work but also entails the use of principles of micro-learning (sharing byte-sized processes to help others learn from their experiences).

In short, our days are filled with moments of learning – whether by design or by happenstance. I saw the movie Cinderella over the weekend which has this line: Just because it is done doesn’t mean it should be done. The line stuck in my head because of its broad applicability and the profundity underlying the simplicity. To me, this is micro-learning.

L&D and business are trying to define and give a coherent shape to micro-learning because we want to “productize” it. We want to design capsules and bytes of information in various forms like videos, podcasts, text, infographic, etc. “Productization” shouldn’t necessarily imply technology enabled micro-learning bytes. Can managers and mentors be taught to think in terms of micro-learning? Can they give just enough feedback or on the job guidance in one go to adhere to the principles of micro-learning? It is possible to design a weekly feedback session for team members that will not exceed 10 mins. The manager could wear a mentor’s hat and the conversation could revolve around 3~4 key questions with a time limit of 10~15 mins.

  1. What are the two things you learned this week/fortnight?
  2. What obstacles are you facing?
  3. How can I help you?

These kinds of conversations will not only enable the employee to keep on track but also provide them with a tool to reflect upon and extract their learning. This can be hugely enlightening and invigorating. Appraisals and feedback need not be a painful and somewhat useless discussion occurring twice a year far removed from the time of the incidences. Feedback discussions can be a part of an organization’s micro-learning strategy.

This was just an example to show that micro-learning, with some careful consideration and design thinking, can be a critical part of workplace learning in various forms – informal and formal and also social and collaborative. By defining and socializing the principles behind micro-learning, L&D can enable organizations apply these in various contexts by helping business leaders, managers and mentors understand these. It can happen anytime, anywhere, in any form – synchronously, asynchronously, and semi-synchronously. It can occur in self-driven learning, in peer-to-peer learning, in a manager-worker discussion, in a social learning setting, and be incorporated into a formally designed course.

The diagram below captures some of the forms of micro-learning:

Written by our Guest Blogger, Sahana Chattopadhyay

Sahana Chattopadhyay is an L&D Consultant, OD Specialist, Blended Learning Architect, Social Learning Evangelist, and Blogger.

Sahana’s work cuts across performance consulting, workplace learning strategies from formal to informal and social learning, knowledge management methodologies and adult learning principles. She is passionate about helping organizations become learning organizations through community building, enabling personal knowledge management, and bringing working and learning together.

Sahana has appeared in the list of Top Ten e-Learning Movers and Shakers for the Asia Pacific region for four consecutive years from 2011 to 2014, topping the APAC list in 2014 and appeared in the top ten of the global list.


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