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Microlearning – Right training. Right time. Right People


In today’s podcast, we will listen to Shannon Tipton discuss training and development’s newest trend — Microlearning. Defined as short bursts of focused, right-sized content to help people achieve a specific outcome, Shannon shares her years of experience in the learning and development industry and the impact that microlearning is making in our post-pandemic work environment. 

Host – Steven Maggi:  2020 was that kind of year. It affected business across the board, especially in learning and development, a really rough year. So, the question is, how do you come back from that? One answer might be microlearning, and we’ve got a real expert to talk about it today. I’d like to welcome Shannon Tipton to the show. She owns a company called Learning Rebels, has been 20 years in the training industry and is recognized for bringing real-world experiences and nontraditional solutions to help businesses, and that’s always important. She is also the author of Disruptive Learning. Shannon, welcome to the show. So, first of all, let’s just start out, what is microlearning?

Shannon Tipton: Well, microlearning – it’s interesting that you start there, because if you went onto the Internet, you would find a variety of different definitions. The definition that I landed on some five or six years ago when I first started doing work and research in this area, was that microlearning is short bursts of focused, right-sized content to help people achieve a specific outcome. So, what that means is it’s about helping people do the thing they want to do at the moment they need to do it.

Steven: Wow, so that’s a different way of thinking of this, because a lot of people when they think training and development, they’re thinking a couple of days in a place, a book to go along. You’re talking about really taking care of one particular issue at one time.

Shannon: Yes, that’s exactly right. As a matter of fact, that’s one of the myths that I have tackled over and over again is that microlearning is about having one key concept, one key idea at a time. So microlearning is not the place to teach people the history of the combustion engine. It’s to show them how to turn on the car and that’s it, because that’s what somebody needs to know at that precise moment.

Steven: So is this kind of the way we’re looking at things now in the 21st century. I mean, a lot of training in the home is done by going to YouTube and looking for one particular activity or something. Is that kind of getting to that, where we’ll take each of these things as they come along?

Shannon: Oh yes, absolutely, and YouTube is the granddaddy of all microlearning. If you need to learn how to do something, almost the entire of the U.S. is going to YouTube to learn how to do it. Do I feel that learning and development is in that direction? Absolutely. I think that to be honest, we’re a little bit of a lagging indicator in this place. The whole world has migrated to bite-sized learning content – microlearning content – yet L&D still wants to put out a full course and a full curriculum, and that’s really not what people want. I think that the disruption that happened in 2020 really lead the industry to take a good hard look at itself and say, “We can’t do it this way anymore.” The businesses simply cannot because of the historic event around us. But now, what can we do to help people to take away disruption, to take away friction, to take away frustration? These smaller microlearning elements really is the solution.

Steven: Is one of the advantages of it the fact that you can kind of change it to go? Because you’re not talking about 20 or 30 things, you’re talking about this one particular issue. As things change, you can kind of change on the fly.

Shannon: You are more flexible and more adaptable, and especially if you create microlearning in a drip-feed context; meaning, “I’m going to deliver one piece of learning to you on Monday and another piece of related material to you on Wednesday and another piece maybe on Friday” and you give them these small little bits. You can plan ahead. You can go and say, “You know what? What we sent out on Monday didn’t work, so let’s fix what’s going to go out on Wednesday.” You have the ability to flex and adapt as you need to.

Steven: Do you find that this makes for better learning experiences? In other words, as somebody’s kind of taken over a job and they’re doing these types of things, do they learn better that way than spending a weekend somewhere or whatever it might be?

Shannon: Oh, for sure, and science tells us that. Science tells us that over and over again. People just are not built to sit in a day-long classroom without any sort of learning reinforcement before or afterwards and be able to retain the topic. It just isn’t going to happen. And especially with adults, when they’ve got so many things that are going in and out of their brains at any given time, the focus in a classroom on a facilitator or instructor is never 100%. You’re wondering, “Is my train running late? Did the kids get lunch? Did somebody walk the dog?” You have all of these thoughts in your head. And so, the more that we can help people allow their brains to breathe through microlearning, through bite-size learning, through structured space learning, then the better off we are.

Steven: One of the things when you go to your website – learningrebels.com – one thing that jumps out at you is you keep repeating, “You gotta know who the end-user is.” Why is that so important?

Shannon: I say this often, “One-size-fits-all training benefits no one.” It’s like going to the store and trying to find one-size-fits-all pants. It just doesn’t work. And so, you have to understand who are you sending this information to? So, if you create a series of sales training, let’s say, and you don’t target that to someone in particular, then that means you have new people who might be struggling to learn concepts that are better targeted towards more tenured salespeople, and vice versa. You have tenured salespeople and you’re putting them through intro training because you’ve created this one-size-fits-all. So, microlearning really does – and it demands actually – for you to take a very specific microscope to who you are sending this to. So, are you sending this directly to new people who are less than six months with your organization? Are you sending this to experienced salespeople who have more than 25 years? Because again, right people, right time to help them with the information they need to know when they need to know it.

Steven: Does all of a sudden microlearning comes in – because it’s so laser-focused – does it sometimes cause disruption or friction in the workplace, where one person’s getting this, another person isn’t. You know, it’s not like everybody getting it all at once.

Shannon: Right. Actually, I think there’s more of a relief there where people are like, “Thank goodness, I don’t have to sit through all of this.” They can ask their peers, “What are you learning today? Oh, I can’t wait until I get to that point because I’m learning this right now.” I think that there is a generalized relief again about helping people get through their workday, because when we think about what people go through during the course of their workday – a study was conducted by Bersin by Deloitte, which told us that people only spend 1% of their workweek on professional development – 1%. That’s it. So, that is just enough time for somebody to watch a baby goat video. If you’re competition – if you’re gonna watch my training program or a baby goat video, I guarantee people are watching baby goat videos. So, I think that people are very relieved to be able to say, “I’ve got this small bit of training that’s going to help me.”

Steven: You had mentioned in your bio – and I mentioned it at the top of the show – that you enjoy bringing real-world experience to training. Well, this is really the case because everything you do in here, you’re doing for a real purpose. It’s not, “Well maybe 80% of this will work for you, or 50%.” No, this particular thing is made for that problem at that moment.

Shannon: Exactly. Right training, right time, right people solve the problem. The key is that the business wants to keep operating, and so everything that we do as an L&D business – or as an L&D industry rather – needs to connect with overall business value. Why am I doing this? Why are we putting this training out in front of people? And, if that training is successful in whatever context it is, how is it helping the business then improve? If there is no improvement attached to the training, then why are we doing it?

Steven: But do you get some pushback some time from the old timers that grew up in that other world? In other words, is it something – microlearning – that you’ve got to make people feel comfortable because they have an initial “the hair on their back is up” because it’s something they’re not familiar with?

Shannon: Well yes, to answer the first part of the question, do we get resistance from within the industry? Sure, because it’s really ingrained in some areas of the industry where it’s learning first – come up with the learning solution first. When you have a hammer, everything is a nail, right? It’s about looking at it from an entirely different perspective, and so now we’re asking learning and development people to put business first and to put people first. So, if you do right by the people and you do right by the business, then the learning is going to happen, so it really is a paradigm shift for the industry, and that is what creates a sense of joy for learning. So, if you want to create a culture of learning and you want to create curious people within your organization, give them something wonderful to be curious about.

Steven: So, as you’re planning this thing out, is there any worry – or is this just strictly a myth – that “Oh my gosh, there’s gonna be so many different things that pop up.” But then as I thought about that, I thought to myself, “Well, that’s the whole point.” You’re solving problems as they come up. Does that ever come up when you’re initially trying to make that paradigm switch?

Shannon: Yes, because then what happens is your L&D person might go into overdrive, and then they’ve created a hundred microlearning elements and they haven’t necessarily filed them appropriately or put them in a space where people can access them smartly; that creates anxiety in and of itself. So, one of the touch points for microlearning is to be sure that what you create is easily accessible. So, for example, if you went to Google and you searched on Google – if you search one way, you’re going to get a million results. Yet, if you add maybe another key word to it, you might cut your results in half, right? So, it’s about smart searching and it’s about smart naming, because here’s the thing, there’s an old joke out there that says, “Where do businesses go to die? The second page of Google.”

Steven: Yea, exactly. And you’re always afraid too that somehow the really good thing is on that second page that you didn’t look at.

Shannon: Right, exactly, which is why structure and organization of your microlearning elements becomes just as important as the microlearning element itself, because people are not going to click five times to find something. Think about yourself, if you go to a website and you can’t find what you are looking for within the first two or three clicks, you’re off to another website. And the same thing happens with learning. You can have the best training created, but if people can’t find it, they can’t use it. So, you have to think about how are you structuring all of this too so again, we’re not creating confusion or frustration.

Steven: So, organization is a key. I like that. And then finally, saving the delivery tool decision – you say it’s best to save that for last. Why is that?

Shannon: Content drives delivery. A lot of times, L&D people – and just people in general – you’ll jump to a conclusion that, “We’re going to create a video today. We’re going to create a video for salespeople on how to talk about the features and benefits of our product.” On the surface, that sounds smart; however, let’s think about where do salespeople spend the majority of their time? In their cars. Are they watching videos in their cars?

Steven: Hopefully not.

Shannon: Hopefully not. So then, that means, when we think about – that’s why the end-user again comes into play. Who is the end-user? Where will they be accessing the content and what is the content about? And then you let those components drive the delivery decision. Which, if I were to take 1+1+1, I would put that into a podcast series for them to listen to while they are in the car. They don’t need to see this. They need to grasp the concept, and you can do that very well by listening too. So, it’s about understanding, “What is the end result? What are you hoping to achieve?” And let that decision drive your delivery modality.

Steven: We are finding too that a lot of this training and so forth doesn’t necessarily happen in the workplace anymore, right? So, I would imagine the phone has become a great delivery tool.

Shannon: Absolutely. You just see that more and more. People are rarely an arm’s length away from their own. The more that we can make use of where people are, the better off we become. So, thinking about – if I have a company-issued device, then let’s send learning to that device, to that mobile phone or to that tablet; easily transferable, easily portable, and it can reach people wherever. I can be in Starbucks and get my WiFi and have at it. It really does make it easier when you think about it like that.

Steven: And our final question we ask everybody is – I know you think about this a lot, this subject is something that you’re constantly thinking about, and it is changing – where do you see it in the next few years? I know sometimes we like to ask for 10 years, but who could even imagine? I imagine there’s big changes in the next couple of years.

Shannon: I’m having trouble thinking past this year – this year’s still Groundhog Day, it feels like. Where do I see this in the next few years. Well, I just see it growing stronger, to be honest with you. I think that we are going to take more advantage of drip-feed learning, which is feeding little bits of information to people in scheduled bites. I also think that we’re going to see – because of the events of 2020 – we’re seeing more virtual training and more online training. So, that means we need stronger performance support. So, this is where I think microlearning really does become your best tool to have in your back pocket, because training isn’t successful without some sort of learning reinforcement. It is not successful without some sort of feedback mechanism. And microlearning really does enhance those two critical points. I think that the future of microlearning – it is not a fad, it is not a trend, it is here, and it is loud and it is proud and it will be around for a long time.

Steven: It’s an exciting topic. Shannon, thank you so much for joining us today. I really enjoyed that.

Shannon: Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate you spending some time with me today.