Is Microlearning the Wave of the Future for Employee Training?

Video and multimedia have made it easier to put training information in small packages for employee consumption at their convenience, something said to work best with Millennial attention spans. But data is still sparse on how well this new training technique works.

Employee training is an essential task for any human relations (HR) department and ranges from onboarding (teaching the basic essentials of the workplace) to on or off-site seminars and training sessions and to sending a select few employees to get a university degree through part or full-time study (often for an MBA).

Microlearning (a.k.a. micro learning or micro-learning) is an emergent learning strategy known for quickly closing skill and knowledge gaps

Aside from onboarding, training is often necessitated by new compliance requirements, by new software (how to use it) or equipment installation (use and safety issues) or even a shift in employee demographics (new people from different ethnicity or religion). It will be up to HR to arrange or to outsource these training tasks.

Employees spend 1% of their time learning
Employees spend 1% of their time learning

Rotating a part of the accounting staff through an offsite tax seminar or having a trainer on new equipment safety talk to part of the manufacturing staff on site while operations continue is one way to do it. This involves some cost and effort to minimize disruption, but there are ways to convey important training messages short of sending a busload of employees across town or having some part of a working shift listen to a lecture or presentation for an hour or more.

Microlearning is more than a buzz today

A method increasingly used by companies is “microlearning” –  the packaging of concise information, generally using multi-media, that an employee can use at his or her convenience. It is a kind of just-in-time learning for some purposes. For instance, if certain employees must fill in new compliance forms every quarter, they can be e-mailed or texted a reminder to look at the short multi-media presentation on filling out the form that is available on the company’s HR website a couple of weeks before the quarterly deadline.

Coffee-break chat learning in multimedia form

Microlearning has been enabled by technology – the relative ease with which high-quality video can be made and incorporated into a three or five-minute presentation on an iPad – but the idea and format are nothing new. In fact, some would say that microlearning formalizes “informal learning”. This is the kind of situation when a more experienced employee – and not necessarily a supervisor – tells others during a coffee break about the best way to do a new manufacturing procedure or about the data that always gets forgotten on a compliance report.

Microlearning is a way of teaching and delivering content to learners in small, very specific bursts

“Microlearning is more than a buzz today. It is being increasingly used by many organizations for both formal and informal learning. It appeals to the learners as it consumes less time and is available to them exactly at the time of the learning need (just-in-time).

Evolution of Learning Technology Standards
Evolution of Learning Technology Standards

Furthermore, its rich media formats ensure better retention of the learning,” is how Asha Panday, writing in, described the technique.

Like any type of learning intervention, microlearning has strengths and weaknesses

Panday names time management, workplace safety compliance and conflict of interest issues as examples of issues that can be taught by microlearning methods – a sequence of short multi-media presentations. Only one carries urgency – the safety teaching example deals with employee choices if an IT equipment upgrade leaves a tangle of wires on the workplace floor. Someone can trip over the tangle “on day one” whereas the skills addressed in the other examples are longer-term – identifying time wasters or dealing with a negotiating or procurement situation where personal ties may be involved.

Microlearning tailored to millennials?

Some of the arguments for microlearning sound a little “ageist”, and I don’t mean having to do with discrimination of older people (50+ or where one draws the line in your industry) Writing on a few years ago, John Eades said: “Microlearning is a way of teaching and delivering content to learners in small, very specific bursts. The learners are in control of what and when they’re learning. Why has Microlearning has blown up recently? … To answer this question, you have to take a look at who comprises a majority of learners. By 2025, Millennials alone will make up that 75 percent of the workforce. The average attention span of the Millennial generation is 90 seconds.

Organizations are embracing microlearning as it is cheaper to build, quicker to deploy, and can be updated fairly easily

One could dispute the implication that people born after 1990 (or wherever you draw the “millennial” line) are gone, attention-wise, after 90 seconds, but there is a good argument for keeping microlearning sessions short and “loud” (not acoustically, but in terms of making a strong impression) – you want your employees getting back to “real” work as soon as possible. Before and after the “90 seconds” they are probably concentrating on coding. writing a proposal or planning the next routine production line maintenance and this is not happening in short bursts. You want to keep the useful “distractions” as short and effective as possible.

Macro vs. Micro Learning
Macro vs. Micro Learning

So, you film the experienced shop floor employee whose coffee break talk everyone respects saying “we have place where you must dispose of oily rags” followed by a stock-footage clip of a warehouse fire and hope that sticks in everyone’s mind before they get back to work.

Best practices and advantages

Eades’ article suggest five rules (somewhat edited) for making good microlearning materials which can serve as guidelines for HR when either having the materials made in-house or outsourced:

1. Assign One Learning Objective Per Asset

Focus on just one learning objective; this way, the learner will know exactly what they need to focus on to ensure knowledge is transferred.

2. Use Video

70% of Millennials visit YouTube monthly. They simply prefer video over other mediums.

3. Production Quality Matters

Bad video can take away from good content.

4. Timing is Everything

Remember that 90-second statistic? Microlearning videos should be 4 minutes or less. Learners want to get straight to the point.

5. Prove Learning Took Place

When you build your content, think about how you will know learning took place. Instead of just asking them to answer a couple multiple choice questions, ask them to demonstrate their knowledge.

Drawbacks and disadvantages

However, one must also be aware of the drawbacks of microlearning, as mentioned by Connie Malamed in an article in where she lists the following disadvantages:

1. Lack of research

There is insufficient research to know whether microlearning is an effective strategy for reaching long-term learning goals.

2. Learning fragments

For long-term learning goals, microlearning interventions could end up as content fragments that are not tied together.

3. Lack of cognitive synthesis

We can’t be certain that learners will synthesize content from microlearning well enough to construct appropriate mental models.

4. Potential for confusion

If a microlearning solution includes a wide variety of formats, some learners could have problems switching between them.

The Overwhelmed Employee
The Overwhelmed Employee

So, what to do? Perhaps proceed cautiously and experiment with a few cases. Is there a new non-critical form that some team leaders will have to fill in? Do a short video showing how to do it and evaluate the results. Maybe the company is planning to stop Saturday deliveries to some customers in a few months, so do a little microlearning unit on how to spread this information, evaluate results. If people retain how to tell customers “stock up on XYZ as our Saturday deliveries will be curtailed”, it works. Otherwise there is still time to organize a training meeting for all involved. Start with training related to non-mission critical tasks, evaluate and only then use microlearning for more important matters.


Useful links:

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HR management software app system CakeHR human resources
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HR management software app system CakeHR human resources
HR management software app system CakeHR human resources

We at CakeHR, an HR software company, stay on top of the latest HR trends as it is important for us to know what are the challenges and opportunities our customers are focusing on, so they can leave the management of HR data and day-to-day errands to CakeHR.

Written By

Juris Kaža

Journalist, author of the blog Free Speech Emergency in Latvia and a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal.