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Work Views: Learning in Small Bites

It’s time to rethink conventional approaches to corporate learning — particularly when more efficient and effective methods exist.

September 9, 2013
Related Topics: E-Learning, Management Skills and Development, The Latest, Technology, Training

The practice of equipping workers with the intellectual tools they need for their job, whether it is learning, training or instructing, remains critical to an organization’s success. But while learning is still necessary, it’s time to rethink our conventional approaches — particularly when more efficient and effective methods exist.

We live in a world with constant information streams and increasing agility. With the emergence of big data analytics, businesses will be challenged with providing “blink of an eye” business intelligence, and even more rapid decision-making. New regulations also are a challenge. In 2012, The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued more than 20 final rules, while The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans website listed nearly 140 updates to U.S. employee benefit regulations, rulings and other guidance in just the first nine months of 2013. 

What does this mean for the expected shelf life of traditional classroom training or even modern eLearning content? Much like the proverbial new car that loses value as soon as it’s driven off the lot, the piles of oversized courses produced by human resources teams may start losing value upon publication. Volumes of dense, static learning content are increasingly out-of-touch in the modern, real-time big data enterprise, and the following are just a few ways this approach can go wrong:

·      Poor reaction to lengthy courses that divert employees from meaningful work: Most of a worker’s knowledge is learned on the job. When you’re working, you’re learning. If your employees are sitting through hours of training (in a classroom or online), they may start to wonder: “What am I accomplishing?” And when training takes these employees away from their jobs, the executive suite may wonder: “What am I getting?” or “Is this really meaningful?”

·      Inability to absorb the intended knowledge when complex information is delivered en masse. Our brains simply aren’t wired for it. Studies by psychologists George A. Miller, Nelson Cowan and others suggest that there are limits to human cognition; there’s only so much our brains can absorb at any given time. Delivering oversized courses runs counter to how we learn.

·      Failure to apply learning when the lessons aren’t relevant to employees and their job. This is particularly true when there’s a high degree of specialization in the workforce. One size doesn’t fit all. And making a course “comprehensive” by adding more content means more hours away from the job, and more information for the learner’s brain to try (and fail) to absorb.

·      Organizations can’t realize a return on their learning investment if the participants don’t benefit. Keeping pace with the latest and greatest information is hard enough. We make the job harder (and more expensive) when we create massive libraries of learning courses that fail to deliver for our workers.

So, what does a healthy learning diet look like? Not surprisingly, the answer is smaller portions. 

Rather than designing your next multihour course, consider creating several smaller “learning snacks” instead. Richard Mayer and Ruth Clark call this the “Segmenting Principle” in their book, "e-Learning and the Science of Instruction.” These smaller portions are essentially minilessons that focus on one or two key concepts, absorbing complex information into smaller portions. 

When the learning events are smaller and shorter, workers feel a sense of accomplishment and progress more often. According to research from Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in their book, “The Progress Principle,” the more a worker experiences this sense of progress, the more likely they are to be productive.

When it's necessary to convey several concepts in a larger context, simply string the “learning snacks” together into a sequential campaign. The small lessons are delivered one-at-a-time over a set time period to meet a broader learning goal. This is how the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County built their Learning 2.0 (23 Things) program, which guided its library staff in learning a host of new Web technologies without a single hour spent in a classroom.  

There are also benefits for your HR team, too. When you’re no longer burdened with designing and creating large multihour courses, your team can become more agile.  Focus a small lesson on a key concept to spend less time creating the content, and reduce the amount of “scrap” learning from large courses never consumed.

By embracing a healthy diet of smaller learning portions, you’ll achieve a more efficient and effective learning approach that’s in-step with today’s rapid and agile enterprise — where it’s vital to get the right information, to the right people, at the right time.

Dave Lingg is vice president of technology integration at Ancile Solutions, which makes learning management software and other products. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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