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The allure of microlearning is strong — and with good reason. This fast-paced, on-demand style of learning is an appealing way to develop busy leaders, especially for resource-strapped training departments.

It’s no wonder learning and development (L&D) is starting to lean on it so heavily. According to DDI research, 58% of organizations are using microlearning to develop their leaders. And leaders want to spend even more time learning during times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. Microlearning seems like a heaven-sent solution: Buy a digital library with a vast array of learning, and set leaders loose to explore on their own.

But going all-in on microlearning carries risk. In DDI’s “Global Leadership Forecast,” more than 15,0000 leaders shared their criticisms of their company’s leadership development programs. Only 23% said their organization provided high-quality leadership development. Specifically, they complained that many of their companies’ programs were impractical and disengaging. They wanted richer development experiences, including coaching, developmental assignments, assessments and formal in-person training. Only 23% said they wanted more microlearning.

How can L&D capitalize on the incredible opportunity of microlearning without sacrificing the quality of their development programs? It comes down to the microlearning mindset.

The Microlearning Mindset

There are two ways to categorize the microlearning mindset: reactive and proactive. The reactive microlearning mindset is about ensuring that learners can quickly answer questions and solve problems on the fly. In these moments, they might quickly turn to Google to answer questions like how to deliver a tough performance conversation or how to influence a stakeholder.

It is L&D’s responsibility to provide the right lessons and skills for behavioral change, including microlearning opportunities that are better than a Google search. Doing so will ensure that learners receive good guidance that matches the company culture and the situation.

The proactive microlearning mindset is about engaging learners purposefully with quick bursts of learning that are part of an overall strategy to meet specific organizational needs. For example, an organization could use microlearning as part of a development journey to upskill a newly promoted leader.

Some avenues for using proactive microlearning include:

    • Reinforcing concepts previously learned in a more in-depth course: For example, you might offer a micro-course on virtual coaching after a leader goes through a full course on coaching basics.
    • Exploring complementary topics: For instance, leaders might watch a video or take a micro-course on unconscious bias to enhance training they received on interviewing job candidates.
    • Bringing relevance to a topic: For example, a short self-assessment is a type of microlearning that might help leaders understand how a topic is relevant to them and to identify their potential pitfalls. They can also retake assessments to determine whether they are improving and applying what they learn.

Blending Micro- and Macro-learning

There’s obviously a hunger for both microlearning and macro-learning, and L&D professionals must find the correct mix for their organization. It is like building a balanced diet: It’s different for everyone.

For example, an organization may want to develop its leaders’ coaching abilities. This process could start with a macro-learning experience that dives deep into a coaching model, followed by opportunities to practice these concepts with peers.

After establishing these foundations, learners could build on the concepts with short microlearning bursts for skill enhancement. These bursts might include short lessons about asking the right questions, digital practice simulations, videos from company executives sharing examples or case studies about improving team skills. The overall goal of this content should be driving behavioral change.

L&D professionals could also use microlearning to develop content that is unique to each individual’s specific needs. For example, after a formal group macro-learning session, a series of short bursts of skill practices, tailored to meet each learner’s needs, could strategically reinforce concepts as needed.

In each example, the key is to incorporate two to three bite-sized microlearning activities to tackle the larger macro-learning topic. When leveraged well, microlearning can keep leaders engaged and improve the effectiveness of learning and development programs.

When the Mindset Is Muddled

It’s easy to become sidetracked and stray from the microlearning mindset. Keeping a few principles in mind will help you reach your microlearning goals:

    • Microlearning isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Since it offers fast, effective and engaging content, it’s easy to want to use it for everything. But it’s not an appropriate tool for teaching big, “macro” concepts that need significant focus and attention.
    • Don’t forget to incorporate practice. Usually, microlearning happens individually. While it’s fine for learn concepts, it doesn’t provide opportunities to practice skills and receive feedback, which is the only way to learn to apply new skills.
    • It’s easy to think of microlearning as quickly finding an answer to a question, but it’s more than articles and videos. It can also include simulations, mini-courses, games and self-assessments.
    • Access shouldn’t trump purpose. One of the biggest errors in microlearning is assuming leaders will pursue it on their own, since it’s so accessible. Offering large on-demand microlearning libraries with no direction deprioritizes learning. It’s easy for learners to be overwhelmed and directionless in these cases.

It’s Not All or Nothing

While it’s found its place in the training world, can microlearning step in as a full replacement of macro-learning? According to the “Global Leadership Forecast,” the answer is no: Learners want their development experiences to blend microlearning and macro-learning opportunities.

Leaders still prefer formal development that gives them the opportunity to engage with peers to share examples, solve problems and practice skills. And when budgets are tight, 75% of survey respondents said they plan to reduce their spend on digital libraries. This finding is a warning sign that while microlearning holds a powerful place in development, it doesn’t deliver desired behavior change on its own.

Don’t let microlearning become an all-or-nothing proposition. Instead, focus on having the right mindset to maximize the effect.