Put 1,000 learning leaders in a room, and it’ll only be a matter of time before someone brings up knowledge retention. And microlearning. And gamification. And spaced learning. There may also be talks of a certain forgetting curve, the power of chunking and the merits/demerits of catering to different learning preferences.

What are you less likely to hear people debate? Whether recall is (always) the ideal learning outcome.

Not All Knowledge Is Created Equal

Miller’s Law says that the average person can only hold about seven things in their short-term memory at once. It’s tempting to think those seven things hold equal weight, but the reality is: All knowledge isn’t created equal, and not everything will “stick” in someone’s long-term memory.

To make what’s most important stick, the best strategy isn’t to create more infographics, video tutorials, interactive quizzes and abbreviated eLearning modules. It’s to reduce the cognitive overload of all the information that doesn’t (truly) matter, so people have more head space for the stuff that does.

Stop Training Your Team (on Software)

What’s a prime example of learning that shouldn’t be memorized? How to complete “XYZ” process in “ABC” software.

Today’s knowledge workers have to perform hundreds of processes across dozens of tools just to get their jobs done. For operations leaders, sales reps, information technology (IT) managers, customer support specialists and countless others, software is the gateway to most of their work.

Memorizing every software process and standard operating procedure (SOP):

  • Isn’t physically possible.
  • Isn’t a good use of anyone’s time and energy.
  • Isn’t impactful for the business.

Memorizing software procedures can distract people from work that’s more important, differentiated and strategic. For example, if you’re in operations, that could include driving cross-functional alignment. If you’re in sales, that could include learning selling techniques. Or if you’re in customer success, how to build rapport with customers.

The function almost doesn’t matter. To reduce cognitive load, make mission-critical training stick, and enable people to do their best work, you need to stop training your team on software (the traditional way).

The Problem With Traditional Software Training

While no one needs to commit how to use software to memory, they do still need to know their way around the platform.

But many times, traditional software training can have it all backwards. It can sometimes ask people to:

  • Complete training when it’s convenient for trainers.
  • Read wordy documentation.
  • Watch long videos.
  • Sit through boring training sessions.
  • Care about (and remember) information that can’t be applied immediately following the training session.
  • Bounce between multiple knowledge bases.
  • Learn dozens of procedures by rote.
  • Keep up with constant process changes.

What’s the result? Knowledge that’s hard to find, apply and retain.

4 Ways to Make Software Training “Brainless” (and Free up Brain Space)

Here are four steps you can take to make learning software as simple as possible:

Step 1: Reset (Your Own) Expectations

Be honest. How many times have you created training that was convenient for you, but not at all convenient for the teams you support?

Research by Tango shows that not even your most enthusiastic, tech-savvy systems all-stars find all training efficient or effective. And if you think you’re catering to people with doubtful, contradictory or fearful feelings about new technology and process — think again.

Step 2: Understand Your Ambivalent Adopters

In a community event, instructional designer at Public Consulting Group, Brittany Arbuckle, shared the term “ambivalent adopters” to Tango’s head of product marketing, describing people who are particularly resistant to change.

Ambivalent adopters aren’t lazy or bad people. They’re just not all that interested in learning new software, memorizing procedures, supporting anyone’s “culture of documentation,” leaning into self-service or getting on board with rational solutions to their (seemingly irrational) concerns.

So, what are ambivalent adopters interested in? They’re interested in:

  • Bringing in revenue, building great products and making customers happy.
  • Staying in their comfort zone and sidestepping change.
  • Avoiding feeling stupid and/or suffering silently.
  • Having their hand held if/when they do seek help.
  • Saving their time and energy for more impactful projects.

To help you tailor your approach to meet ambivalent adopters where they are (and practice empathy), spend time with them. Get to know them and what they’re afraid of.

Spoiler: You probably have more ambivalent adopters in your midst than you think.

Step 3: Embrace Minimum Viable Context and Make Instructions Easy Enough to Follow on Autopilot

What’s the number one way to win over even the most change-resistant ambivalent adopter? Replace any information that isn’t 100% necessary with “minimum viable context.”  According to the research, minimum viable context (MVC) is a human-focused approach to presenting information that provides just enough context for users to complete a task quick and efficiently.

In other words, include only the basics and what they need to know now. Learning content shouldn’t extend beyond anything other than what a tech worker will use once they return to their desks.

Remember, good documentation helps people do their job faster, saves energy for more strategic work and strikes a balance between too much and too little context. Minimum viable context is your “goldilocks zone.” No one’s overwhelmed. No one’s falling asleep. Everyone’s got (just) what they need.

Minimum viable context is especially useful when:

  • Learning or memorizing a task won’t help people be any better at their jobs.
  • A process and/or software user interface (UI) is changing regularly.
  • People just need to know where to click.
  • A task only needs to be done every once in a while.

Here are a few tips to simplifying training content with minimum viable context:

  • Include a screenshot for every step in a how-to guide.
  • Crop your screenshots and zoom in on the information that matters.
  • Add big, clear annotations so people know where to look (and what to do).
  • Limit text to less than 10 words.
  • Keep any videos two minutes or less.
  • Create a table of content with anchor links to help people skip straight to where they’re stuck.

Step 4: Introduce Real-Time Enablement and Embed Instructions in the Tools Where People Work

What makes learning new software incredibly annoying for both ambivalent adopters and power users? The answer: How hard it is to find relevant, accurate and trustworthy information.

Instead of pointing people to long videos, outdated wikis, winding chat threads and archived emails, what if you embedded the instructions to your most frequently asked procedural questions inside of the software people are already using?

What if you surfaced what people needed to know in the moment, they needed to know it, directly inside the task management tools where they start their day and the applications where they perform workflows?

It’d be a lot easier to:

  • Take advantage of the willingness to learn in the heat of a real-world task.
  • Avoid the trap of good information presented at the wrong time.
  • Save time creating training destined to go in one ear and out the other.
  • Reduce the amount of searching and context switching required to get work done.
  • Create more capacity for everyone to do more meaningful work.

That’s exactly what you can do with real-time enablement. Or the far better alternative to traditional software training.

The Bottom Line

Having workers memorize software procedures isn’t the most effective way to ensure knowledge retention. Participating in a long training session with overwhelming information can prevent learners from having the energy or memory space to retain the much-needed skills to tackle big problems, feel accomplished every day and hit their goals.

What’s equally true?

It’s unreasonable to expect learners to read dense documentation, play find Waldo while squinting at a busy software screenshot or endure a 20-minute video in the hopes of digesting a 10-second bite that will help them get unstuck.

And pulling people away from the work they were hired to do so they can go through a million learning modules and multiple questionably organized and outdated knowledge bases isn’t helping anyone.

But trading traditional software training for real-time enablement can empower people to save brain power for learning the stuff that should stick and lean into building the kind of institutional knowledge and operational excellence that will set your business apart.