Microlearning: Why ‘working small’ is often the key to ‘thinking big’

Stuart Affleck at Brook Graham explains the benefits that microlearning can bring to D&I training programmes

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.  The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and starting on the first one.”

This is a quote from celebrated author Mark Twain – likely something he discovered when learning how best to start a book and actually mange to finish it.  But the quote means so much more than that, and hits on a number of levels that apply to so much more than just literature.

The implication here is that in order to ‘get ahead’ in anything and do the best that you can possibly do, the first step you should take is breaking down the big task into a series of smaller tasks.

Right now, ‘getting ahead’ is exactly what swathes of businesses are trying to do when it comes to their diversity and inclusion (D&I) policies.  The benefits of promoting good D&I are fairly widely understood now.  Forbes research, for example, found that 60% of companies had metrics in place in September 2020 to measure the success of their diversity and inclusion efforts, and that number will only be higher now.

Many now understand that good D&I directly impacts a business’s bottom line – for example, by widening the talent pool they can draw from, improving the quality of work done for clients, and improving their reputation which in turn attracts more talent and business.

This involves lots of D&I training for staff, some of which is done well and much of which is not. Many businesses are having to grapple with D&I on such a scale for the very first time – they often don’t fully understand it themselves, so how can they expect staff to?  It’s such a new and complex issue for many people that there is a serious risk of information overload, and subsequently disengagement.  It can be a daunting prospect for many as they get to grips with often emotive topics and unfamiliar and evolving terminology.

This is where the second part of Twain’s quote comes in handy – breaking the complex overwhelming topic of D&I into smaller pieces when training staff.  We call this ‘microlearning’.

Employers need to accept that simply gathering their staff in a room and running a PowerPoint on D&I simply isn’t enough. For such a new and complex challenge, they need to think creatively about how to get the most out of their training, and how to best engage their staff so that the information is retained and used.

We recently ran an empirical study on microlearning, collating publicly-available data on learning habits and the way people want to be taught. It made a number of interesting findings and also led us to create our Conscious Inclusion Hub, which itself makes use of microlearning to help people learn about D&I.  The studies we identified made a number of interesting and telling findings – for example, not only does the average employee only have about 24 minutes per week to devote to formal learning, but that 60% of knowledge is lost within an hour of learning it and the average attention span has dropped from 12 to 8 seconds since the start of the mobile revolution.

This signals a great shift in attitudes towards learning and means that microlearning could genuinely be transformational for learners and businesses.  The old styles of training are just not fit for purpose now in so many instances, and so we really do believe that microlearning, as part of a blended learning approach, is the way forward for any type of organisation running D&I training.

Microlearning is effectively about delivering training through bite-sized pieces of content, and then repeating those small pieces of training repeatedly and in different, creative ways (such as games, quizzes, films, and all sorts of different mediums). It makes training more memorable, engaging and stimulating and results in learners being much more likely to absorb the information than if it was given to them in longer bursts.

D&I training has received a considerable amount of bad press, as many people view it merely as a ‘tick-box’ exercise that businesses put in place for compliance purposes. There are doubts as to whether it can really bring about change within an organisation.

Microlearning is not just about making training more concise and easier to tackle, but also about making it more relatable. Businesses also need to take steps to anchor the training they are delivering to real-life situations that people can relate to. Otherwise, the lessons being taught are abstract and difficult to visualise, and therefore learn from.

By using a ‘little and often’ approach, businesses can then cement new concepts in a way that users can relate to easily.  The effectively underpins wider D&I learning programmes and has been successfully proven to bring about real, genuine and lasting change in organisations.

The message to businesses?  Make use of microlearning! The data speaks for itself.  Learning habits have permanently changed and there is no reason for businesses not to update training programmes to keep in step with this.

To finish on another quote from Twain, he once commented that he “was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one”.  Let’s hope businesses really do see the opportunity here and start running D&I training in a way that’s beneficial and impactful for their staff and the wider organisation.  It’s all to play for.

Stuart Affleck is a director at Brook Graham, a diversity and inclusion consultancy which is part of Pinsent Masons’ Vario – a professional services firm.

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