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Microlearning In Learning And Development: The Digital Industrial Revolution

Technology and job functions are changing rapidly. In today’s fast-paced digital environment people need to constantly up-skill, but have little time to learn. Microlearning offers us a solution. Read on to learn how bite-sized short eLearning courses help deliver training that is highly effective.
Microlearning In Learning And Development: The Digital Industrial Revolution

The New Age For Corporate L&D: Microlearning In Learning And Development

Digital transformation is an industrial revolution, different to those the world has previously experienced. Pre-filling people with knowledge no longer works. Employees are now supposed to get in the driver’s seat and develop the skills necessary to find and retrieve knowledge, as needed, in a fast-paced and changing workplace environment. This learning type will not only be restricted to professional learning in the workplace, but, impact each individual’s life-long learning. Individual learners have individual needs, which, in the future, will be covered in a personal learning environment tailored to each person’s personal learning demands. Today’s workforce will need to apply the job-related skills they’ve learned and the hands-on skills they will need in everyday use. One of the most effective ways to do this is using microlearning in Learning and Development.

In their recent article, Camacho and Legare (2016) surveyed existing literature reviewing competency-based education (CBE) and personalized learning (PL) programs and found that “Twenty-first century employers prefer to recruit employees who have demonstrated mastery of competencies in the related field, and who are ready to perform the skills and tasks necessary in the workplace” (pp. 155). By incorporating short, bite-sized, logically structured lessons microlearning can help close any skills gaps employees have.

With the development of new digital tools, microlearning is becoming a singular area of technology-enhanced learning. Microlearning, as a different form of knowledge acquisition, is becoming an important facet of learner motivation and learning outcomes. To remain relevant to twenty-first century business, corporate learning is shifting its focus from learning for learning’s sake to learning to work better. Today’s methods of staff training consequently need to change to consider these non-traditional approaches to learning as relevant to their businesses and profit margins. With future staff training methods, content will no longer be prescribed for each individual employee. Instead, employees and their managers will construct individualized programs based on career plans and performance goals. Microlearning tasks can then be individualized to enable the employee to effectively and quickly close identified knowledge gaps.

Microlearning And Its Role In Informal Learning

Microlearning as a concept and practice has recently gained currency in the eLearning field. It is a relatively new learning paradigm - a digital approach that can effectively and quickly close knowledge gaps. The basics of microlearning is that we break down content into small chunks, or units (compressing learning materials) - using time flexibly with short activities, on demand, when and as the learner needs them. For end-users this has the benefits of avoiding information overload, and it promotes their learning by having them learn small concept in a step by step manner. Microcontent-based learning applications are designed to address learning objectives and bring learning into fast-paced environments that require knowledge-build up, even where learning has typically been difficult to achieve. Recently reporting on microlearning as a modernized education system, Jomah, Masoud, Kishore, and Aurelia (2016) argue that “micro learning is a new way of responding to the necessity of work-based learning, lifelong learning, personal learning, and much more. It is more successful due to its perfect combination of small chunks of learning content along with the flexibility of technology” (pp. 103).

Informal learning, likewise, is not led by formal direct instruction (i.e. knowledge acquisition through teacher-led learning with associated curriculum, syllabus, accreditation, and certification). We need to understand the difference between traditional ‘formal’ learning and contemporary ‘informal’ learning. Most of us understand formal learning as the instruction method we encountered when going to school. It was driven by rules and distinct roles (student and teacher, etc.). With formal training the learner does not get the info when he or she needs it, which is also why they don't ‘learn it’, retention levels are poor. Informal learning is not new. Relationships, for example, allow us to exchange experiences. Through digital games and simulations, also, we try to create experiences approximating real situations. We can learn through these digital experiences. Under the 70:20:10 rule the largest component of learning is described as informal, i.e. a side effect of whatever activity we are currently undertaking.

These two paradigms play a complimentary role … whereby … microlearning works as an element of informal learning where the end-user accesses the information they need to solve an immediate problem. This incidental learning can, then, greatly benefit knowledge workers (people who are expected to think and/or solve problems for a living: Lawyers, academics, doctors, architects, software developers, scientists, etc.) who are often faced with needing to learn a mountain of information, in a very short timeframe.

4 Advantages Of Informal eLearning

In shifting to a performance mind-set in the context of informal learning processes, employees as active problem-solvers build up valuable experience knowledge, which for them sticks in memory, as they have developed the solution themselves. New technologies help us facilitate informal learning contexts. Whilst classical Learning Management Systems (LMSs) largely support formal learning, an EPSS solution, for example, acts as a kind of ‘virtual coach’. Being integrated directly into the working context and the workplace these solutions help employees navigate complex business processes and IT landscapes.

It is important to consider how to best measure the success of training events. Should we, for example, consider a learner as successful based on whether or not a training course has been completed and a certificate received, or should the measure be the resulting sales volumes increase? Companies need to benefit from the informal learning processes that are already taking place, making them measurable and documented. Formal learning methods can be easily controlled and traced. Informal learning, on the other hand, is usually uncontrolled and spontaneous actioned by the end-user themselves. Ultimately, the learner does not receive any proof or certification. Through the integration of appropriate tools, companies can make these processes visible, supported and guided.

Informal learning offers us the following benefits:

  1. It's motivating.
    It arouses the curiosity of the learners - and motivates them to persevere.
  2. It's different.
    Transferring knowledge as never seen before.
  3. It’s flexible.
    Adaptations and expansions possible at all times. Content therefore stays up-to-date.
  4. It’s convenient.
    Because learning activities are shorter in duration, it is convenient for learners to acquire knowledge and learning concepts.

Therefore, the concepts of microlearning (facilitating informal learning) have increasingly become popular due to the rapid development of information technologies. Technology can now offer real time learning. We can provide nuggets of information to users, when they need it the most, and, we can also capture data that traditional forms of eLearning tools capture; reports, compliance data capture etc. And, because of the way it works, we can look at it as something to guide you through your company software or processes, step by step. Employees keep their eyes on the ‘road’ and the information that they need pops up when they get stuck!

The 70: 20: 10 Model

One popular learning theory is the 70-20-10 split. This model assumes that employees acquire only 10% of their knowledge in formal training. 70% of learning happens on-the-job, 20% informally, leaving only 10% from formal methods. Conventional wisdom suggests that knowledge comes from formal study programs. Subsequently, this is where corporate Learning and Development units have focused the majority of their resources. However, we are learning that informal learning (solving tricky problems around the coffee dispenser, for example) can offer us many benefits. Despite this, according to the 70:20:10 methodology we see that up to 80% of training budgets are being spent on formal training only, accounting for around 10% of effective learning. A poor training ROI.

A lot has been done recently in the technology sector to support formal training. However, we see less technology being designed specifically to boost the efficiency of on-the job or informal learning. While all learning technologies contribute to this multi-million-pound industry, the ones that support a company to make the most of their informal learning can actually help users work more productively, and save companies money on things like technical support.

Companies continue to invest the majority of their budget in formal training because it’s what we are most familiar with – However, this type of training doesn’t always help your staff to perform more productively or efficiently, and often it actually provides an interruption to their regular work.

So Where Are Companies Going Wrong?

A recognized problem with formal learning is that we quickly forget the knowledge learned, due to the forgetting curve. For more on this topic refer here. This is especially the case when we look at something like knowledge worker training. However, technology adoption in education settings is allowing us to develop affordable interactive learner-centric learning events.

According to advocates of informal learning employees benefit from receiving nuggets of information, in a form that they understand, at the place and time when they need it. For employees that means context-relevant learning. For employers the benefits are the ability to provide flexible training and not interrupt their work. However, many organisations still mainly focus on formal learning methods.

As described, we overwhelmingly see a trend of companies using conventionally accepted methods of delivery for training. Research shows us that we tend to invest resources in traditional staff training methods such as classroom training backed up by online learning. However, the information that your staff needs to work more effectively is no doubt available in the company somewhere, but is usually hidden in a huge spider web of processes and systems. Whether staff are looking for training materials on your local intranet or scattered around the different Learning Management Systems, Knowledge Management Systems, CMS, or even in their brain somewhere, it’s likely that the employee won’t be able to find what they need very quickly or without assistance. And much of this information or ‘how to’ type queries end up being the problem of a colleague or the Helpdesk.

A typical scenario: You’ve done your formal training, and a week or a month later you actually need to use the software you’ve been taught about. Let’s dig out the training notes we have taken… or not. Or the slides and huge bibles that came with the training.

Can’t figure it out? Maybe a colleague can help… or not.

What about Google? Well of course sometimes it helps and sometimes not.

Or maybe your corporate support desk knows the answer…


The application of new technologies and the development of accompanying pedagogies (learning methods) encourages us to rethink how to best execute corporate Learning and Development strategies. We can now gain a lot more, and expect a lot more, from the implementation of technology in our education environments. Contemporary technologies provide the enterprise with a lot more than ever before.

However, to make the most of new technologies we need to move past eLearning and go into the realm of performance support, where employees can learn in context with spaced repetition (frequently reviewing materials). For this we need tools that support informal learning. Importantly, modern learning technologies can increase your training ROI. Spaced repetition can be applied with microlearning techniques that use technology to support learners, so that they can learn step-by-step, regularly. Static macro-structures are dissolved, and learning can be done in between. This learning paradigm is also well suited for learning devices, such as smart handheld devices and tablet PC, as shorted learning activities means that learners can quickly and easily access learning content at their convenience.

Companies would be best served by focusing not only on the 10% of recognized formal learning activities, but also taking a 360-degree view of their corporate learning strategy. Instead of investing a large part of their training budgets exclusively on formal training measures, companies could also invest in user-centered learning offerings and thus be immersed in the entire 100% of the learning landscape. This will make the transition from traditional training to individual learning and give employees new skills, education, and a set of experiences that provide benefits over a lifetime.


  • Camacho, D. J., and Legare, J. M. (2016). Shifting gears in the classroom—movement toward personalized learning and competency‐based education. The Journal of Competency-Based Education, 1(4): 151-156. doi: 10.1002/cbe2.1032
  • Jomah, O., Masoud, A.K., Kishore, X.P. and Aurelia, S., 2016. Micro learning: A modernized education system, BRAIN. Broad Research in Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience, 7(1): 103-110.
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