Look around at employee retention and engagement indicators and the news isn’t good. As the economy improves and the labor market gets tighter, companies are facing new challenges every day, especially in three key areas:

  • Employees don’t love their jobs. While the latest Gallup research finds that employee engagement has slightly improved, the vast majority ranged from “not engaged” (51.9 percent) to “actively disengaged” (15.7 percent).
  • Employees are leaving. While most employees leave their jobs over salary, a 2014 report from staffing giant Robert Half International found that one-fifth leave because of limited opportunities for advancement and 10 percent leave because they’re bored with their jobs.
  • Employees need more development. The US ranks 14th in the world in developing, attracting, and retaining employees (IMD World Competitiveness Center, IMD World Talent Report 2015). Many companies don’t do enough to keep their pipelines filled with talented workers to satisfy their organization’s needs.
Beyond that, companies face the challenges of improving employee performance, leadership, and management development, briefing new employees, and myriad other issues.

In this article, I describe a strategy that uses technology to address these challenges, and the experience of several companies that have adopted this strategy: microlearning.

Meeting the development challenge

Traditionally, learning and development (L&D) leaders have turned to “weapons of mass instruction” for solutions. These traditional methods—including lengthy, cognitively oppressive and out-of-context lectures, text-based tools, and other formats—are ineffective, boring, and resisted by employees. When learners are forced to passively consume content, we know they retain far less than when they’re engaged and learning in intervals. This makes the L&D leader’s job more difficult: not only do weapons of mass instruction not work, employees resent them.

Microlearning uses short, highly focused content to build new skills and behaviors a little at a time. Merging technology with short, engaging content that employees can use flexibly at the point of need gives L&D professionals a new tool to develop employees. You can now weave training into employees’ workdays with minimal disruption, since they can use these modules on demand and as they have time to do so. Instead of losing days to in-house training programs that leave employees overwhelmed and unable to remember what they learned, microlearning is part of the organizational fabric. This helps them develop by integrating new information with action and repetition—a model better suited for the way most people learn.

Cutting cognitive load

When psychologist John Sweller studied cognitive load—the amount of mental effort people need to use memory and process information—he found three types. Intrinsic cognitive load and germane cognitive load refer to the level of difficulty and the effort put forth to reinforce a concept. Those are necessary. However, extraneous load is additional effort required from learners when training programs are distracting and unfocused. L&D leaders should reduce extraneous load whenever possible.

In the structure of most traditional L&D programs, the instruction happens too far outside of the relevant performance context to be useful. Information-based formats focus on transferring facts and knowledge without giving learners the important benefits of experience, feedback, failure, reflection, recall, practice, and other experientially-based benefits that have longer-lasting impact.

To overcome that weakness, microlearning develops complex skills in short, focused segments. Using research-based techniques including repetition, spacing, variation, and interleaving, or mixing concepts to increase learning retention, microlearning helps students increase germane cognitive load while minimizing extraneous cognitive load. Because components are relatively short and focused, they give students the opportunity to learn a concept, then go out and put it into practice immediately instead of spending a day at training and then returning to the office, only to forget what they have just learned.

Fighting the forgetting curve

Because microlearning cuts the fluff and distraction out of L&D programs, it reduces extraneous cognitive load and increases retention. Good microlearning programs create spaced opportunities for repetition, recognition, recall, and reflection, all of which help a new concept or behavior stick. Such spacing and repetition make it less likely that you’ll forget concepts from one training session to the next because they’re regularly reinforced and backed up by action.

Let’s say you want to learn how to give excellent feedback. A traditional method might have you spending a half-day in a conference room learning about why feedback is important, how different personality types respond to feedback, and techniques for giving effective feedback. Then you’re sent back to the office to put what you learned into practice.

With microlearning, your experience would be more focused and happen at different intervals, focusing on germane cognitive load. You might have one five-minute session on introductory concepts with spaced cues to practice them during the week. A week later, you might have a short review and slightly more challenging concepts and exercises. Three weeks later, the program might include another check-in and review. By combining focused information with intervals of practice, students have a chance to use what they’ve been taught immediately and remember it because it’s backed up with more training and more practice.

Overthrowing static L&D cultures

For organizations that have struggled to find the most effective training programs, microlearning can unleash powerful results. For global advertising and marketing leader Saatchi & Saatchi, staying ahead of the curve in the fast-paced world of digital marketing is essential. The company’s Los Angeles office needed short, efficient video content to train employees on everything from digital marketing basics to mobile advertising production to social media fundamentals.

The team turned to Grovo to use a series of self-contained units with individual learning objectives. Analytics after implementation showed that nearly 90 percent of users reported better understanding of fundamental concepts, while 84 percent said they would be able to put new concepts to immediate use. Fifty-nine percent completed more training than they were assigned. The team at Saatchi & Saatchi felt these were remarkable results.

“Grovo’s analytics far exceed any prior experience we’ve had. We can instantly see where our strengths and weaknesses are and plan accordingly,” says Jordana Reim, Saatchi LA executive producer.

New York City-based talent recruiting firm 24 Seven was facing several training-related challenges. With 12 offices and various managers, training manager Vanessa Sandoval described the organization’s training effort as “chaotic” and lacking consistency. She liked the idea of translating the company’s messaging into easy-to-use, flexible microlearning components. Employees could use the content as they needed it according to what their schedules allowed.

Employee performance improved, while their reaction to training was more positive. Even the management team was impressed. In addition, the success of the program allowed Sandoval to introduce other training initiatives. “Our learners love it. They can access it from home or in the cab on the way to work. It’s meeting their needs instead of forcing them through training,” she says.

For these companies and others, microlearning has changed the game. L&D leaders are no longer forcing resistant employees to sit through another weapon of mass instruction, potentially alienating them and making them less engaged. Instead, employees choose to use interesting, informative content on their own terms, incentivized by the “win” or “a-ha” moment inherent in each component. Such moments of enlightenment are highly motivating and build-in an inherent employee incentive to microlearning’s bite-size, interactive components. In addition, L&D leaders have an affordable, employee-friendly, easy-to-manage way to administer training and skill-building programs.

Microlearning: training revitalized

The demands placed on today’s L&D leaders are greater than ever before. Savvy leaders are turning away from traditional, bloated weapons of mass instruction and, instead, embracing microlearning as integral to their programs. Microlearning meets the needs of today’s tech-savvy workers because its components are designed to be focused and flexible, while also integrating tested methods to reduce extraneous cognitive load and reinforcing key concepts for greater learner retention. Instead of using expensive methods that don’t work, microlearning is a leaner, more agile way to create lasting habits and cultural change. Employees experience better results while accessing training on their own terms. The result is a modernized L&D program that serves both the needs of the organization and the learner as efficiently and effectively as possible.


Adkins, Amy. “Little Change in U.S. Employee Engagement in January.” Gallup. 8 February 2016.


IMD World Competitiveness Center. IMD World Talent Report 2015. Institute for Management Development, 2015.


Robert Half. “Why Good Employees Quit.” 22 October 2014.