As the chief financial officer (CFO) of a leading financial services firm, John Hancock Investments, I can tell you that mitigating risk is clearly an area of focus. Our business is becoming increasingly complex, so it’s crucial to keep the expertise of our staff up to date. As a mutual funds company, we’re impacted by many regulatory bodies that are active in imposing new rules and guidance to follow. On top of that, John Hancock Investments has a very diverse product portfolio that’s always evolving so we can ensure we’re meeting the needs of our clients.

Basically—there’s a lot at stake.

Let’s say someone forgets to apply the right tax-code provision that adversely impacts a fund’s distribution or a security is mispriced in accordance with our policies; there could be financial and reputational consequences associated with these types of risks. When you have increased levels of complexity, the inherent risk is that people may not understand the policies and procedures well enough to execute effectively in accordance with our practices.

So, what’s an effective way to mitigate that risk? By building the expertise of your employees and ensuring they retain that knowledge, and by leveraging a learning tactic that’s rooted in brain-science principles: microlearning.

Challenging the status-quo

First, let’s back up to how we used to share information. Like many companies, we used traditional methods of training such as lunch-and-learns, town halls, and individual department meetings. Although we still use many of these collaborative avenues, I felt there were some enhancements we needed to make to our existing learning process. We needed improved consistency and distribution of our messaging; more engaging content that appealed to all age groups within the team; and, most importantly, a better way to ensure everyone was actually retaining all of this important information. This was around the time I started reading the book Exponential Organizations, by Salim Ismail and others, and came across a company called Axonify in one of the chapters.

Axonify is an employee knowledge platform that met all of the criteria we were looking for in a solution. One of the things I found most interesting was how this platform uses a technique, called microlearning, to drive continuous learning and produce legitimate behavior change. It ensures employees are learning—and, better yet, remembering.  

What is microlearning?

Basically, microlearning is a way to deliver content in short, bite-sized amounts—either several times a week or even daily—but what I’ve learned is there’s so much more to it than that. It’s a common misconception that microlearning just means short pieces of content. So, if you take a long video or a long white paper and just shorten it, does it count as microlearning? Not exactly. Here’s where the brain science comes into play. There’s a lot of research out there that supports the theory that humans can only absorb four to five pieces of information in one sitting. This is why breaking it up into smaller pieces makes it easier to understand and retain.

What I learned with Axonify is that microlearning is an essential technique that organizations can use to truly increase employee knowledge and drive business results.

Three microlearning principles

There are three key principles Axonify believes are essential for microlearning—and yes, they’re built on these well-researched and well-supported brain science tactics.

1. Space it out

When you intentionally repeat information to your employees, but space it out with gaps of time in between, it helps them retain the knowledge and store it in their long-term memory. For example, although our employees log in to the Axonify platform every day, they only answer three to five questions in one sitting. They won’t see the same questions every time; rather, after a certain amount of time has passed, specific questions will be served up to ensure the knowledge has been retained. If an employee answers incorrectly, the platform will know to offer that information up again sooner to continue to help build that knowledge.

2. Make them remember

You might be able to get away with cramming the night before an exam, but in many organizations, there is no room for error. Learning complex information and executing with accuracy takes a more strategic approach to ensure memory retention. To help ingrain critical information in the minds of employees, Axonify uses a brain-science principle called retrieval practice that’s based on proven research and has a higher success rate than conventional study methods. Basically, employees are asked questions, which helps build and reinforce their knowledge. People managers are responsible for loading questions into the platform on a quarterly basis so they can ensure the learning stays consistent and our teams are all up to speed.

3. Measure their confidence

Due to the intricate and dynamic environment in many organizations, employees need to be more certain of their actions on a daily basis. In the Axonify platform, every time employees answer a question, they also have to rate their confidence level for that response. This forces them to pause and reflect for a moment as to whether they have low, medium, or high confidence in the answer they’re providing instead of simply venturing a guess. By using this approach, leadership can evaluate employees’ knowledge as well as their confidence so they can offer the right coaching to every employee.

Engaging employees at every level

Many organizations have a diverse and growing team, with a higher percentage of employees falling into the Millennial demographic. Regardless of age or experience level, however, one thing everybody can agree on is: For learning to be effective, it should be fun. It’s critical that each person on a team is keeping current with their training and building their expertise, but it’s up to organizational leaders and managers to ensure important information to do one’s job effectively is delivered in a way that sticks.

With proven learning strategies, like microlearning, and with the help of a robust solution like Axonify, we’re able to push out essential and consistent content to each person on my team. It makes my job a lot easier because my managers are actively involved in coaching and identifying training opportunities for their employees. One of the techniques I find really useful to ensure everyone is staying on top of what they need to know is to check the dashboard feature in Axonify on a regular basis. I can easily pull up reports to understand how many people have been logging on, what each department’s participation rate is, and the knowledge levels of teams and individuals, as well as specific areas where employees are struggling. I have transparency at a department level for each group, and in my weekly manager meetings I can easily share those results with everybody so we can work more proactively to address any potential concerns.

Driving real business results

As I mentioned, the dynamic world of mutual-fund management and investments, and the financial services market in general, continues to evolve and is becoming more complex—increasing our level of risk. At John Hancock Investments, we’ve always had strong controls, policies, procedures, and effective operating practices in place. However, with a growing team, it’s crucial each person is up to speed with not only the company’s complex product offerings, but to execute flawlessly and comply with the ever-changing financial policies and regulations. We don’t have room for error, so building employee expertise to mitigate risk is what’s helping us drive real business results.

After we rolled out Axonify to more than 100 employees, we saw a direct correlation between participation rates, employee engagement, and performance. Basically, employees who logged in to the platform more often made fewer errors and had good knowledge capture from questions they responded to. We have an 89 percent voluntary participation rate across all demographics, with people logging in at least 15 or 16 times a week. Our folks are increasingly understanding the roles and responsibilities of other groups within our department. In fact, there’s been an average knowledge lift increase of 17 percent across all teams, and some topic areas reached as high as 37 percent.

What does all of this tell me? Microlearning is working.

The way our department is structured allows employees to learn on the job, and generally, most of the people we hire come in with experience. We are not an entry-level shop, if you will. This is why quick bursts of knowledge are a lot more efficient and effective than putting someone through a 12-week training course. As our business continues to involve, our people are continuing to learn.