Microlearning has been touted for its inherent benefits toward performance development, yet integrating it into the landscape of your organization may still pose a challenge.

The first hurdle might be a lack of understanding: Learning leaders need to communicate the potential and purpose of using microlearning to promote performance growth. Once leaders recognize the potential and purpose, the next barrier might be the need for a receptive organization that not only comprehends the value of microlearning but is ready to explore how to onboard and weave it in to the current learning ecosystem. Usually, the maturity of the L&D department and its operational processes play a pivotal part in that successful adoption.

So, let’s pick up from there: You’re a learning leader in an organization that has aligned all these elements and is ready to see microlearning put to good use. So, what’s the obstacle in your path?

Maybe you’re stuck on using microlearning as a motivational tool for performance growth but are not sure if a formal or informal approach will have more appeal. Should you push or pull, as they ask. Let’s get you out of this tug-of-war and address how your L&D team can lead the way in motivating the learning audience for new performance gains by implementing a microlearning campaign (or two or three)!

What are push and pull?

Some folks consider informal and formal learning to be associated to the terms “push” and “pull” where:

  • The “pushing” of learning content is a formal action done by someone other than the learner—the L&D team or the learner’s manager, perhaps.
  • The ability for the individual learners to “pull” learning content is considered an informal action.

Though technically accurate, I like to work on a spectrum of learning opportunities and see that one could actually “pull” formal learning content when they need it. For example, a manager giving their first performance reviews for the year may want to refresh themselves on how to write a well-balanced appraisal. The manager opts to refresh themselves with a short eLearning module that walks through a method for crafting objective reviews. The module is part of a larger series of learning products that were developed for a manager leadership program, which the manager completed some time ago.

This is an example of a formal piece of training now being used informally by the individual. It wasn’t pushed to them; it was pulled by them.

Alternatively, the manager could have been provided by HR—pushed—a short microlearning campaign of refresher courses in preparation for performance evaluations on the noted topic among other subjects. For example, how to handle conflict when providing a performance evaluation or how to work toward setting performance goals with employees. This shortened series of refresher topics could have been formally put together to be distributed over a period of two weeks to prepare all managers for performance appraisals.

What helps to determine if your microlearning campaign(s) should be formal, informal, or somewhere in between?

As easy as 1-2-3

If I told you, it was as easy as:

  1. Knowing your audience;
  2. Knowing your organization’s limitations; and
  3. Working within the environment (or context) that #1 and #2 established you might think I was oversimplifying.

In some respect, yes, I distilled the decision-making down to help you make choices. But, on the other hand no, because there is work to be done by you, your L&D team, and ultimately your organization to address those parameters.

Know your audience

To begin, make sure you really know the learning audience that you are targeting. Think about it from every level, beginning with the organization at large and drilling down to the specific audience:

  • What is the current learning culture of your organization?
  • Are informal learning approaches already incorporated?
  • What motivates your audience?
  • What methods of learning demonstrate the highest levels of engagement and appeal with your target audience?
  • What has your audience been asking for in the way of performance development that the organization hasn’t provided yet?

Know your limitations

Constraints could include budget, technology, work environment, and even organizational culture and behaviors. Just because you build it doesn’t mean anyone will be motivated to use it. Knowing what you do about your audience from above, consider the following points around limitations:

  • What kind of organizational buy-in do you have to try a more informal approach, if one does not exist?
  • Will incorporating an informal (or formal) approach be too different from the current approach to delivering training?
  • Can you afford, implement, and sustain meaningful incentives?
  • Does your organization see incentives as a gamble in conjunction with the initiative?
  • Are delivery options limited or perhaps locked down in ways that leave little room for easy-to-access microlearning pieces?
  • Is your L&D team only equipped to create microlearning products of a certain type?

Working within your environment

Your audience and your limitations create an environment or, in other words, help to define the optimal opportunities. Let’s take a look at a situation where a company had a limited budget but wanted to introduce a totally new approach to personal-professional development.

The desire was to incorporate an informal microlearning campaign. Part of the reason was to see how motivated employees were to take more responsibility toward their own performance success. Another reason for using microlearning was the shift in the work environment, as a largely remote workforce began returning to the office.

From gathering information on the employees, the L&D team knew that part of the issue with performance success was lack of incentive. Employees were currently feeling challenged to “do it all”: They were working around life dynamics that posed significant challenges, while also being expected to return to the “cube farm.”

The solution was built around a flexible work plan. Employees who completed a series of selected soft-skill and professional development topics within a certain time frame would build a bank of hours that they could use to work from home, providing the flexibility to manage the unexpected or to optimize performance. This is a simplification, but the ability to “earn” flexibility was used as the motivator.

The incentive could be increased if specific performance measures on evaluations were met and an employee demonstrated ongoing professional development in more formal programs already offered by the organization.

The microlearning campaign for the informal piece was a cross-combination of converting formal training into microlearning products using delivery methods employees were familiar with, in addition to augmenting those products with a few new options to test for user consumption and appeal. (Smart move!)

It’s a spectrum, not a dichotomy

With an understanding of the key factors that help you make decisions on design, method, and delivery, the following table provides characteristics of how formal and informal are typically viewed. From the example above, you notice that the organization didn’t sit firmly in one column or the other. They created a spectrum by using both to deliver an approach that focused on their participants.

Push (Formal)

Pull (Informal)

Organization defines goals

Goals set by learner, but usually with guidance from manager

Learning content development and availability are performed by organization, and content is “pushed” to learner

The learner “pulls” the learning when they want it

The organization defines how the content is structured and delivered

The learner defines how they will structure consuming the content

Organization brands content to ensure accuracy and consistent message

The learner may gather knowledge and content from coworkers or peers

The content is consistent in message and validated for accuracy

The learner’s content may not always be accurate, relevant, or credible

Organization determines the product type, which usually does not yield multiple products for a variety of learning preferences

Learner creates their own learning environment

Organization budgets for these learning programs

Typically cost-effective, sometimes free if social learning is incorporated 100%

When you look at the dichotomy, you may see why I encourage a spectrum mindset. You can motivate the learner by taking microlearning products and making them available whenever (informal). You can suggest pathways (formal) but give the learner their own ability to develop their learning (informal). Tie the microlearning campaign to a certification, badge, or even a promotion to incentivize. The options can be somewhat limitless when you begin thinking this way.

Caution on technology driving microlearning efforts

I denoted that you create an environment from knowing your audience and comprehending your organization’s limitations when determining how microlearning will serve a purpose. However, the term ‘microlearning’ has become synonymous with mobile learning. This has led many learning leaders or corporate leaders to believe that microlearning is more difficult to leverage because of the technology. Reasons vary: Some organizations are averse to technology; some types of work do not mesh well with mobile learning; or the organization thinks it would be overly complex or costly to implement.

Remember, it's the job of your L&D team to adjust the presentation of materials, resources, activities, and tools to motivate the end users in their given learning environment. But environment doesn’t always equate to technology. Which means if you are moving to a more informal option, you may want to have content on a key subject delivered in varied ways to appeal to as many individuals as possible in the learning audience.

For example, a podcast, a video, and an infographic can all deliver the same information. If designed correctly, all three will provide the same learning objective; however, delivering multimodal content empowers the end user to choose which of the microlearning products they will leverage (perhaps all three)!

Concluding thoughts

Performance gains for your organization come with an oftentimes unspoken expectation that learners are already motivated to grow and develop. Microlearning, when intentionally designed and well-coordinated in factoring its implementation for formal or informal use, can be motivating unto itself.

Determining how formal your microlearning campaign needs to be really boils down to your audience, your organization’s limitations, and the context the cross-section of those two factors creates. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, or one or the other. Your organization does need to pick a lane and move with it, but that doesn’t mean there’s only one path that microlearning can have within your company.

Explore learning modalities with your peers

Shifting learning culture or adopting new training strategies can be an uphill climb; learning leaders do not need to undertake this challenge alone. Share what works, and explore the strategies and skills required to navigate the needs of today’s ever-changing workplace with your learning leadership peers.

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