Around 2,300 years ago, Aristotle was traveling the Ancient Greek equivalent of the conference circuit. His lectures, later collected as the Nicomachean Ethics, included a key insight about human performance:
Yet to this day, many workplace learning experiences are designed not around the behaviors people need to adopt in order to succeed, but rather around knowledge transfer—getting information from point A to point B. No wonder nearly half of organizations report that their biggest employee learning challenge is getting people to apply what they learn on the job.
Maybe had Aristotle chosen a workshop format, instead of a lecture, people might have learned to change behaviors by now.
Instead, we need a different approach. I’m going to argue that it’s microlearning. But first, let’s take stock.
Why target behaviors?
A behavior isn’t a one-off task or action. It’s the way someone acts in response to a stimulus. For example, when someone is assigned work, do they start on it right away, or wait until the pressure of the deadline looms? When facing a challenge, does someone pause to identify the root of the problem or opt for a quick fix?
Behaviors tend to be consistent, so there must be something durable underpinning them in the human mind.
That foundation is procedural memory.
Unlike declarative memories, which are memories about events or facts, like the difference between a road bike and a mountain bike, procedural memories pertain to acts, like how to actually ride a bike.
Here’s why that matters.
When learning initiatives aim to get learners to memorize a series of management best practices, or the features and benefits of a product, they are dealing in declarative memory.
But skills like successfully managing a team or selling a product, as with most business practices, depend on procedural memory. Who would want to receive feedback from a manager who knows to be clear and direct, but can’t relay criticism with compassion? Who wants to talk on the phone with a salesperson who knows the benefits of a product cold, but can’t make you feel as if he has your best interests in mind? These subtleties are wired into our bodies, and if missing, lead to awkward and sometimes off-putting performance.
So, why microlearning?
Motivation is a fickle thing. At any given point, people are not very motivated to learn. It’s a central reason why many training programs fail.
But there are triggers that open up motivational windows in which people are willing, even excited, to learn and change their behaviors. These windows can last from a few months (e.g. when someone is given a new role or responsibility), to a few weeks (e.g. when someone has a big deadline or presentation coming up), to a few minutes (e.g. when someone is walking into a big meeting for which they’re not fully prepared).
To capitalize on these windows, you must be ready at the moment of need with fast, digestible, practical, self-paced learning experiences. In other words, you need a microlearning approach.
Without one, people will default to using point-of-need resources that may support performance in the moment, but don’t adequately change or improve it in the long run.
A microlearning approach to behavior change
1. Identify target behaviors
For any given business problem, identify one or more specific behaviors you could build in employees that would contribute to solving the problem—rather than pieces of knowledge you want to transfer:
|Business problem||Example of target behavior|
|Stagnant innovation||Use design thinking to solve problems|
|Inexperienced managers||Give direct reports clear feedback|
|Poor organizational diversity||Un-bias the interview process|
|Low employee engagement||Identify and play to your strengths|
|Losing deals to competitors||Deliver captivating sales demos|
2. Tie behaviors to a high-motivation moment of need
Once you know what you want your people to do, identify the moments when they would be most motivated to do them, and surround those moments with microlearning experiences.
|Moments of need
|Moments of need
|Joining a new organization or team||Wave of new employees|
|Using new technology critical to one’s job||Global expansion|
|Leading a project for the first time||Merger or acquisition|
|Interviewing someone for the first time||Entering a new market|
|Becoming a manager||Releasing a new product|
Remember, motivational windows are small, so as soon as someone feels the need, they should be assigned or able to access the relevant learning experiences.
3. Break behaviors into microbehaviors
Workplace behaviors can be big and complex. To make them less intimidating for learners, slice up each behavior into its component parts (i.e. micro-behaviors). For example:
|Using design thinking to solve problems, in microbehaviors|
|1. Identify the right problem|
|2. Ideate to come up with many solutions|
|3. Rapidly prototype to mitigate risk|
|4. Implement your findings|
Don’t worry about getting micro-behaviors exactly right; two people might come up with drastically different lists. As long as you design learning experiences around small, component actions, the overall behavior will be easier to learn.
4. Ask learners what makes the behaviors hard or easy
Why do they fail? Why do they succeed? What concerns them about each micro-behavior? Look for patterns in their answers—do learners struggle with the behavior because they lack the requisite knowledge, environment, skills, habits, or attitudes? A handy way to remember those five gaps is to think of the pop star Kesha.
5. Administer behavioral surveys
These surveys get right down to asking about what people actually do on the job, or at least what they believe they do. In these surveys, learners self-report how frequently they perform a set of behaviors (you can also survey their managers or peers to reduce bias). Once you have a behavioral baseline, you can administer the same surveys after the learning experience to see the impact. See this post for more measurement techniques.
6. Space out microlearning and behavioral practice
Get people to start by practicing each micro-behavior one at a time for 5-10 minutes a day, then in combination, to build up procedural fluency. This gradual approach also ensures that practice remains focused and deliberate. Learners should ideally receive feedback during or after each practice session so they can properly reflect on, and refine, their performance.
|Monday||Intro to behavior. Learn microbehavior 1. Practice.|
|Tuesday||Review microbehavior 1. Learn microbehavior 2. Practice.|
|Wednesday||Review microbehavior 2. Learn microbehavior 3. Practice.|
|Thursday||Review microbehavior 3. Learn microbehavior 4. Practice.|
|Friday||Review microbehavior 4. Learn microbehavior 5. Practice.|
|—||Real world performance|
|Week 2||Targeted review based on performance|
What this might look like for the behavior of using design thinking to solve problems:
|Monday||Intro to design thinking. Learn to identify the problem. Practice.|
|Tuesday||Review problem identification. Learn to ideate solutions. Practice.|
|Wednesday||Review ideation. Learn to rapidly prototype. Practice.|
|Thursday||Review prototyping. Learn to implement findings. Practice.|
|Friday||Practice the microbehaviors together.|
|—||Apply design thinking in a real situation|
|Week 2||Targeted review based on performance|
7. Place calls-to-action at the end of learning experiences
A call-to-action is an instruction designed to get an immediate response. Use them to get learners in the habit of practicing behaviors immediately after learning them. These small actions can serve as triggers for harder behaviors—it’s a lot easier to keep doing something that you’ve already begun than it is to start doing it in the first place.
Call-to-action in a microlearning lesson about giving positive feedback
Learning is transformation, not information transfer
Thinking about learning in terms of behavioral change just might be the most powerful shift you can make in your mindset as a learning professional. That’s because influencing the actions employees take on the job is the best chance you have at generating demonstrable ROI. “If you design for the outcomes, you’re designing at the wrong place,” says Stanford behavioral scientist BJ Fogg. “You need to design for the behaviors that lead to the outcome.”
Looking to create a culture of continuous learning in your organization? Download our book on microlearning to learn how.
Alex Khurgin is the Director of Learning Innovation at Grovo. He applies philosophy and humor to roiling debates about organizational learning, and has presented his insights at conferences such as ATD, Techweek, DevLearn, and CLO Innovators.
Follow him on Twitter @learninkhurgin