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Micro learning: how an L&D idea spreads

In 2016 the term ‘micro learning’ spread like wildfire across the Learning and Development (L&D) community globally. What lay behind this success, and what does it tell us about the field of L&D?

(Side bar: Here’s my definition of ‘micro learning’: learning from content accessed in short bursts, content which is relevant to the individual and which is repeated over time to ensure retention and build conceptual understanding. For more, see ‘Micro learning: advance or fantasy‘.)

Every year I survey L&D professionals world-wide, asking what they think will be ‘hot’ the following year. I don’t define what I mean by ‘hot’, nor do I define the 15 terms that I ask people to choose from (they choose up to 3 options from the list, shown in random order). The phrasing is deliberate. I’m not looking for an accurate prediction of what people will be doing in the following 12 months, just how they feel about current trends.

In 2016, nearly 800 people in the L&D Global Sentiment Survey, and micro learning, new to the list that year, finished fifth on the final ranking of options. In 2017, it moved up to third position (nearly 900 people voted). Clearly, even more people internationally thought micro learning was hot for the 2017 survey, but behind those bald numbers lies a fascinating story.

Five regions accounted for 93% of the vote in 2017 (and a similarly high share in 2016): Australia and New Zealand, Europe (minus the UK), India, North America and the UK. Here’s how the regions voted in 2016:

One region stands out – North America (NA). Led by the USA, North America dominated the votes for micro learning. It accounted for 12.6% of the NA vote, and was the highest ranking option in the USA.

In 2017, the picture was very different. The other regions had all increased their vote for micro learning, catching up with the 2016 enthusiasm in NA, where the vote actually fell slightly:

Looking at this another way, we can see how the enthusiasm for micro learning spread across the world from North America. Here is how the entire vote for micro learning was split across those five regions in 2016:

And here’s how it was split in 2017:

Very graphically we can see that micro learning was hugely popular in North America in 2016, with that enthusiasm shared by the UK and Europe in roughly equal measure. Come 2017, the idea’s popularity was plateauing in NA and the UK, but had risen in Europe and Australia & New Zealand.

This prompts me to ask three questions. Why did we see this particular pattern for micro learning, what happens next, and is this pattern general or likely to be restricted to micro learning?

Why micro learning?

I think there are good reasons why interest in micro learning exploded in 2015/16. First, whatever you think of micro learning it sounds like an easy concept to grasp. If micro learning just means that chopping content into smaller bits is a good thing, then anyone can understand that, even if that is not what micro learning means and they are in fact misunderstanding it. (My PoV: micro learning is valuable, and works, but it’s a lot more than just chopping content into bits. More here.)

Also, if your concept of micro learning is that it solely consists of creating smaller bits of content, it’s pretty easy to do. Not only that – and this is crucial I believe – it’s easy to do with modern tools like short videos, which gives the additional appeal of doing something different and new.

These three factors together – simplicity, ease and novelty – mean that there was a growth in companies creating short bits of content, calling it micro learning and claiming it was new thing. (Again my PoV: micro learning isn’t new, doesn’t need technology and lots of small bits of unrelated content isn’t micro learning, it’s a scatter gun. Real micro learning builds concepts and knowledge over time.)

The kicker to all this – something easy to understand with a handy tag line like ‘micro learning’ is cat nip for modern media.

So, we have something that is readily (mis) understood, easy to do badly (doing it well takes time and effort) and yet receives plaudits because it is using the latest technology (even though actually micro learning doesn’t need technology).

Micro learning, then, was an idea ready to take off. What it needed was a strong economy, with a single currency and language and a strong entrepreneurial culture – conditions that make the perfect incubator for a hot trend.

And that is why micro learning, like rock and roll, was born in the USA and took over the world.

What next?

There will be a backlash. Of course there will. We’ve seen that the North American vote for micro learning has shrunk back, and that will continue elsewhere in the world over the next couple of years, as a reaction sets in to the over-blown claims of those who were riding the micro learning wave.

This will be annoying for vendors doing micro learning well, those companies creating coherent training programmes where regular, structured exposure builds an understanding of concepts as well as a body of knowledge and possibly some skills (Duolingo, the free language learning app, is a great example of this, as Clive Shepherd has pointed out).

In terms of the Gartner hype curve, micro learning will have crashed from the peak of inflated expectations into the trough of disillusionment. It will, however, make its way up to the plateau of productivity given time. At this point the vendors who actually deliver will be the only ones left in the game.

Is micro learning unique?

In 25+ years in the industry, I’ve never seen this spread of an idea from North America to the rest of the world portrayed so clearly as with micro learning. Is it unique? Could we expect other trends to begin in North America and then go on to storm the world? Will anything seen as hot in North America (and the USA in particular) necessarily be popular in the rest of the world? If something is not hot in the USA, does it ever stand a chance of mainstream appeal internationally? The USA may have given the world the enduring power of rock and roll. Gritty British pubs spawned punk rock which travelled the world, but never achieved the same breadth of popularity.

I believe that in the current learning technology environment, for an idea to reach global prominence it must gain acceptance in North America. Without the benefit of the considerable talent, scope for development and marketing dollars in that large, homogenous market, no idea will take off internationally.

There is another way to consider this point: the US market for learning technologies is potentially huge, but also brutally Darwinistic. For every success you can count a hundred brave failures that were too early, too late, or just missed the target. Frank Sinatra was no rock ‘n’ roller, but he had it right in his song. If you can make it New York, you can make it anywhere. Anywhere in the world.

Originally published on Linkedin

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