From Classrooms to Chatbots: Choosing the Right L&D Programme Format for Business Impact

Today’s L&D professionals have an unprecedented range of learning mechanisms available to them. Choosing the most effective solution requires flexibility and skill.
Bevan Rees
Jun 09, 2019

Not long ago, a popular ‘Did you know?’ doing the rounds in boardroom presentations and water-cooler conversations was the astonishing discovery that human beings had shorter attention spans than goldfish.

This belief emerged from a now-famous study conducted by the Consumer Insights team at Microsoft Canada in 2015. Though it has subsequently been shown to be an unsupported claim based on non-Microsoft research, it didn’t take long for the juicy factoid to go viral. It was referenced in major publications from Time magazine to the Guardian to the New York Times, and it soon influenced the thinking in business areas such as marketing, consumer products and L&D.

Finding the right fit

Like marketers, learning and development professionals began to question whether content should be repackaged to make it more digestible to the user. And, despite being triggered by a piscine myth, value emerged from crafting more direct, message-focused material.

Though not solely a product of the goldfish debate, microlearning has been a positive response to the constant pressures placed on individuals’ attention. By giving staff greater autonomy over their learning and delivering information in small bursts, learning and development is matching the reality of employees’ working lives.

Does this spell the end of tried and tested L&D methods? Probably not.

“There will always be a place for traditional learning programmes to upskill and, more importantly, to retain top talent,” says Kåre Sivertsen, Training Manager at Bishopsgate Financial.

Karen Hebert-Maccaro, Chief Learning Experience Officer at O’Reilly Media, agrees: “Traditional learning and training programmes will continue to play a role in the learning ecosystem, albeit likely a further diminished one.”

In rapidly changing work, workplaces and workforces, these methods are being applied in a more niche fashion.

“Traditional learning and training programmes create immersive experiences and certain use cases call for immersion,” continues Hebert-Macarro. “For example, new hire orientation and some forms of leadership development are best delivered in a traditional manner.”

“Not all learning can be condensed into bite size chunks,” adds Tom Marsden, CEO at Saberr. “Some learning requires time and dedication to be absorbed. Microlearning has a place as part of a broader architecture of learning.”

The key lies in fitting delivery method to purpose. Learning systems need to accommodate multiple paths and intelligently select the best tools for specific applications. It is a classic case of ‘and’ not ‘or’.

Darren Hockley, MD of DeltaNet International, advocates a more balanced view.

“So often when we think about learning in organisations, we’re presented with the option of ‘traditional’ (meaning face-to-face or classroom learning) versus online learning as if the two are inexorably opposed.”

“In my opinion, these so-called mortal enemies, fighting to reign supreme over mandatory training, aren’t opposites at all. Rather, the future of learning and training programmes at work will take the best of both approaches into consideration.”

Courses are still important, particularly in creating opportunities for reflection and collaboration. But traditional training will play a smaller role in the learning matrix, making way for microlearning and similar on-demand resources.

In the flow of work

Microlearning’s full potential lies not in its brevity, but in its relevance. It meets learners where they are, delivering what they need when they most need it – in the flow of work. Integrating learning into a person’s workflow could include anything from workplace-based coaching, collaborative communities, online digital content, or being able to access learning through smart devices.

“In the case of eLearning,” suggests Hockley, “The intelligence lies in not holding the audience’s attention for long periods of time. Instead, the trick is to give learners only the information they need so that they can, well…get on with their job.”

I recall running a leadership development programme that included the teaching of mindfulness techniques. Before we adjusted our teaching approach to include application-based interventions, participants regularly reported that the biggest obstacle to learning the skills was concern about the work they were missing in order to be in our sessions. Ironically, what was most preventing the learning of mindfulness was the training of mindfulness.

Karen Hebert-Maccaro believes that microlearning is part of the solution to such challenges.

“What microlearning could offer – and what is still highly valuable and relevant – is content designed to be consumable in the moment of need to solve a problem. In this way, microlearning, if designed well, offers short form, highly applied learning that could be a key to providing performance adjacent resources to your learners who want and need to learn while working”.

Embracing the evolution

Technological advances are simultaneously challenges and opportunities for L&D professionals. Chatbots are already being used to provide instant assistance to learners, with early versions of digital coaches, such as Saberr’s CoachBot, already being used in complex team environments.

Similarly to Amazon’s seemingly omniscient recommendation algorithm, AI and machine learning are being used to deliver L&D experiences that respond intelligently to the learner’s digital activity. By monitoring the user’s behaviour the system can offer helpful suggestions, tips or support in real time. Emerging technologies like VR and AR are further poised to redefine the learning process.

Almost paradoxically, the more digital the landscape becomes, the more human-centric learning and development practitioners need to be in their approach. Though the tools available to L&D professionals are expanding continuously, using them to maximum effect requires a flexible and considered approach.