Interview with our CEO

Q. What’s the most important thing learning professionals need to understand about technology-enabled training?

Stephen J. Meyer: I can only speak for soft-skills training – specifically leadership and sales training. Those are our areas of expertise. The key issue is staggeringly low utilization rates. It’s been the dirty little secret about e-learning for 15 years and it’s time to air it out. The reasons for it are no mystery. In the late 1990s techies started creating unwatchable soft-skills e-learning programs by the thousands. In the early 2000s, along came rapid authoring tools and non-techies started creating unwatchable e-learning modules by the tens of thousands. The least-unwatchable of them found their way into massive libraries that are still being sold primarily to large companies. The value proposition seems attractive – you can offer a massive library of training programs to ALL your employees at a ridiculously low cost-per-learner. But as a learning solution, massive e-learning has been a catastrophic failure. Only a fraction of users ever log in. And those who do often hate what they find – they watch one or two modules per year on average.

Q. What’s wrong with soft-skills e-learning content?

SJM: There are three problems. First, most modules are too long. Few modern learners will fire up an electronic device and watch a module that lasts more than 10 minutes. I don’t think that’s a debatable statement today, unless you’re arguing that the real limit is five minutes. The second problem is embedded interactivity – that is, the practice of placing quizzes and other interactive activities in the middle of a module. For decades embedded interactivity has been an article of faith among many instructional designers. But it doesn’t work with soft-skills e-learning. It slows down the module. It kills the pace. It irritates. And it causes abandonment. The third problem is forcing learners to click to advance, another source of irritation for users. E-learning should be compelling and relevant for learners. They opened the module; you’ve got their attention. Have the confidence to set a brisk pace and let them lean back and learn. Don’t make them work so hard.

Learning professionals are finally starting to get wise to the problems with legacy instructional design. The best of them are sick of “checking boxes” and providing long, tedious modules that nobody watches. And maybe economic buyers at organizations are starting to demand an ROI from e-learning rather than simply accepting that it fills X% of the overall training budget at a comparatively low price.

Q. What’s the alternative?

SJM: That’s a complex question. The easy answer is “short modules” with no embedded interactivity and no stops and starts. The hard answer is, “You need to make a paradigm shift in the way you think about training.” Let me explain. The people who for nearly 30 years have been making 30-, 60-, 90-, even 120-minute computer-based training modules aren’t stupid. They were driven by legacy instructional design principles. For decades before e-learning came along, and well after, they applied legacy principles to instructor-led training (ILT), books, manuals, courseware and other learning vehicles. What they produced was linear, logical and complete, exactly what they were trained to produce.

The problem – and the thing they all missed – is that an e-learning module is essentially a video. And video is a medium that operates under a very different set of rules from traditional learning vehicles. If you try to create a learning video using legacy instructional design principles, you will create a linear, logical, complete training program that a modern learner will find impossible to watch.

Q. Presumably because we have shorter attention spans, right?

SJM: Nicholas Carr wrote a book called “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” He cites all sorts of research suggesting that the Internet, in particular search engines, has rewired our brains. The most obvious evidence is our shorter attention spans. But it’s more than that. Carr argues that the Internet has trained our brains to prefer information in short, disjointed, overlapping bursts. If that sounds to you like the exact opposite of “linear, logical and complete,” you’re right.

I’m not convinced that when I read a book today, or watch a TV show or movie, that my attention span is shorter than it used to be, although Carr says he struggles more than before. But there’s no question that when all of us – even Boomers and Gen-Xers – engage with desktop computers, laptops, tablets or smartphones, our attention spans are very short, to the point where we’ll get distracted by anything that takes longer than an average YouTube video.

So, back to what instructional designers missed for three decades. They were applying legacy instructional design principles to video – the wrong thing to do. At the same time, learners’ brains were being re-wired and their attention spans shortened (at least when learning on electronic devices). This double-whammy is what created the horrendous utilization rates that defined the first three decades of e-learning, and still define much of the e-learning consumed today.

So there are two answers to the question “What’s the alternative?”

  • First, from the perspective of the e-learning developer, when you create a soft-skills e-learning module, your point of departure needs to be that you’re creating a video, and that it’s competing against all the other videos (mostly 5 to 10 minutes long) and distractions that are available on the Internet.
  • The second answer is where the learning paradigm shift comes in. In the early days of e-learning, a lot of people naively believed that technology could reduce or eliminate the need for humans in training. If you think I’m overstating that, answer this question: “Why else would learning professionals spend half a million dollars a year to offer thousands of employees access to an enterprise e-learning platform and expect them to actually use it?” Fact is, you can’t eliminate humans from training and shouldn’t want to. E-learning should be thought of as an adjunct, a tool that can be deployed by trainers and managers, not as a solve-all-your-problems learning vehicle.

Q. Talk more about the “paradigm shift.” What factors need to drive it?

SJM: When it comes to soft-skills training, the ultimate goal of all learning professionals should be utilization, or “engagement in training,” if you prefer. That’s true of e-learning as well as ILT or any other learning vehicle. A learning professional’s job isn’t just to “check boxes” and provide training. It’s to get people interested and excited about training. You do that by creating a learning culture and by seeking out really high-quality training programs.

Unfortunately, we see a lot of “box checkers” out there in the learning world. I don’t say that in a critical way, particularly when it comes to e-learning. It’s very difficult to evaluate the quality of a soft-skills e-learning library. A lot of them contain hundreds of modules in a single topic area. During the evaluation stage, how many learning professionals have time to watch even a handful of them? It’s tempting to just “check a box” and blame it on users if they don’t engage.

The paradigm shift rejects that approach. If you want high utilization in soft-skills e-learning, you have to make it happen. We have at least 15 years of experience trying to make e-learning utilization happen without intervention from humans, and it’s failed. If you passively make available a huge library of e-learning modules, most people won’t watch them. The solution is to get humans involved.

Q. But that’s difficult to do, isn’t it?

SJM: Yes, but it’s a must if you want high utilization. That is, if you want a good ROI. I see two approaches to help make it happen.

  • One, single-concept learning, is pretty straightforward.
  • The other, getting managers involved, is more complex, but maybe not as hard as people think.

Let’s start with single-concept learning, or what we sometimes call “thin-slicing.” It’s a radical departure from linear-logical-complete instructional design. Instead of taking a lot of learning information and presenting it at once, or even chunking it into smaller units, “thin slicing” is about isolating a single learning concept that’s designed to change one behavior and achieve one desired outcome.

“Thin slicing” is a term used in psychology to describe how human beings can perceive a narrow window of experience and from very limited information draw very powerful conclusions. This is what Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” is about. We’ve hi-jacked the term and applied it to learning. We believe it makes sense to isolate “thin slices” of learning and with very limited information provide powerful learning experiences.

I don’t know whether single-concept learning is the best way to deliver instructor-led or other traditional types of training. But it’s the perfect design strategy for bite-size learning in video format. Users are much more likely to engage in an e-learning module if they see a very clear, very narrow learning objective, and if they know that their learning journey is going to be really short, say five to eight minutes. And once they get into the module, they’re more likely to stick around if it delves deeply into a single concept and develops it compellingly.

The second strategy for increasing utilization is getting managers involved. There’s a psychology professor at Stanford named B.J. Fogg who’s got a great model for changing behavior. His model explains beautifully why managers so often fail to fully engage in talent development, even if they’re highly motivated to do so. The simple reason, Fogg would argue, is that they perceive it as difficult and time-consuming. If I’m a manager, to be an effective talent developer I’ve got to invest a lot of time preparing training or coaching sessions, reviewing materials, delivering training, and following up. That seems overwhelming and despite my best intentions I just won’t do it.

One big obstacle to manager engagement is the way they frame their talent development role. A sales manager who frames talent development through a wide lens and thinks, “My task is to teach my reps ‘to sell’,” will feel overwhelmed. Most managers have neither the time nor the expertise to accomplish that task.

Fogg’s model suggests we should make the task seem easier by framing it through a narrow lens, as in “I’m going to teach my reps to handle the first 20 seconds of a cold call.” That, you’ve probably recognized, is a classic example of “thin slicing.” The task of teaching a narrowly defined cold-calling skill seems doable to most managers. And if you provide managers bite-size e-learning modules, you’ve given them practical tools they can use to train their people.

It’s not hard to see how managers could start achieving “small victories” each time they teach a “thin slice” of learning. And how by accumulating small victories they might actually start getting good at talent development.

Do I need to mention that once this train leaves the station, you’re getting high utilization from your e-learning platform? All because you made it easy for managers to do the right thing.

Q. So sum it all up.

SJM: When it comes to e-learning, the name of the game is utilization, employee engagement in learning. If you’ve got utilization, you’ve got ROI, you’re doing the right thing for your learners, and the people who fund training at your organization are happy. The keys to getting high utilization are:

  1. Acknowledging that e-learning is video and that it has to be short and compelling. If it’s not, it can’t possibly compete against distractions that are just a mouse-click away.
  2. Single-concept learning. It’s the ideal design strategy for learning on computers. Teach one thing that’s designed to change one behavior and achieve one outcome.
  3. Getting your managers involved in training by making talent development seem easy, not hard.

Let me leave you with one more thought related to mobile learning. M-learning is still in the early stages – the ASTD State of the Industry 2013 report said only 1.64% of “hours provided and used” are mobile – but we’ve been talking about it for a few years now. Tony Bingham, the head of ASTD, launched his last two annual conferences by spending 40 minutes or so talking just about mobile. The first thing we need to understand is that M-learning is e-learning. It can’t be anything but e-learning. And when we think about the consumers of M-learning, nobody thinks for a moment that anybody’s going to watch an hour-long video on a tablet or a smartphone. I have never heard anyone suggest that M-learning is going to be about anything except short bursts of disjointed learning. In other words, rapid learning or bite-size learning. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure the surge in investment in self-paced learning – it quadrupled to $400 million between 2010 and 2012 – is being driven by the perceived growth in M-learning. So yes, the M-learning train is still off in the distance, but you can hear it coming. It’s going to stop at your station, and you want to get on board. That’s why it’s time to be thinking right now about short-form e-learning and single-concept learning.


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