Use Micro and Macro Learning Effectively

Ultimate Guide to Leadership Development

Different Approaches for Different Needs

“I love the content. But can you make it shorter?” We get this request often from clients. Sometimes the answer is yes. And sometimes it’s “You could, but you won’t get the same results.” It comes down to knowing the right moments to use micro and macro learning.

We understand the need to have more efficient approaches to leadership development. But as experts in the field, we also ask clients to consider the implication of using only short courses.

In fact, it’s much like building any other skill or muscle. Can you build strong abs with just five minutes of exercise a day? Possibly, if you do the right exercises. But you won’t see much progress if that’s all you do. Combining those targeted exercises with broader healthy habits—regular activity, good nutrition, etc.—delivers better overall performance.

So what’s the quickest way to develop leaders? We suggest clients reframe the question to: How can I more effectively use micro and macro learning options to maximize the efficiency and impact of my leadership development efforts?

We aren’t going to tell you what the best learning method is or list methods in order of effectiveness. That would be like trying to pick the one best exercise. The magic is truly in the mix.

What we will do is give you an understanding of different methods and how you can use them to build effective leadership development that supports both macro and micro moments of leadership.

a digital screen with a checkmark and plus sign, beside a bar graph trending upward, written to the right of it: the definitions of micro and macro learning listed out, microlearning is a short burst of learning on a specific topic or skill, ideal for helping leaders sharpen their skills in the moment and macrolearning integrates multiple learning techniques to help leaders develop complete skills and address broad challenges over time.

What Is Microlearning?

Microlearning is a short burst of learning on a specific topic or skill. Think of a quick game, a short video, a podcast, a short self-assessment, or even a 10-minute microcourse designed to help you boost a specific skill.

The term microlearning was coined around 2009. However, the concept of breaking learning down into small chunks has been around for quite some time. While most microlearning options are in a digital format, you can also have offline methods and activities. For example, a paper job aid or five-minute activity can be a form of microlearning.

Fundamentally, microlearning is any compressed format of learning that has a specific learning objective. That objective might be to:

the objectives of microlearning listed out with relevant icons for each: a book to show acquiring new knowledge, a graduation cap to show learning or practicing a skill, a brick wall to show reinforcing knowledge and skills, a head icon with a brain colored in to show prompting a new way of thinking, and a check mark to show performing a task

When Should I Use Microlearning?

Microlearning is ideal for reaching leaders quickly in a moment of need. Some examples of these moments might include:

  • Support for an immediate challenge: Think of a leader who might need to have a conversation about poor performance, and may need just-in-time help to plan how to address the situation. They might quickly brush up on their skills using a microcourse or watch a short video on how to effectively have a tough conversation.
  • Reinforce concepts previously learned in a more in-depth course: For example, you might offer a microcourse on leading hybrid teams after a leader goes through a full course on team dynamics.
  • Explore complementary topics: Microlearning is an ideal way to introduce related concepts to a core skill. For instance, leaders might watch a video or read a blog on unconscious bias to enhance training they received on interviewing job candidates.
  • Bring relevance to a topic: Short learning formats can also help a leader go deeper to find how a topic is more relevant for them. For example, a short self-assessment is a type of microlearning that might help leaders understand how a topic is relevant to them and to identify their potential pitfalls. They can also retake assessments to determine whether they are improving and applying what they learn.

The Pros and Risks of Microlearning

The promise of microlearning is strong: boost your skills with very little investment of time! What’s not to love about that?

But that doesn't mean that microlearning is the panacea for all leadership development needs. There are some pros and risks associated with microlearning.

the word PROS surrounded by a green dashed line

PRO: Cognitive science research shows that organizing learning content into smaller, bite-sized pieces can reduce the risk of cognitive overload. Cognitive overload occurs when learners are presented with more information than they are capable of processing at once. Cognitive overload can lead to frustration, stress, disengagement, and burnout.

PRO: Leaders love the variety, flexibility, and accessibility of microlearning. DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2021 found that a third of leaders want more microlearning than they are currently receiving. Giving leaders access to a well-organized and instructionally sound set of microlearning content can be incredibly empowering.

PRO: By its very nature, microlearning is faster to develop and easier to change. This makes it ideal for content areas that are likely to change more frequently.

the word RISKS surrounded by a red dashed line

RISK: An unorganized and unstructured approach to microlearning can actually make things worse. Offering leaders free rein over a library of microlearning content can increase the amount of time leaders spend on learning (or at least searching for learning content). Additionally, leaders may feel more confused and frustrated as they try to make sense of all the pieces. The key is curation. How can you help leaders to navigate the microlearning content available to them?

RISK: It’s hard to build complex knowledge and skills with microlearning alone. Microlearning isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Since it offers fast, effective, and engaging content, it’s easy to want to use it for everything. But it’s not an appropriate tool for teaching “macro” concepts that need significant focus and attention.

RISK: Access is important. It's one thing to have a library of good, quality microlearning content. It’s another thing to put it in the hands of your leaders. Microlearning content must be easy to find and access. Today that means making content readily available on easy-to-use platforms that can be accessed across devices, including mobile.

Behavior Change vs. “Behavior Do”

One of the biggest challenges with microlearning is how it supports leaders’ behavior on the job. Are you trying to convey knowledge? Support long-term behavior change? Or give in-the-moment support?

As discussed earlier, microlearning can be a helpful tool to quickly share information or support long-term behavior change. But in today’s business and leadership context, we deal with an immense amount of knowledge and information. And we don’t always have the capacity to store all this knowledge for future reference.

So sometimes it is less about behavior change and more about “behavior do.” “Behavior do” is guiding leaders through a particular moment. Deloitte describes this as “learning in the flow of work.” It represents how we bring learning closer to moments.

This concept has been around for some time, but technology is quickly opening new ways to do it. With rapid advancements in mobile technology and artificial intelligence, it is possible to embed learning in the job. And this allows you to anticipate and respond to individual learning needs.

An Example of “Behavior Do”

A great example of this concept in our day-to-day lives is GPS technology. GPS tells drivers how to get from point A to point B. It doesn’t try to teach us the route. GPS also leverages AI and machine learning to collect and use data in real time to incorporate updates based on current road and traffic conditions. The goal is not to learn, but to do.

Leaders themselves have already embraced this concept. But the content and advice they search for and access may not always be reliable. Information returned as the top result on Google isn’t necessarily accurate; it’s simply highly optimized for web traffic. This is why using trusted sources is so important.

Helping leaders perform, in addition to learning, is a key benefit of microlearning. Microlearning can be embedded in the job, minimizing the psychological and physical distance between work and learning. While it will always have an important role to play in leadership development, microlearning is opening new possibilities and opportunities that enable you to be by the side of leaders as they navigate critical leadership moments.

What Is Macrolearning and When Should I Use It?

Macrolearning integrates multiple learning techniques and media to develop larger concepts and more complete skill areas such as coaching. This type of learning typically takes hours or days, rather than minutes.

Additionally, macrolearning is ideal for helping leaders during big moments of change, such as preparing leaders for a first leadership job. It is also perfect for preparing leaders across the organization to drive a new strategic or cultural imperative, like building a coaching culture.

As microlearning has grown in popularity, many L&D professionals wonder if it can replace macrolearning entirely. According to the Global Leadership Forecast 2021, the answer is no. Learners want a mix of micro and macro learning.

It makes sense. Leaders recognize that some skills take time to develop and demand a more intensive approach to development. This is where macrolearning shines.

illustration of a leader climbing a ladder surrounded by a string of gears connected, written to the right: Companies that use learning journeys are 2.9 times more likely to rate highly on leadership strength and 2.5 times more likely to be a top financial performer. Source: DDI Global Leadership Forecast 2018

How Macrolearning Fits in a Learning Journey

While still using the instructional design principles discussed in the Foundation section, macrolearning uses a more structured approach to development often based around a learning journey.

A learning journey approach is based on the principle that behavior change takes time and is achieved through a series of integrated learning and development experiences on and off the job. It typically involves a combination of assessment tools and experiences (coaching, formal development, self-directed learning, reinforcement tools) to help individuals develop and apply their capabilities, attributes, and motivations. A blended learning journey involves a mix of online and offline activities.

Research continues to show is that leaders still prefer formal professional development that gives them the opportunity to engage with peers to share examples, solve problems, and practice skills. While leaders are busy, they still want opportunities for focused development, which is ideal for microlearning.

How Microlearning Fits in a Learning Journey

Microlearning is not only for micro moments. It can and should be embedded in leadership development initiatives that support macro moments. Microlearning assets might be embedded in a learning journey before, during, and after more in-depth development experiences such as face-to-face or virtual classroom sessions.

For example, you might be looking to develop your leaders’ coaching abilities. This process could start with a macrolearning experience that dives deep into a coaching model. Then this learning experience could be followed by opportunities to practice concepts with peers.

After establishing a foundation in coaching, learners could build on the concepts with short bursts of learning for skill enhancement. These might include a microcourse about asking the right questions, online practice simulations, videos from company executives sharing their coaching experience, or case studies about improving team skills. The goal of this content should be to apply new skills on the job and drive behavior change.

Leadership development professionals can also use microlearning to develop content that supports individual needs across a learning journey. For example, after a formal workshop, a series of brief skill practices tailored to meet each learner’s needs can reinforce concepts as needed. Alternatively, leaders might dive into specific areas based on feedback received from peers or short assessments.

In each example, the key is to incorporate two to three bite-sized microlearning activities to tackle the larger topic.

For examples of how DDI uses a mix of micro and macro learning activities to tackle different learning needs, refer to the section Explore Moments of Leadership.

Micro and Macro Learning Together Achieve More

So should you be focused on microlearning or macrolearning? The answer is clearly both, and the appropriate mix will depend on your own context, situation, and goals.

The key is not to be distracted by the appeal of new technologies and approaches without fully appreciating the role and value that each can bring to your leadership development experiences.

An example Hybrid Learning Program with Macro Learning (full courses to develop skills) such as Communication: Connect Through Conversations, listed to the left, and to the right Micro Learning (short microcourses), such as Leading Hybrid Teams, listed out