Did Cavemen Use Micro-Learning?

Guess what? They did…and in the absence of technology. The whole thing went down on a Thursday morning when an informal micro-learning moment went social and was delivered synchronously at the Point-of-Work…and…at a critical Moment of Need. Whaaat? They were freaking cavemen for crying out loud. Who woulda thunk it?

Igg Nyte, the same caveman who discovered the virtues of fire, gets credit for sparking [sorry] the first micro-learning event. In fact, it was the discovery of fire [and its virtues] that stimulated the first informal, social, synchronous, micro-learning moment.  Is what I just described ridiculous? Makes my head spin.

We should get nuts over all the labels. Is learning informal, formal, non-formal, dynamic, continuous, micro, bursted, non-linear, linear, asynchronous, bi-synchronous, tri-synchronous…where will it end? And who really gives a rip what it’s called…as long as learning takes place…AND…sustained workforce performance at the Point-of-Work is the ultimate outcome?

And it’s the “ultimate performance outcome” and the ability to measure it in hard dollars that should be driving our hysteria as opposed to application of labels and tools and techniques in the hunt for effectively transferred knowledge. Not knocking the latter, just saying it is “A” means…of several means…to that ultimate end of sustained performance. We cannot allow ourselves to get trampled in the scrum over this tree or that tree when it’s the health of the forest at stake. We cannot overlook driving performance in our quest for knowledge transfer.

Too many very smart learning pros never know what the end performance outcome should be. They focus instead of the learning process and building the learning solution to meet learning objectives. I saw evidence of that yesterday when reading two so-called “performance objectives”. The first one start with the word “Understand…” the second objective started with “Recognize”; neither can be measured. Both are covert.

Give me “overt” observable performance objectives like “Dig a freaking hole…three feet square and three feet deep!” That’s overt. It’s measurable. It demonstrates performance proficiency. It’s about performance. Period! If we’re not driving or enabling performance, we are wasting somebody’s precious resources.

Whew…sorry…went off the rails there for a second.

Permit me to share a little back story on this momentous discovery from so many years ago. Like I said, it happened on a Thursday. Igg Nyte and his best bud, Puut Emowt, were schlepping along with their spears at the ready looking for mastodon scat. For those of you who have never gone hunting, scat is poop, and it serves as evidence that whatever you’re hunting is [or was] in the area.

As they crept between two large boulders, they came upon a grassy meadow and a big bush set ablaze by a recent lightning strike. Both cavemen looked at each other and shrugged, which at the time was the universal indication that neither one had a clue what they were seeing.

Puut, the ENFJ of the two spoke first, “Dude!”

Igg, the ISTP, said nothing…of course…at first, and reached out and tried to grab a handful of the flames dancing in the bush. He experienced an instant learning moment and reacted with a shriek, “Hot damn!

Igg had just completed a cycle of discovery, confusion, investigation, evaluation, and learning. To put this into today’s learning structure, I fear there are some of us who’d have to attach these learning components with labels and compartmentalize them before we could decide if true learning really took place…or not. It took place alright, and it did not matter a whit if it was formal or informal. It sure as heck was synchronous AND experiential, but here we go again with the labels.

Was it structured? No. Okay, so it has to be informal, but then I’m thinking synchronous because it happened real time. But how can synchronous be informal? And what about micro-learning…it happened in a flash. Could it just have been a simulation gone bad? But then…typically, simulations are designed to keep the learner safe from his or her own idiocy…at least until learning is confirmed of course, then they’re on their own. But wait, there were no objectives so how could this even be acceptable as learning? And assessment? There was no assessment short of Igg getting his knuckles fried. I have to ask – since Igg learned – does it really matter what it’s called?

Methinks none of this really mattered to Igg or Puut. What really did matter was what happened next

Puut’s curiosity got the better of him, and he reached for the flames too. Igg cracked him across the skull with his spear and yelled, “No fool! Hot!” but not before Puut had gotten close enough to burn the hair off his knuckles.

He recoiled in terror and looked at Igg and said, “Damn, Dude! Hot!

“Well duh!” retorted Igg, pointing at the bush and nodding vigorously, Yah, hot!”

Notice that learning did not take place for Puut until he was burned too. This happened because the word “hot” had no real meaning to Puut. Neither of them had any knowledge or history of anything “hot” and they had to experience it in order to learn. Remember, this was the Ice Age and nothing was “hot”, at least not until these two yokels stumbled across fire on that fateful Thursday morning.

Okay, so that was their dual micro-learning moment. Learning retention was guaranteed by the experience of burns they both received while at the Point-of-Work. One could say that recall knowledge was guaranteed. What mattered most of all came next.

They started to think about what this hard-earned micro-learning moment meant – and they started making plans to apply the new learning into their “work context”. Hmmm, sounds like their learning moment proved really effective and full “adoption” was afoot.

Granted their work context was limited to “eat or be eaten” in those days, but failure in the former meant rather terminal consequences in the latter. One could say, though Igg and Puut were rather simple, they both were highly focused individuals on remaining in the role of hunter and not prey.

I’m not sure if they started to brainstorm or whether it was a collaborative social interaction, but an idea came to them both almost in the same instant. Igg, having burned his hand first got the original idea.

“Whoa! Dude!” he exclaimed. Igg had that ‘holy crap’ look on his face that you get when an epiphany lands squarely in your lap…or some unplanned craving is flung upon you.

Puut just looked at him and shrugged, still clueless and focusing on the new pain in his hand. Then it hit him too. “Yah, Dude! Hot not good! Burn hair off hand!”

“Yah, burn hair!” replied Igg. Then the big reveal, “Burn hair off mastodon too!”

Puut, cocked his head…seeing the light, “Ummm, yah! Hot good!”

They were one step away from inventing the barbeque. And they danced as only cavemen can dance, knowing that their last cold filet-o-mastodon was in their past.

Over time their discovery became known as “fire”, but in the heat of their discovery it only mattered to them that it was called “hot”, because back then not everything needed its own label. It was not fire, nor flames, nor conflagration…it was simply “hot” and that was good enough.

So what is my point? None of this is new. Micro-learning is not new. Igg Nyte and Puut Emowt proved this back in the Ice Age. Social learning is not new. Informal learning is not new. It’s not what we call it that matters. It’s what we do with it, or more importantly, what our learners and performers do with it.

What should matter is how we connect Learners and Performers when confronted with any of the five Moments of Need to the most appropriate asset…whether learning, social collaborations, informal, micro, or whatever performer support meets the moment of need. And if the “moment” manifests at the Point-of-Work, the bush is ablaze and urgency and risk are present…and screwing up means negative impact on generating business value…and/or burned knuckles.

We’ve evolved a bit beyond cavemen sitting around campfires swapping stories and best practices on how to “kill the beast” and feed the family, but do the learning methods of today differ that much? Have not had many how-to-kill-the-beast conversations lately, but collaboration and social this-and-micro that have been happening around the coffee machines and break rooms and hallways of corporate America for years.

What has happened of significance is how enabled the process and art of collaboration has become through the advent of mobile and Web technology. We can now do “small things” that mean a lot, and we can do them almost instantly. Today we’re beyond simply being networked or on-line – we’re tweetin’, textin’, Facebookin’, and collaboratin’ on a continuous basis. Are those not “micro-learning” moments?

Our challenge should not be to confuse and confound or make proprietary what “learning methods and opportunities” are called – we should be leveraging the technology of the day to connect learners at Learning moments AND performers at the Point-of-Work to the most appropriate opportunities/assets and/or enable collaborating with other people at their moment of need.

Who has the need? What is the need? Who has the answer? Where can we find the answer? How do we access it? What manner of asset can resolve the need? Having the answers to all of those questions are what matters and we can then take those answers and “intentionally design” eight “right things” including the right assets – for the right people – at the right moment of need – in the right amount – in the right format – to/from the right devices – to get the right evidence of impact.

I wonder…was it the addition of technology that set us off on this labeling frenzy? Not sure I know or care to know the answer to that. No time…have an hour of compliance e-learning I need to try and hack. I’d rather grab a burning bush.

Gary G. Wise
Senior Manager Learning & Development – Stores Performance
Macy’s Inc.
gary.wise@macys.com
@gdogwise

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