Why search changes everything

By John Helmer October 16, 2015

Man touching search bar on a virtual screen

Courses are getting shorter – pared down to their essentials, and atomised into stand-along chunks for easy access. Learning is getting ‘nuggetised’. We hear it from every conference platform, in white papers, blog posts and magazine articles. But why is it happening?

Nobody is giving strong, instructionally based reasons for why it should be. And interestingly, the impetus to do it is coming from learning departments, from organisations – and not from the vendor community, by and large (who probably have a vested interest in course being as long as possible).

So why is nuggetization happening? Surely it is worth asking the question, since a worry must lurk that less isn’t always more; that what we are producing are performance prompts rather than real learning, and that L&D is exposing itself to the charge of ‘dumbing down’.

An interesting possible explanation comes out of our recent research into millennials and leadership.

Goldfish attention spans? Shrinking wallets?

Let’s deal, first of all with two of the more obvious possible explanations.

Firstly, a lot of people believe that under the influence of digital technology human attention spans are getting shorter. Could nuggetization of learning be a response to this? The problem is, there seems to be very little real basis for shortening attention spans in published research. Attempts to track down the primary source of the statistics quoted in the many news stories that promote this view (I’ve detailed mine here) give little confidence that it is underpinned by solid science. It seems to be a very widespread belief, however, and it is of course entirely possible that L&D professionals have accepted it and responded accordingly – however, I for one, have seen no evidence that diminishing attention spans are having a deleterious effect on training outcomes and thus impacting requirements for course design.

Others, particularly those of a more cynical cast of mind, will say that the principal driver is financial. Aside from the production costs of training and online learning, time away from the job is a very considerable factor for organisations. There is constant pressure to minimize it, and part of the popularity of elearning in recent years has undoubtedly been down to its ability to deliver training in the workplace, lessening time lost in travel to a training centre or venue. Arguably, all available efficiencies of this type having been achieved, the next natural place to look for efficiencies is, naturally enough, through shortening the courses.

One would expect such an approach to suffer from the law of diminishing returns however. The training still has to be effective – and if delivering shorter courses means that less learning takes place, surely complaints would quickly start coming back to the learning department that performance was falling short.

Clearly there must be some basis for believing that learning can be delivered in shorter, sharper burst with no loss of efficacy in outcome. But what is it? Where is the ‘fat’ in our current way of doing things that can safely be eliminated?

Well here’s a suggestion, based on something that came up in the course of a recent Think Tank discussion about millennials. Possibly, the key to this belief that shorter can be better lies in search.

The primacy of search

We take search for granted. Using Google and other search engines to find information is so much a part of our lives that we seldom pause to think about what life was like in the days before it arrived. Many millennials will not have known a world without the ability to search the internet.

Search is a technology, but it’s also a behavior – and it’s one that all of us – not just millennials – have adopted so wholeheartedly that we easily overlook the fact of how recent a behavior it is. Search is a product of the 21st Century. Before the dawn of this century, information was organized in very different ways.

Life in the pre-digital information world

Information has to be organised and structured, otherwise it cannot be easily accessed. Before search came along, we relied on two principal ways of doing this.

Firstly there were classification systems of various kinds; taxonomies, directories, thesauri, etc. The most obvious example is the Dewey system. This organized knowledge in a hierarchy – a tree structure with broad categories at the top (e.g. animals) and more granular ones further down (e.g. rhesus monkeys). It told librarians on which shelf to put a book on a particular subject, and was used by readers to find those books, according to their particular interests.

Another important way of organising knowledge in the pre-digital age was using narrative–based stuctures such as books themselves, and scholarly journals – and also curricula, and courses such as training courses.

Courses not only organize information in a logical way, they also sequence it according to an instructional logic that builds complex knowledge on top of blocks of more elementary knowledge. You can’t understand calculus, for instance, until you’ve grasped basic arithmetic; equations come before quadratic equations, and so on.

Many training courses are built like this: start with the basic, underpinning knowledge, then add to it step by step. However, not all of them are. And in the pre-digital world, the training course became a rather baggy container for holding all types of information organisations wanted to convey to their employees, often without any particularly purposive structuring.

The course: a vehicle of convenience?

At the turn of the millennium, I created a dozen or more stand-up training courses (together with SMEs) on the subject of internet marketing. I had no background in training – let alone a qualification in instructional design. I just put them together in a way that seemed logical to me and to the expert involved. They were well-subscribed course, scored well on the happy sheets, and even received the compliment of being blatantly imitated, on a month-to-month basis, by a professional body that was clearly tracking our catalogue.

Though we would of course start with the simpler stuff and work our way up to the material that had some complexity in it, many of the course modules were interchangeable in terms of where you put them in the batting order. Fundamentally, the courses were a way of conveying information on various subtopics that fell under a larger topic (SEO, writing for the web, etc.). No particular instructional design went into it (I suspect an awful lot of stand-up training still gets created this way): the course was just a convenient way of organizing a lot of information. Some of this information might have been vital to the participants in performing their jobs – a lot of it wasn’t. In the training room, you saw this dynamic all the time: an individual learner would start manically scribbling notes at a particular point, stay engaged for perhaps 15 minutes, then fall asleep again for the rest of the afternoon.

Fast forward to now.

Millennial horses not for courses

A delegate to one of our recent Think Tank discussions described the frustration he sees in millennials, who are used to being able to search for any knowledge they need, being forced through a process that to them seems unnecessarily clunky and time-consuming. ‘Technology is actually significantly decreasing time it takes to do stuff, which I don’t think our generation … really fully understands the impact of.’

An employee might need a specific piece of information or knowledge that would takes, say, fifteen minutes of her time to learn, but find that they only way her organisation provides to access it involves logging on to the LMS and sitting through a one-hour course. This to them seems massively inefficient.

From the point of view of a search-driven generation, we are locking a lot of knowledge and information away in large, inert lumps of unsearchable narrative-based content called courses.

We fell into this way of using courses as a catch-all for organisational knowledge, simply because there wasn’t a better way of doing it (other than through knowledge management systems, which were developing on a parallel track in a different ‘silo’ of the organization).

Search provided a better way of doing it, but one which we haven’t caught up with yet, though much innovation has taken place to try and improve the standard model.

The problem isn’t really one of technology adoption (much less one of technology itself). The problem is cultural. Search inspires a different style of learning, one which is more enquiry-led, and we simply haven’t worked out how to support and enable that yet in a lot of organisations.

Search-driven learning

This is strange, in a way, because it is the way we are all learning nowadays.

Here’s how a typical search-minded, enquiry-led learner learns. He wants to find out why rhesus monkeys are disappearing so he types the term into Google and starts reading. He soon finds out that he doesn’t know anything like enough about primate behavior in general so he makes a sidetrack to fill in that underpinning knowledge before continuing. His sources also talk a lot about habitat, so he has to find out more about the countries where rhesus monkeys live, what their distribution is like, temperature and vegetation in those countries – and so on. He hears about experts in the field, and encounters individuals with widely varying different takes on the problem. Perhaps he decides to contact one or two of them. Starting with a single question, he soon broadens out to take in the wider knowledge field. It can look a bit circuitous and even chaotic: one step forward, two steps back; but because his enquiry always has the spine of this single question – why are they disappearing? – his learning is purposive, and he doesn’t learn stuff he doesn’t need to know to answer that question.

I’d guess that this is the way most of us learn what we need to know nowadays to do our jobs, and organisational learning as a practice is responding by nuggetizing its knowledge resourses, driven by what learners need and will accept, and by the exigencies of the business situation.

If I am right, what we need to put around that is more awareness of the change in learning culture it represents, and of what we need to do to support it more effectively. We’ll be looking into this question over the coming months through blogs and insight papers – in a spirit of search-driven enquiry – with campaign learning as our focus.

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