Bite-Size Is the Right Size

How to maximize performance in a society with short attention spans.

By Sebastian Bailey, Ph.D., Co-Founder and President, Mind Gym

We live in a culture of instant updates and short attention spans. We struggle to spend seconds away from our smart phones, never mind days out of the office in training. But that doesn’t mean personal development must sit on the back burner. From sermons to ancient Greek plays, piano lessons to TV documentaries, we have learned things in bite-size chunks for thousands of years. Why should training at work be any different?

Bite-size Is Cheaper and More Effective

Bite-size training achieves quicker outcomes without blowing the budget. Independent research within the BBC found that a 90-minute session improved participants’ ability to influence more than a day-long course.

It makes sense; it’s a good result to learn three things in a day. If you take four or five things from a series of bite-size workshops, then you have a greater benefit for half the cost of employees’ time. That’s without considering the savings in venue hire, travel, refreshments, and so on. Overall, this equates to almost double the return on investment.

What Makes Bite-Size So Effective?

Short, regular periods of high-intensity exercise get you fitter quicker than endurance training; eating little and often keeps you slimmer; and, likewise, bite-size training gets you to the learning outcome faster. It’s easier to create long-term memories when you learn things in chunks rather than all at once; that’s why you never spent six hours in math class.

What’s more, it’s easier to attend bite-size training. It can be slotted at the end of a regular meeting. No need to get someone to cover or permission from your boss if you’re only going to be away for an hour-and-a-half. There’s usually less reason to cancel. Something has to be urgent to mean you can’t take 90 minutes out. Fewer cancellations, greater participation, reduced cost per head, and, therefore, a better return.

The Bite in Bite-Size

It’s not just a case of shorter equals better. There are several scientific principles that create maximum results from minimum time invested:

1. Miniaturize

  • Bite-size sessions trim out all the fat:
  • No bloated models or intricate scientific theories, just key facts and relevant information.
  • How, not why. Assume the “why it matters” and go straight to “how.”
  • Less time on chit chat. Find solutions to specific questions without the hypothesizing.
  • Tell first and discuss later. There’s no time to play “guess the right answer.”

Bite-size sessions also take advantage of our natural energy ebb and flow. After 90 to 120 minutes, our alertness dwindles and we crave rest and recharge. We start staring out of the window and thinking about lunch. Anything we try to learn in this time is lost. Bite-size learning takes advantage of our short attention span by combining sharp bursts of energy with just the right amount of reflection time. This triggers the lightbulb moments that have a lasting impact on the way we think and behave.

2. Contextualize

Businesses don’t invest in training to help people learn; they want to equip employees to solve a real problem. The starting point of any course should be what you want people to do differently when they leave.

Contextualized bite-size training breaks down the abstract skills and competencies from the business context into practical tools and techniques for the learner. The result? An intervention that’s focused and targeted, satisfied learners, and better results for the business.

3. Mass Customize

All too often, learning is a sheep dip, regardless of people’s past experience or current challenge. One size fits no one. But providing options for every eventuality would be overwhelming, not to mention time consuming and costly to develop.

In a learning program, we can’t (and shouldn’t) offer all things to all people. Bite-size allows us to provide choice, while delivering at scale. This “mass customization” is the Starbucks approach—coffee addicts create their individual drink (grande soy vanilla latte) by combining options from a limited menu. With bite-size, we can craft a diverse menu of learning options. Participants can create their own program by picking the ingredients that are right for them.

4. Focus on Transfer

The learning event is a tangible output. We can measure how many people attend and what they thought. It becomes the hero. But what matters is whether or not participants use the skills back at work.

Learners who are psychologically engaged in training are more likely to apply what they’ve learnt. And people are engaged in training that’s meaningful. One reason that many training programs fail is that the problems don’t feel real—generic case studies that have nothing to do with anyone’s job.

Bite-size learning increases psychological engagement by taking away the boredom factor (it’s only 90 minutes), and providing meaningful content in the form of key takeaways and specific behaviours.

5. Build for Scale

Implementing mass customized, distributed learning is seen as an administrative and political nightmare—surely a clunky learning management system (LMS) would fall over with such a complicated approach?

Luckily, technology and social networking provide the perfect platform. Outside of work, participants regularly self-serve online. Just look at the travel industry. No longer do travel agents do all the legwork. Nowadays we book flights, hotels, and excursions ourselves online. And it’s not just the technology that’s important. It’s the digital participatory culture; we share experiences, make recommendations, collaborate, and solve problems. This is exactly the informal learning opportunity organizations should take advantage of.

Chief executives constantly are looking for new ways to build a competitive advantage. Many suspect it could be through their people but are disappointed by the impact of traditional solutions.

Bite-size learning provides the answer. It gets to the learning outcome quickly, flexes to fit around participants’ daily routines, and gives learners specific skills that produce tangible business results quicker. Twice the ROI of a traditional approach at 30 percent cheaper—bite-size is definitely the right size.

Sebastian Bailey, Ph.D., is co-founder and president ofMind Gym (www.themindgym.com), a corporate training and performance consultancy that has helped transform more than 400 of the world’s most progressive companies through a “bite-size” approach to learning. Mind Gym, which launched in the UK and opened offices in New York City in 2006, has helped improve and transform a number of progressive Fortune 500 corporations, including Google, New York Life, Shell, Unilever, Sony, Canon, andJohnson & Johnson. Bailey and his team act as change agents by helping companies focus on their employees’ individual needs first and judiciously applying the science of human nature to the issues concerning the workplace. Bailey blogs at http://www.themindgym.com/blog.

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