• Ryan Panzer

Training in Turbulence: How to Train Coaches in a Crisis

This is the fourth post in "Training in Turbulence," a series on workplace training during the COVID-19 crisis.

Before COVID-19, talent developers established formalized training programs aimed at teaching coaching behaviors. These included certificates and certifications, which combined considerable classroom time with contextual learning.

Such programs will always be available but may be less accessible during a downturn due to cost and time constraints. Yet even before the pandemic, such programs were deployed mostly to support the development of formal coaching engagements conducted by coaching practitioners. Talent developers should maintain such programs when appropriate. But this time of disruption demands a new direction. With fewer opportunities for formal programming, the learning and development profession must turn to micro-learning to establish a widespread coaching culture.

My backyard shed required coaching from my father-in-law and countless 5-minute YouTube tutorials

Micro-learning myth busting

There are a few widespread misconceptions about micro-learning that we first ought to address. Due to explosive growth in micro-learning platforms, many L&D professionals mistakenly think that micro-learning requires complex technology. Perhaps this sentiment comes from digital advertising. When one does a Google search for micro-learning, they will find many results for technology providers. They will not find many results regarding deploying a micro-learning strategy in a low-tech context. From TalentCards to mLevel, Axonify to DuoLingo, these technologies exist at all price points, levels of customization, and intended applications. And while these technologies are indeed useful in supporting micro-learning, particularly for their ability to gamify learner experience and provide valuable analytics, they remain more of a “nice-to-have” than a concrete prerequisite.

Here, it’s useful to refer back to the Association for Talent Development’s definition of micro-learning as that which is effective, efficient, and short. Micro-learning requires a commitment to efficiency, effectiveness, and above all, brevity. Technology can facilitate these commitments - but all are feasible without technological sophistication or even a technical solution. Email and Slack can be just as useful in pushing micro-learning as a high-end micro-learning platform. So can a well-placed bulletin board post or flyer in an elevator. My team at Zendesk has used Slack to publish nearly all of the micro-learning pieces we have shipped to our stakeholders. I once worked with a team at Google that published micro-learning articles on time management next to bathroom mirrors - to promote handwashing and to facilitate learning during the 20+ seconds we (hopefully) all spend scrubbing.

Many also believe that micro-learning requires complicated designs and time-intensive graphics, that it’s more the domain of game developers than trainers. While it is true that some micro-learning lends itself to gamification or rich-media simulations, effective micro-learning can be as simple as plain text on a printed piece of paper (if presented to the right audience in the proper context). Anyone with access to a basic suite of business tools like Google Docs or Microsoft Office can design great micro-learning. The development and delivery of the material matter far more than the flashiness of the design.

Others maintain that micro-learning is ineffective at achieving complex learning objectives. Perhaps we derive this sentiment from our broad familiarity with "macro-learning," including courses, workshops, boot camps, and conferences. But new theories of neuroscience suggest that "macro-learning" is most effective at the onset of a career, or while onboarding into a new role. The more experience we acquire, we need more opportunities to "repeat and use" the knowledge we have stored, and more opportunities putting that knowledge into practice. Micro-learning fundamentally works towards the goals of repetition, utilization, and application. It comes as no surprise that the research continues to prove the effectiveness of this tactic. In a study of its efficacy, TrainingIndustry.com concluded that "Microlearning not only mitigates cognitive overload but also supports long-term retention."

Learning to be a coach with micro-learning

Putting aside these sentiments, let’s turn to how we can use micro-learning to support the development of coaching habits at all levels of the organization. We’ll assume that any organization has two related yet still distinctive audiences for coaching content.

On one side, we have staff members and individual contributors who must learn the skills of peer-to-peer coaching. On the other, we have managers and executives. While we expect that both groups need to be fluent in coaching, there are differences in how each will approach coaching. For example, peer-to-peer coaching is unlikely to engage in sensitive human resource issues. On the other hand, peer-to-peer coaching conversations are likely to involve levels of detail and nuance that we would not expect in executive coaching. As we construct our blueprint for micro-learning, we’ll need a workable plan for both audiences.

For micro-learning to have its maximum effect, it must move beyond vague platitudes about the importance of coaching. Talent developers can build coaching habits with a micro-learning approach, but only if that approach deals with specific coach-like behaviors. This approach necessitates a focus on coaching tactics, case studies, and personalized simulations, the three themes of coaching micro-learning.

A coaching tactic is a conversational technique that converts conversation into goal-directed action. Tactics include questions (e.g., what’s holding you back?”), cautions (e.g., here’s why you want to avoid giving advice), or productivity hacks (e.g., here’s how to visualize progress towards a goal). In a micro-learning context, tactics are typically reminders of what we know to work in coaching - whether consciously or unconsciously.

A coaching case study is a story, ideally a real experience from the organization, of how someone became “unstuck” or achieved measurable success by participating in coaching. In micro-learning, case studies need to be brief yet applicable. They are not published to celebrate achievements, but to scale what is already working in pockets of the learning culture.

Lastly, personalized simulations are interactive widgets that create a rapid and ideally gamified environment in which to apply tactics and case studies. The simulation can be academic or airy in tone. They can involve high-tech exercises such as virtual reality coaching, or low-tech scenarios like a dialogue scripting exercise. In 3-5 minutes, learners use a simulation to imagine new applications for their emerging coaching skills.

Micro-learning ideas for coaching skills:

When done with variety, creativity, and a sense of optimism, talent developers will find that micro-learning ignites an organization’s ability to be more “coach-like.” With well-designed spacing and a commitment to brevity, those who work in L&D can keep their organizations focused on a more positive future, even amidst a perplexing present. But micro-learning has its limits. It’s an excellent vector for disseminating skills-based content, but it requires a supportive environment in which such skills can become a habit. If we want to see coaching at the core of our culture, we need reinforcement and affirmation in the form of behavioral nudges. And that's where we will turn in our fourth blog post on Training in Turbulence.


@ryanpanzer is a learning and leadership development professional with a passion for coaching and technology.


Leadership developer for digital culture. Writing a book with Fortress Press, coming in December 2020!

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