- Understand how microlearning can enhance traditional training
- Discover how to use microlearning to impact workers' skills immediately
- Find out how microlearning can impact new hires and experienced workers
For decades, the job of utility operators and maintenance personnel has been more or less the same. To keep the grid balanced and stable, operators controlled a fleet of thermal power plants. It's an important job that requires training and continuous skills development, but it's also one utility employees have been doing for generations.
Today, those same utility employees work in an entirely new world. "Now, all of a sudden, they may have a battery storage bank tied to their power plants and have to integrate that," said Mark Streifel, general manager for industrial skills solutions at HSI, a company that develops and implements training programs for many utilities. "Then you go into the distribution world, and you have homeowners and independent power producers trying to sell power back on the grid, and you have wind farms and other intermittent renewables that need to be combined with your base load resources. Dispatch system operators need to learn how to deal with it all."
Put simply, both new and experienced utility employees have an enormous amount they need to learn, all while still meeting the responsibilities of their day-to-day jobs. It's a volume of new information that can be difficult to master using the traditional utility training approach that emphasizes multi-hour or multi-day courses led by an in-person instructor.
Addressing a workplace full of distractions
Even making it through a one-hour training video can be daunting. Indeed, research conducted by Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, found employees typically spend only 11 minutes focused on a project before being interrupted with an unrelated task. In addition, research conducted at the University of Rochester in New York has shown employees can only effectively learn content in seven- to 11-minute sessions.
This combination of factors—a changing power system, a generational shift in the workforce and the everyday demands of increasingly challenging jobs—helps explain why more and more utilities embrace microlearning.
As the name indicates, microlearning delivers short bursts of instruction that can be consumed and applied immediately. As director of operations for e-learning company ej4, an HSI company, Kathy Irish has plenty of experience developing microlearning instruction for utilities. The videos Irish produces are between seven and 11 minutes long and feature both an instructor and supplementary graphics to help illustrate a point and make the content more engaging.
Each video also includes supplemental material and an exam to ensure students understand the material. The limited amount of time forces Irish to be focused and precise in developing training content, usually including one or two main points.
More complex topics are broken into a longer series of individual videos, which provides a progression of instruction that makes it easy for students to revisit material when they need it in their jobs. "If you think about leader-led training, they're in a classroom and learning from a fire hose for days," Irish said. "How much are they going to retain when they leave? If they forget something, who do they ask for help? We give them building blocks so they can watch and learn the information, then go practice it and come back and revisit it when necessary."
A resource in the field and a supplement to traditional training
The utility industry has started to embrace microlearning both as a way to get newly hired workers up to speed and to help experienced employees gain the skills they need to do their jobs in a changing environment. The value of microlearning videos, in particular, is they can provide tangible and rapid guidance for workers in the field.
"With the 3D realm, we can actually show what's moving inside an operating piece of equipment," Streifel said. "Before you had to go into a textbook to learn the theory of what's happening inside, say, a spinning generator. Now you can use 3D animation to see what's going on, what might need to be fixed and how to do it. It's just made learning that much faster, especially for this generation of visual learners."
Microlearning can also supplement more formal, in-person training. It makes time spent with trainers and other colleagues more valuable and efficient. For example, utility workers can all go through the same progression of microlearning topics before gathering together for an instructor-led class. "The students get months to prepare for the class with microlearning," Streifel said. "Then when they get together, they can discuss higher-level topics and go through specific scenarios where they put their hands on equipment and do training and certification."
Microlearning also allows utilities to analyze who is accessing training and which topics are most in demand. These insights can help utilities understand topics that might need more attention—for example, a large number of employees downloading videos about conflict resolution—or even identify employees who are self-motivated enough to sharpen their skills continuously.
Lessons gleaned from microlearning analytics can also help utilities in their day-to-day operations. For example, one North American utility uses the microlearning feature provided by HSI to optimize shift scheduling. "They will look at who has taken which training. If they have two people in the whole organization who know how to work on a piece of equipment, there's no sense having them on the same shift," Streifel said. "Or if they have an upcoming outage where they're going to replace a piece of equipment or do a major repair, they can see who is qualified to do the work."