09 May 2018

Snacking can make you fat (headed)

Dani Johnson
Co-founder & Principal Analyst


  • Snackable learning may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
  • Simply chunking previously long courses into smaller “bite-sized” learning experiences can have a negative – not positive – effect on learners and learning.
  • There is increasing evidence of the value of long-form learning – that learning that doesn’t require effort has less impact than learning that does.

Let me start by saying that I have argued the other side of the case I’m about to make.

Also, I see great value in just-in-time learning, feedback in the moment, and the ability to access the exact piece of information you need at the exact moment you need it. Digitizing and chunking content that we used to put into two- or three-day workshops is wonderful, and, with the use of technology, allows us to build really personalized development experiences for employees. I think it’s great for developing skills and improving performance.

I do wonder, however, about the broad stroke with which the idea of “snackable” learning is discussed and applied. Is there a place for it? Absolutely. Have we relied on courses only for too long? For sure. Is making something shorter the key to solving all employee development problems? Nope.

In the past, we needed employees to complete certain tasks in a certain way in order to increase the efficiency of our organizations. Today, business is moving so fast that we need them to think outside the box, be agile, and improve the system as they go. We need them to think critically. And often, to teach employees to do this, long form works better. Some things need to be presented in context. Sometimes a story works better than bullet points. And sometimes we should encourage employees to spend an hour thinking rather than surfacing an answer immediately.

Ironically, instead of a long form blog about this topic, I’m going to provide a bulleted list reasons that long-form may be a good addition to the L&D quiver of tools:

  • Jeff Bezos says so. In his 2018 annual letter, Jeff Bezos reiterated his rule that PowerPoint is banned from executive meetings. He maintains that “narrative structure” is more effective because stories inspire, bullet points don’t. Instead of presentations, he asks “presenters” to craft a six-page narrative (no bullets and real sentences). The team spends 30 minutes reading in silence and then they discuss.
  • “Snackable” often creates soundbites and echo chambers instead of real learning. So personal example here: I posted an article and quoted a stat this week about organizations that measure learning impact. I didn’t quote it correctly, which gave the impression that the stat was global, not local to India. One person corrected me (bless him). Everyone else shared it. There is opportunity for deeper context and higher precision in long form that isn’t available in the soundbite.
  • There is a case to be made for “effortful” learning. Mary Slaughter and David Rock from the NeuroLeadership Institute wrote an article in Fast Company this week about achieving “desirable difficulty”. They posit that the brain needs to feel some discomfort when it’s learning, much like your muscles need to feel some level of discomfort when you’re training. Long form often requires more effort.
  • Executives prefer long form for business insights. A study done last year by Forbes and Deloitte lists the top two preferred formats of executives for business insights as feature-length articles and reports, and business books. Interestingly, while they are very pressed for time, the C-Suite prefers longer forms for learning. Bruce Rogers, Chief Insights Officer at Forbes Media says: “CXOs need to think and act strategically, which is why they more often opt for longer pieces that take them from hypothesis, through case studies, to conclusion, and are based on credible data.”

I’m interested in your thoughts – how often are you incorporating long form into your employee development plans, and/or are you seeing a resurgence?

Written by

Dani Johnson

Dani is Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human capital practices and technology. Her ideas can be found in publications such as Wall Street Journal, CLO Magazine, HR Magazine, and Employment Relations. Dani holds an MBA and an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from BYU.

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