“According to scientists, the age of smartphones has left humans with such a short attention span even a goldfish can hold a thought for longer” The Daily Telegraph, 2015
We know this, right? We’ve read the headlines and our Facebook feeds remind us constantly that our smartphones are eroding the attention of our children, our colleagues and, well, everybody!
We’ve seen this ourselves too as our clients shun day-long – and multi-day – courses in preference for bite-sized sessions, and micro-learning over full-length e-learning courses.
With reluctance, we’ve acceded to these demands and, whilst we provide these diminished offerings, we tell anybody who’ll listen that people don’t know how to learn anymore and that ‘snacking’ rather than ‘feasting’ on learning is having a detrimental effect – on our impact and, certainly, on our clients.
But stop! There’s been a challenge to the belief that attention spans are shortening.
“I don’t think that’s true at all,” Dr Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University.
Dr Briggs, who studies attention in drivers and witnesses to crime, says the idea of an “average attention span” is meaningless.
“It’s very much task-dependent. How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is.”
How does this relate to L&D?
There are studies that look at specific tasks, like being in a lecture, and the idea that there’s a typical length of time for which people can pay attention to that one task has been debunked.
“How we apply our attention to different tasks depends very much about what the individual brings to that situation,” explains Dr Briggs.
So, if L&D solutions are being shunned, not due to attention spans but for other reasons (perhaps linked to perceived value) then maybe it’s us not them? And I’m fully aware that that makes it sound like a break-up but it doesn’t need to be.
So, how do we get them back?
My guess is that we’re still getting it wrong with shorter content and that the duration isn’t the issue, it’s the approach. Let’s look at this another way…
What are people at work to do? Are they there to do courses? Hmmm, perhaps…? If they are, it’s one very small part of the reason.
A few people are working where they are to challenge themselves and perhaps to do something important. Those are the lucky ones. Others are at work because they have to be there to fund more fun things that they want to do. And many people are working because they need to provide for their families – and want progress in their work so they can provide for their families even further. So, L&D should help people with their primary motivations when they’re at work. Whether that’s wanting to get better in a role or a set of tasks; making fewer mistakes; attaining more status; earning more money, etc. Not for their periphery motivations, for which ‘learning’ by exposure to content could be one.
We would find that attention spans need not hamper what we’re really in organisations to do, which is to help our colleagues to succeed in the roles that they’re in, help them to achieve more (perhaps in future roles), and to ensure our organisations have the capability to respond to future challenges and opportunities.
And perhaps we could start by taking responsibility for diminishing attention spans in relation to what we, as L&D, offer our colleagues?
David James is Digital Learning Strategist with Looop and was Director of Talent, Learning & OD for The Walt Disney Company’s EMEA region until 2014.
Now an authority in contemporary L&D practices, David works with businesses, globally, to develop and implement social, agile and digital learning strategies that make learning work, with Looop.