A funnel with books being thrown into it landing on a smartphone in a micro-learning concept cartoon.
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Microlearning: A new, more efficient way for workers to upskill?

7 Sep 2023

Matteo Penzo, co-founder of Zick Learn, says learning in an asynchronous way on our smartphones is the best method of retaining information.

At his old job, Matteo Penzo used to dread corporate training so much that he became notorious for skipping it. He later learned he was not the only person who didn’t relish the thought of company training events.

With his business partners Andrea Goggi and Pietro Stracquadanio, he co-founded Zick Learn. It’s an e-learning company with a different take on learning.

Instead of long, company-mandated, in-person training events, Zick Learn is a B2B microlearning platform that partners with companies to deliver short, quick-fire learning tutorials through apps that a lot of people have on their mobile phones. More on all of what that means shortly, but first of all it’s worth diving into Penzo’s background as it offers an explanation as to why he set up the company in the first place.

The spark that started things

“The reason we started this business is because both myself and Andrea – one of my two co-founders ­– were extremely bored by corporate training to the point that in a previous life, I was the executive in charge of the technology teams for product design in Europe, the Middle East and India and I became famous within the organisation for being the one employee that for 10 years skipped every mandatory training corporate was pushing on us,” Penzo recalls.

“I was doing this for two reasons. They were extremely tedious and they were keeping me away from what I believed were the core tasks I had to bring forward for the company, which were my clients and my teams.”

A conversation with his co-founders during which one of them told Penzo about the idea of using WhatsApp to deliver tech training courses in a microlearning manner sparked an idea and Penzo wanted in.

He thought that if he, Goggi and Stracquadanio built the idea, fewer workers might have to endure the lengthy corporate training sessions he loathed.

They founded Zick Learn in the middle of the pandemic, and like most companies setup during that time, it is location-agnostic. Penzo and his co-founders are based in Northern Italy while the company’s headquarters and sales and marketing teams are all based in Ireland. Its product team is based in Ukraine.

Flexible learning and flexible work

Zick Learn’s attitude to location and flexible working is in line with its non-traditional take on tech upskilling. Penzo thinks that particularly for younger workers who have grown up with their smartphones constantly in their hands, the idea of microlearning will really take off. As he points out, a lot of traditional corporate training methods, whether they are online or in-person take far too long and employees feel as though their time is wasted. Penzo says that he’s not sure the majority of learners even learn anything because they just want to get through the lesson as fast as they can so they can get back to work and do what they are paid for. That defeats the purpose of learning, he argues.

‘Standard e-learning is completely synchronous. You need to be there’

“You click next, next, next, next, just to get to the very end of the training … HR is happy, but you haven’t learned anything.”

Of course, it’s worth saying that this is Penzo’s opinion and some workers may find the traditional types of corporate training perfectly adequate. But he is determined to shake up the market.

Zick Learn is working with its scientific partners at the Learning Sciences and Human Development department of UC Berkeley in California, which performs tests in controlled environments that compare microlearning to other forms. So far, the completion rate for Zick Learn’s courses is far higher than rivals.

So, how does it actually work?

Penzo says the exercises are “very simple” – which is the point. “We currently integrate with WhatsApp and most widespread corporate chat clients such as Microsoft Teams, Slack or Cisco WebEx.

“Currently, we support two types of exercises: true or false, or multiple answers. And the way we deliver the experience to the learner is that they can enter either option by clicking a button or by typing in the chat.”

Penzo is targeting Gen Z, pointing out that they prefer asynchronous experiences. He gives the example of a Gen Z restaurant goer preferring to change venue than book a table over the phone. If they can’t get the service they are looking for online and on their own terms, Gen Z will simply give up and go elsewhere, Penzo warns. With employers trying their hardest to retain Gen Z talent, he is positioning Zick Learn’s product as a way to help them do that.

‘In such a small amount of time, you can imagine yourself learning while you’re waiting for the bus, making coffee or on a break in the office’

“Standard e-learning is completely synchronous. You need to be there. For example, when the teacher shows up, even if it’s through digital means, it’s a digital class so you need to be there when the teacher shows up, or if it’s a recorded video or it’s if live, you still need to complete it, following the planned programme of the learning management platform,” says Penzo.

As well as Gen Z workers, he’s targeting deskless workers, like sales representatives or sales agents. “Anybody who doesn’t own a computer, and maybe also doesn’t know how to operate a computer, but they do have and do know how to operate a mobile device.”

It’s all about convenience. “The average length of time you need to spend on one of our lessons is less than a minute and a half, with a maximum time recording being three minutes,” says Penzo. “So, in such a small amount of time, you can imagine yourself learning while you’re waiting for the bus, or while you’re brewing coffee in the morning or while you’re on a break in the office. We are going to leverage the moments of free time that everybody has in their own day.”

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea worked as a Careers reporter until 2024, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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