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Learning & Development Blog


'Just In Time' and 'Just Enough'; or Death to Clippy

In a recent meeting I had the sobering experience of learning that one of my young colleagues1 did not know who Clippy was. Remember him?2 Microsoft’s short-lived avatar that would pop up to try to “help” you with your work?

1 To be fair, my colleague just didn’t know his name, but did remember his annoying presence.

2 There has been no confirmation of this, but general consensus seems to indicate that Clippy is male.

Anyway, I hated Clippy. A classic Clippy moment: “It looks like you’re writing a letter. Can I help?”

Really, Clippy?


Turns out, almost everyone hates Clippy, and if you don’t believe me, try searching for him on Google. If you’ve got time to kill (and I can only assume that you do if you’re reading this post) check out Vishal’s Blog for some Clippy satire.

The reason I’ve had Clippy on my mind is because In September I attended a session delivered by Bryan Chapman of the Chapman Alliance, on “Redefining and Optimizing Blended Learning Using Emerging Technologies.” Mr. Chapman brought up something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

He was speaking of the research about how people in the workplace learn, and mentioned this statistic:percentage of learning by type chart


  • 70%: Informal, Social, Self-learning, “just in time,” and “just enough”
  • 20%: Mentor-based, personalized learning, such as on-the-job coaching,
  • 10%: Structured/Formal learning

The phrases “just enough” and “just in time” resonated with me. And that got me thinking about why Clippy was such an annoyance for most people.

Because Clippy was “way too much” and “all the time.” He appeared at least once whenever you logged into Word. He interrupted your work by offering his services even before you had the time to need anything. And because he didn’t know what you really needed, he made guesses, which, most of the time, were wrong.

As I considered the ideas of “just in time” and “just enough,” I began to think that in the ongoing quest to improve learning interventions in the workplace we should be trying to reduce the distinctions between these ways of learning. Formal learning and coaching can also be “just in time” and “just enough.”

Just in Time Learning

Clippy ShakespeareAs a consultant, I'm often tasked with developing formal training, often for large software implementations. In these cases companies usually have a one-time budget to develop a training program, and a set timeframe in which the training should be delivered.

In this case, “just in time” is, to some extent, built into the constraints of the project. Staff members need to be trained by the time the system is launched, and hopefully should not be trained so far in advance that they don’t remember the training they received when they’re finally called upon to use it.

Still, there are ways in which “just in time” can be applied in a formalized way, such as the following:

  • Build in opportunities to practice what has been learned, post-formalized training. For example, one might send out practice scenarios to users which can be performed when they have time in the course of their day.
  • Conduct a “confidence” assessment against the skills learned, to be followed up with further training, on-the-job coaching, provision of a quick reference guide, and so on.
  • After allowing users to practice, or even after “go live,” hold follow-up sessions to allow users to ask questions that arise once they have a grasp of the basic processes.

Just Enough

One of the inconvenient truths of training is that human beings have limits on the amount of information they can retain. Think about how we learn in childhood. When I learned my multiplication tables, I practiced and practiced over the course of years. We did worksheets, played games with flash cards, took timed tests, and reviewed multiplication problems every year at the beginning of the school year.

Although adult learners may have different motivations and learning needs, and we might be able to maintain concentration a little longer than children can, we still need time and repetition to process what we learn. A “one and done” strategy is usually not sufficient.

Therefore, even in a formal learning or coaching setting, we should be sensitive to the needs of the learners and provide the information in manageable “chunks.” Bryan Chapman made some useful suggestions in his seminar:

1. Segmentation

Start looking for elements in training that could stand alone and run separately. These might be able to be delivered as a small, self-contained unit accessible “just in time.” Chapman gave an intriguing example: Home Depot’s employees carry a device that allows them to scan the barcode on products in the store to quickly access product information, allowing them to continuously learn on the job, when they have time, in manageable chunks of information.

2. Improve Retention

Pushing out reminders post-training aids retention of key content. For example, for a new hire training, information might come through email or messaging. Here’s another: The US Health Department has created a mobile app called text4baby. Moms-to-be sign up by entering their zip code and their baby’s due date. Then, they receive three text messages a week through the first year of the baby’s life to help them practice good pre- and post-natal care.

3. Enhance Relevance

Repetition enhances retention, and users remember what’s relevant to them. When someone is learning something new, they sometimes don’t even know what questions to ask. They don’t know how this new information “gels” with the information they already have (e.g. “how is this new system going to work given what I already know about my job?”) So don’t heap all possible information on the learner in one enormous load. Ideally, you would allow the learner to learn a little, try a little, learn a little, and try a little more. Each iteration provides experience upon which to couch additional learning. And as learners become more adept, their questions become more relevant to their needs.

Overbearing Clippy

A Final Caveat

To give Clippy his due, he tried his best to provide “just enough” information “just in time.” It’s just that his fundamental assumption was flawed: that is, that Clippy can tell the user what “just in time” and “just enough” means. In his attempts to meet a need he ended up annoying the user and generally making a nuisance of himself.

Here too, is a lesson for our industry. Don’t underestimate the power of the learner’s motivation to seek out the necessary learning. By providing content in manageable pieces, making it available at the learner’s convenience whenever possible, and providing opportunities for follow-up or practice, you can attain the ultimate goal: to truly help your learners gain the skills and knowledge they need without frustrating them or hindering their performance.

By the way, if you really miss Clippy, you can have him back by downloading some Clippy software.


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