Millennials: the word we are – dare I say it – sick of. Yet we still don’t understand how to deal with the changes that became urgent when this generation joined the workplace. I began speaking on this topic over five years ago when I saw HR leaders repeating generational stereotypes. In my work, I have given over 100 talks that have left attendees saying, “I will never use the words ‘lazy’ and ‘entitled’ again” – a big win.
But there is much more to do. Once we move beyond bias, we can turn our attention to dealing with the real problem lurking in the shadows: digital transformation. I don’t mean software implementations. What I mean is the challenge of transforming workplace culture, processes and systems to catch up to a digital world. That includes how we help employees learn.
It’s important to broaden our lens on this generation. Instead of complaining and seeing millennials as an issue, let’s see them in a new context: Millennials are merely a representation of a world we cannot un-invent – the world of digital. Their behavior holds clues for the future of work – both what to do and what not to do. According to the stereotypes, millennials are lazy, entitled and disloyal and have authority issues. Reframing these stereotypes by understanding the impact of the current generation’s globalization and digitalization makes it clear that millennials look at work and career differently than the previous generations.
What are the top transformations that emerge at the intersection of millennial behavior and modern learning? Here are a few:
First and foremost, learning has to leave the classroom and become ongoing. L&D professionals should look at when, where and how people learn and how learning can be provided there. In a digital world, in our personal lives, we learn every day through a variety of methods, at a variety of times and a variety of places – opportunities L&D does not take advantage of in the workplace. LinkedIn’s 2017 Workplace Learning Report showed that almost one-third of employees learn on their commutes. Does your L&D organization have a presence there? Or are your employees left to find quality sources on their own, likely with a mixed rate of success?
We create false boundaries with our attachment to the walls of classrooms, unhelpful metrics in our LMS platforms and the ease of creating e-learning. Millennials have spent their entire lives learning in multiple ways. When you limit the path to methods of the past, you inherently limit productivity and engagement.
Millennials are also used to a world that constantly changes. As a result, ongoing learning is a basic expectation, a means for survival. It’s not enough to have new hire onboarding. Every step of a career should involve learning. Those employees who don’t want to learn are the ones to worry about. When you design with modern behavior and modern learning needs in mind, L&D makes a critical shift from organizing training events toward facilitating ongoing learning.
It doesn’t stop there. L&D must learn to become expert curators, not only of content, but technology choices. One of the biggest millennial myths is that they are unable to be anything but micro-learners, that their attention span dictates flashy, bite-sized training. While humans have experienced a reduction in our attention span due to technology, immersive learning experiences are far from dead. For deep learning needs or first-time foundational learning, immersion is a necessity. A simple example is learning a language, for which the most effective method is in-country experience. Technology is contextual, and L&D professionals need to become experts at choosing and providing the right technology for the learning moment.
Another reason to curate is that millennial behavior shows us that technology can create indecision and overwhelm. Modern talent needs help filtering through information and methods. L&D needs to build and use its expertise around the neuroscience of learning to choose between options, taking the burden off the employee.
L&D should also recognize that platforms do not necessitate all-employee engagement to be deemed effective. Some platforms are right for certain situations, certain personas and certain performance gaps, while others may be better suited for other contexts. We need to stop relying on number of users for our success metrics. That’s why millennials rely heavily on crowdsourced rating systems, because a recommendation is only good when it has quality comments, not just a quantity of upvotes.
Finally, L&D should revisit their meaning and purpose in the organization. Millennial behavior is often highly purpose-driven (especially in developed nations, where basic needs are met). When something doesn’t have a clear purpose, it is obvious to millennials. Modern learners have insight into the kind of opportunities they should be exposed to, and if they don’t see them, they feel dissatisfied.
L&D professionals should be more strongly connected with their business and deeply understand its challenges. They have to show the impact of learning activities and teach leaders how to make learning happen as a part of the organizational culture. L&D managers’ role is often to teach leaders that it isn’t about training as a low priority but about a culture of learning as a competitive advantage.
We often talk about millennials as though they are the problem. If we start viewing them as part of the solution, a plethora of possibilities and a downright inspiring vision of L&D emerges.