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Learning the millennial way: Tips for engaging a new generation in corporate learning

Learning the millennial way

3 tips for engaging a new generation in corporate learning

Brady Wicken | May 20, 2015

I am a millennial, technically—don’t tell anyone.

I have a wife, a toddler, and a professional career. Other millennials have pimples and haven’t yet gotten driver’s licenses, so I struggle to group us all together. The millennial generation, which includes anyone born between 1980 and 2000, is 80 million strong in the U.S. and entering the work force in droves. Millennials are often framed as homogenous in our narcissistic personality disorders, high levels of technology addiction, and as privileged end results of too many trophies and helicopter parenting. It seems pretty bleak, but there is a considerable silver lining when it comes to learning.

Millennials will be the most educated generation in history and their place in the ‘knowledge economy’ provides more free information than any generation before them. They see the value in learning and acquiring new skills to differentiate themselves, ease job transitions, and provide innovative challenges. Traditional learning activities, like classroom and web-based trainings, are too structured, too lengthy, and too forced to effectively engage us millennials. Learning in this new millennial era must break the model to better match our present-day reality: lean, untethered, on-demand, collaborative, and entertaining.

Tip one: Make it personal

Public primary and secondary education’s impersonal model is structured to provide students with a defined set of academic skills and deductive reasoning to create capable adults. Many millennials won’t make decisions and value judgements on their own until adulthood when they enter the workforce or pursue higher education.

The new science of learning is less about learning from an expert as it is being able to find the information on your own and contribute to a larger group discussion. Enter Google. Search engines and online resources, such as Wikipedia, level the playing field and put the same information at the fingertips of the learner as the instructor, undermining the traditional teacher/student relationship. The challenge then is not how to access information, but how to allow the learner to explore these resources and reach their own conclusions.

  • Curation: To find information, a millennial is likely to pick up a device and search the web, yet they might not find what we want them to. Learning resources must be adapted to frame the knowledge that is relevant and valuable to the task at hand. Curation means guiding learners on what they should review and assigning value to one informational resource over another. If an employee is going to search YouTube anyway, get ahead of them and provide links to the best videos to review. Use the resources yourself and cite articles, journals, and quick references that support the learning goals while still providing the learner with the freedom to decide what to accept or reject.

  • Collaboration: In an era of gamification and social media, collaboration is king. Millennials have been given a virtual social media soapbox to discuss geo-political issues alongside pictures of their breakfast, so use it. Incorporate metadata (e.g. #hashtags) and internal social engagement tools to further the learning discussion and take the conversation online in a blog or discussion forum. Consider the use of peer reviews of work or projects, which are often more personal, thoughtful, and constructive than top-down input from a manager. And remember that recognition is a huge sticking point for millennials, so strive to authentically point out or incentivize good participation and collaborative contributions.

Tip two: Make it flexible

Our current learning establishment is based on tiered and outdated educational models of the industrial revolution, but millennials want to break this mold and learn in blended, experiential, and social contexts. In 2014, American companies spent an average of $1,208 per employee on learning. 69% of this spend was still instructor-led. This means employers continue to rely on long, forced, and overwhelming learning constructs with a relatively low return on investment compared to more innovative solutions.

  • On demand and self-paced: A millennial learner doesn’t want to know everything; they want to know how to access everything. Millennials are untethered and unpracticed at memorizing content or processes because in all other areas of their lives, they rarely need to. Learning needs to be digestible in small chunks and accessible at the point-of-need across any device. Coursework should be modular so that simple information can be reviewed once, and more complex information can be reviewed initially and then made available as a future performance support resource.

  • Narrative and directional fiction: Everyone loves a good story. Narratives allow the learner to empathize with a concept or another person, like a customer. They provide an element of creativity and engagement not prevalent in most learning and help to build on concepts and increase understanding. Many millennials will remember the popular ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book genre, published from 1979 to 1998, which used a concept called directional fiction. This type of fiction is based on a narrative in which the reader acts as, or even designs, a character to make well-thought and evaluated choices through a complex web of branching logic to reach the optimum conclusion. This can be especially helpful when teaching a new process or in a call center application, which often have similar branching logic to address customer or supplier issues.

Choose Your Learning Adventure – using directional fiction:

Choose Your Learning Adventure – Using Directional Fiction

Tip three: Make it real

Most millennials dislike being grouped together because they value individualism and personal style. They often associate themselves with larger social causes and are more ethnically and culturally diverse than previous generations. They use these personal values and social dialogues to actively reject things like advertising manipulation, corporate behavior, and rigid organizational structures. In learning, it is important to present a compelling value proposition to engage these altruistic behaviors and illustrate the benefits of focusing on the activity.

  • Delivery choices: Millennials value transparency, relevance, and candor. In a learning environment, they see the value of learning as a means to improve their own skills but will continue to question it in terms of effectiveness and value. While it may seem that millennials would prefer online learning due to their proclivity towards technology, they actually don’t find it more useful than any other generation; however, they do value network and experiential learning methods. Network learning is a form of social learning based on working with peers through real-life scenarios to support one another’s learning. It is more collaborative, relationship-based, reciprocal, and work-relevant. Millennials are 18% more likely to find this approach more effective than traditional training. Experiential learning simulates real-life on-the-job scenarios, but has the added benefit of being tied to real business activities and results.

  • Seamless integration: The ultimate goal for instructional designers is to seamlessly inject learning into systems and applications, so that there is not a defined learning “event” at all. Much like a person picking up a game for the first time, there is no need for an instruction booklet because modern games “teach” the player in the early levels while they master the more complex moves and challenges as they progress. Gamification itself can be a very useful tool, but only when designed thoughtfully. When done properly, games can evoke strong emotions and positive results from healthy competition. Poor gamification design is more of a distraction than an asset, and millennials can tell when they are being played—pun intended.

Brady Wicken is a manager of people development in Slalom's Denver office. Brady is a key contributor to Slalom’s thought leadership on lean learning design, enterprise learning strategy, and gamified learning.


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