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Learning the Millennial Way

Bob Little 

October 31, 2014

is_50046420_mattjeacock_188A great deal – no, a very great deal – has been written about how millennials learn. Sometimes called “Generation Y,” millennials follow in the wake of the “Baby Boomers” (who were born from 1946 to 1964), and “Generation X” (born from 1965 to around 1980). Different definitions of millennials place their birth dates as anywhere between 1981 and the 2000s.

These people are only, at most, a quarter of the way into their working lives and yet they’re already a cause célèbre as far as educators and L&D professionals are concerned. That’s because the technology-based age in which they’ve been brought up allows their learning preferences to be different from those of any previous generation.

While money, career progression and retirement plans have been key features in how “pre-millennial” workers have thought about their careers, we’re told that millennials have different priorities and aspirations. They’re supposed to be motivated by their mission, not by the money they earn. Where pre-millennials valued diligence and organizational loyalty, millennials see a job as a means of learning as much as possible before moving on to the next challenging project. Millennials tend to like flexibility. They prefer guidelines to rules and have replaced the principle of spending strict working hours in designated workplaces with the one that you work at “ideas,” not offices, during whatever hours suit you in order to get the job done.

Learning Preferences

These generalizations merely indicate tendencies and trends relating to what motivates, engages and inspires millennials. Similarly, millennials seem to be the first generation that’s happy using technology for learning. This manifests itself in a propensity to learn interactively and collaboratively but, often, outside a classroom – being connected to tutors, mentors and peers remotely, via technology.

When it comes to preparing L&D activities for millennials – as for anyone else – L&D professionals must address such issues as:

  • Should basic training methods or technologies be updated?
  • Should everything now be bite-sized, mobile and social?
  • Should core messaging strategies be changed?

Yet, while learning delivery strategy may be different where millennials are concerned, the design of that learning should still begin by determining the desired business goal, then working backward to devise ways to build the desired skills, knowledge sets and motivation to learn.

Millennials tend to be open to new ideas – especially from cultures that are new to them. They enjoy learning through investigation, discovery and experience – albeit via technology. They may have a relatively short attention span, spend long periods using social media, and respond poorly to previously successful training strategies but this is no excuse for losing sight of the basics of learning design, and espousing gimmicks.

Strategies to use With Millennials

Learning strategies for millennials could include:

  • Video-based learning – Millennials tend to respond more positively to visually presented learning materials than older workers do. Moreover, having grown up in a viral, social, video-based culture in which media is two-directional, they’re more likely to contribute to discussions and provide new material rather than merely consume it. They view media as a conversation-enabler, not a passive review.
  • Delivery via mobile learning – This has the benefit for millennials of being anytime, anyplace, just in time, and just enough.
  • Gamification – This process of adding motivational elements within a learning framework or system to increase user engagement is based upon game theory and game mechanics. Josh Squires, the chief operating officer of Docebo EMEA, explains, “The idea behind gamification is that, if you can help your employees to enjoy what they do, you should reap rewards in terms of employee motivation and productivity.” Alessio Artuffo, Docebo’s chief operating officer in North America, adds: “You implement gamification by running competitions against your performance objectives, learning goals or key performance indicators; making sure you set the pace of competition and ensuring the top performers are displayed on a leader board. It’s also important that you reward your participants – even the ones who’re struggling in comparison with the others.”

The Millennial View

A “millennial” – Rhys Little, a serving officer in the UK’s Army Reserve and a project manager with the global organization Mitsubishi Electric UK – says: “I found learning hard at school but it’s easy in the military. The military tends towards kinesthetic learning, while school prefers audio-based learning.

“Social media and the Internet enable people to learn in a different, bite-sized way. I’ve found that YouTube has been great whenever I’ve needed to know something like how to fix a dripping tap. While there’s great variance in the videos’ production values, watching a useful video saves a lot of time.

“Crash Course and CPG Grey are two exceptional ‘posters’ on YouTube – regularly producing informative videos. These five- to 10-minute videos are engaging and enjoyable to watch. Like Wikipedia, social media learning can be a good place to start but you need to bear in mind that it doesn’t give you the full picture. Pandering to the short attention span, it really requires the user to do further study.”

Rhys’ “viva video” view is supported by Susie Hale, another millennial and Rhys’ junior by a few years. On a one-year industry placement from Leeds University, where she’s studying product design, Susie is currently working as a marketing assistant at Silver Fox, a UK-based cable label manufacturer whose products are sold around the world.

“I like to learn by listening to people and noting down what they say – which, of course, is one of the traditional approaches to learning,” she says. “However, if I need to know about something, I might read a book but I’d never think of enrolling in an evening class or even taking a correspondence course. I’d Google the topic I needed to know about, read what I could, and then view some relevant videos on YouTube.

“Thankfully, all of that – unlike any classroom-based course – is available anywhere and at any time, as long as there’s Internet access.”

What strategies have worked for you when training younger employees?

Are you a millennial? What types of resources help you learn best?

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