There’s no shortage of material on multi-generational learning and training. A Google search for these terms will produce 747,000 results for the former and 848,000 for the latter. One could easily draw the conclusion that these terms are with merit. But, they would be mistaken.
For the first time, organizations have a four-generation workforce as many people are choosing to work beyond their retirement age. It’s widely accepted that the characteristics of different generations influence their learning styles. In turn, the belief is, these differing styles must be considered when designing learning programs:
|Traditionalist||Respects authority and likes structure and order.||Likes someone in authority to impart knowledge.|
|Boomer||Very competitive and resists authoritarian approach.||Don’t tell me, show me. Likes live instructors and interactive classroom training.|
|Gen-X||Likes to figure things out for themselves.||Likes activities like games, role plays, field trips. Prefers on-the-job training and self-study.|
|Millennial||Motivated by clear, direct benefits. No benefit, no interest.||Likes hands-on collaboration. Highly engaged by gaming and social networking.|
Understandably, multi-generational training is often overwhelming for organizations. Is there no “one size fits all” training method? Must training materials be produced in different formats for each generation? Discouraged, organizations will usually resort to “tried and true” Learning & Development techniques—whatever they’ve done in the past.
There is good news. Despite the hype, it has never been proven that different generational learning styles exist. “Our research shows that when you hold the stereotypes up to the light, they don’t cast much of a shadow,” says Jennifer J. Deal, a research scientist with the Center for Creative Leadership. Based on seven years of research she concludes, “Everyone wants to be able to trust their supervisors, no one really likes change, we all like feedback, and the number of hours you put in at work depends more on your level in the organization than on your age.”
The human brain is not hard-wired based on the year we were born. Instead, we are simply products of our respective environments. For example, Millennials have had access to and are very comfortable with technology. It should be no surprise, then, that they are also very comfortable using modern training tools such as web-based training, mobile learning, electronic performance support system, online gaming, a massive open online course (MOOC) and others. Yet, these same digital learning tools can be used by other generations. The only difference is that some people may need support to learn how to use these new tools. The same would be true for anything new.
The differences between people are situational not generational. At the same time, we are not stuck in the environment we grew up in. We can change and adapt. Take, for example, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates—two Boomers who paved the road for how integrated technology is in our lives. People are simply different and these differences have existed in every generation. People are people.
Likewise, people have different ways that they like to learn. Individuals from any generation will want to learn if:
- They are not bored
- They are motivated
- Training material is pertinent and meaningful
- There is recognition and/or competition
Learning is a human characteristic. Our survival depends on it. Everyone can learn, despite his or her age. People also have different levels of resistance to change. This influences how quickly we embrace learning and new learning tools. But, if the value of learning is greater than our resistance to change, we will choose to learn. Of course, training on these new tools can help us accept change and tip the scales further in favor of learning.
In addition, new research regarding brain plasticity in older age has determined that the brain does not stop learning, as we previously were told. In an article in Psychology Today, Mario D. Garrett, PhD wrote, “Our brains can continue to grow at any age. One of the startling revelations of the 21st century is the improvement in our knowledge of nerve cell development among older adults. Known as neurogenesis or brain plasticity, this new knowledge is showing us that the brain has the ability to CHANGE throughout life by forming new connections between brain cells, and to alter function.”
Therefore, a holistic approach to training, to designing a unique learning experience for your specific organization, is the key. The training tools used for your organization should employ a mix of training techniques that cater to the people in your organization. Find the commonalities in your organization and in different teams. Craft your materials to suit them by considering:
- Employee individual needs – Will some employees need instruction on HOW to use the training? Will motivational aspects of the training need to be clear and direct?
- Uniqueness of your organization – Are your employees centralized or remote? Do you have scientists or salespeople and what are their learning preferences?
- Learning outcomes – What do you need to accomplish in your training? Is it to teach a new, critical skill that they must know to do their job? Or is it yearly required training, like compliance or policies?
- Performance criteria – Do your employees need to prove they attended training? Or do they need to prove they have mastered a new skill before using that expensive piece of equipment?
- Cognitive science – Do you support your training methodology with knowledge about how the brain works?
Effective training is not tailored to different generations of people, but to different types of people. Get to know your employees’ learning preferences. Considering this, will help you choose learning tools and techniques and get the most out of your most valuable resource: people.