“If you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business,” Simon Sinek, an author and marketing consultant, once said. But what happens when people don’t understand each other even in things that are unrelated to business? Companies have employees from different generations, including those who remember black-and-white television and rotary phones to those who have never known the world without the Internet or smartphones. Place them just a table away from each other and watch what happens.
Working for many years with various companies, we’ve seen that developing and training your employees directly depends on successful communication between all the participants. No community is without dissent. Everybody thinks different. Hence, it’s crucial to understand generational differences in attitudes and perceptions that influence employees’ learning preferences in order to train them effectively.
While you are developing a training program, keep in mind that each generation has its own preferred learning style and has specific motivations for engaging in the learning process. These motivations result from your employees’ experiences in the educational system; the way their parents worked; learning approaches that were widespread when they were in school and earlier in their career; and the technologies they are accustomed to. Personalized training takes into account these cognitive features and helps to get rid of each trainee’s knowledge gap.
Traditionalists (born in 1945 and earlier)
Traditionalists are good mentors for younger generations. The important thing about teaching others is that you also learn from your mentees (especially about how to deal with modern technology). Allow traditionalists to learn at their own pace and emphasize how newly learned material will contribute to a company. Introduce discussions and problem-solving simulations, as traditionalists see them as one more source of learning.
Baby Boomers (born in 1946-1964)
Based on our data, the right approach to training Baby Boomers is to focus on self-reflection and in-class participation. Include activities that require both teamwork and group discussions. Suggest that they become mentors for younger employees. The training will be more effective if it includes planning and leadership skills.
Generation X (born in 1965-1979)
This generation is known as the most independent one as they used to be the “latchkey kids.” Let them explore. Provide a learning environment that is both supportive and challenging, and don’t stand over their shoulders. Present new material as an exchange of information, and give them more freedom to plan their own training schedule. Control over their learning will be a powerful engagement tool.
Millennials (born in 1980-2000)
Millenials are digital natives and they are accustomed to receiving immediate feedback via social networking apps. If you give them immediate responses during their training and teach them as a mentor, they will thrive. Provide only relevant information in short chunks so that they could apply it to practice right after.
Don’t Forget About the Future
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 97 percent of the US workforce consists of three generations: Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. However, by 2020, Millennials will represent at least 50 percent of the workforce. Thinking strategically, if Millennials become the predominant generation, then training should focus more on their cognitive characteristics.
Through our extensive analysis, we have identified ten strategies that encompass learning preferences of all generations and help to bridge the generation gap at the workplace:
- Introduce microlearning. Microlearning provides trainees with short, simple, and concise bits of material for better acquisition of information. Thanks to our continuous work with companies with large and diverse workforces, we know that this training delivery method is the most effective for all four generations since it caters to short attention spans, personalized learning styles, and the limited amount of time that employees can devote to learning.
- Focus on employee performance. We retain information better when it's essential for us. So, if employees encounter difficulties in performing their job, overcome them with training. Relevanton-demand material will improve employees' productivity and engagement as well as contribute to the achievement of company's goals in the long run.
- Define knowledge/skills gaps in a timely manner. Never force your employees to learn. Instead, provide tasks, projects, or situations that would require them to expand their knowledge and acquire new skills. Ensure you eliminate any gaps that prevent your employees from being productive to maintain a smooth workflow.
- Keep generations engaged with each other. Keep generations engaged with each other. Don’t let stereotypes run the process. Neutralize judgments and miscommunication. Assign projects to multigenerational teams. Make sure that when you create the teams you set clear goals, familiarize all team members with each individual’s skills that will contribute to a successful project, and give on-demand feedback. Include mentoring as a way to rally your employees, encourage them to share their experiences, and develop new ideas.
- Welcome your employees’ diversity of thoughts. Recognize their ideas to make them feel valued and listened to. Get to know their aspirations and professional development goals and align them with your business objectives. Allow your employees to make mistakes. Not all ideas can lead to success, but they are a crucial part of learning, experience enrichment, and innovation.
- Provide flexibility where possible. Our 2017 research shows that work-life balance becomes more and more important, and not only for Millennials and Generation X. Introduce flexible working hours and allow telecommuting. Flexibility is not only about time. Let your employees choose their preferred style of learning by offering them suitable training options.
- Set clear objectives. Every time you assign a new task to your employees, make sure they understand what they have to do, what steps to follow, what are the deadlines, and explain how this task will contribute to the bigger company goals. The same clarity should be incorporated in your training program as well.
- Give on-demand feedback. Different generations prefer different types of feedback. While Millennials and Generation X are up for immediate and continuous feedback, Baby Boomers and Traditionalists need it less frequently. Keep balance and use different means of communication to provide feedback (face-to-face, video-conferencing, team collaboration tools like Slack, Google Hangouts, etc.)
- Incorporate rewards and recognition programs. Everybody wants to be acknowledged for the work they do. There are different ways of saying “thank you,” including extra days off, a 401k retirement plan, on-site health services, a free gym membership, and the like. Keep in mind, valued employees are loyal employees.
- Choose the right learning platform. All the above-mentioned tips can be easily implemented when you’ve got a smart learning platform that serves as a facilitator for talent development. We know from experience that these features are a must when it comes to developing in-house talent: mobile learning, that allows your employees to access the necessary training content anytime, anywhere, and through any device; interactivity and social functionality that enable seamless collaboration around communities and activities; ability to track your employees’ progress and more. But the most important feature to help you automatically deliver personalized training to any of your employees is machine learning capabilities that make training truly smart.
To manage your employees well, you should understand their backgrounds. To train your employees effectively, take into account their learning styles and cognitive preferences. We’ve seen that generational diversity at the workplace is not insurmountable when you use personalized learning tools. Such tools help to build richer and diverse learning experiences that lead to a strong learning culture in a company which in its turn helps businesses achieve their goals: business growth, innovativeness boost, and strong competitive abilities.