Learning Styles Revealed: The Millennials
- Written by Ken Ball
In 2010, I co-authored the book, Surviving the Baby Boomer Exodus: Capturing Knowledge for Gen X and Y Employees. It’s about how 76 million Boomers will eventually leave the workplace and too often take with them years of valuable corporate knowledge. The book was written for the corporate audience: HR, workforce, and talent managers; line of business managers; and senior management.
Key ingredients in successful knowledge transfer are communication and technology as they apply to how people like to receive information and learn. These become important to understand when considering the ages of training participants. We identified three primary groups in the workplace today: Baby Boomers (1945-1964), Gen X (1965-1979) and Gen Y or Millennials (1980- 1995). In the first two blogs, we looked at distinctions and preferences for Boomers and Gen X. In this blog, Gen Y takes center stage.
This cohort is the first to be “digital natives”, people who grew up with technology in their hands from the time they could hold a video game device, iPod or laptop computer. They’ve never known a time without some kind of gadget to connect them to others. They are the first to use “text” as a verb. The advent of new technologies and the speed of technological change have shaped this group’s experience and made them who they are: savvy consumers of learning—when, where, and exactly how they want it. And with the Internet at the ready, they move on quickly if they don’t find what they’re looking for.
Gen Y doesn’t understand the word “wait.” Call it ambition if you will, maybe even impatience, but whatever it is, Gen Y’s energetic, multitasking nature plays a role in the workplace and how they like to learn. Millennials were showered with attention and driven by high expectations by their parents. This has led to a sense of self-confidence, often mistaken for arrogance. Gen Yers want feedback on everything they’re doing, and this creates a cross-generational dynamic that gives Boomers the opportunity to mentor a younger employee, and it provides Gen Y with the guidance they want in the workplace.
Millennials like working for companies that have a strong mission and focus—they are comfortable interacting in a global environment—diversity is not usually a concept that they need to learn to embrace—it’s what they expect to find in school and at work. And Millennials expect leaders who espouse a social awareness and support for worthwhile causes to demonstrate those values on a daily basis, a trait they share with Boomers.
Gen Y learn best by doing. They’re unlikely to read an instruction manual cover-to-cover when learning a new task. They simply do not operate this way. Because they grew up playing video games, they’re more than comfortable starting tasks spontaneously with little or no instruction.
As with the put-it-in-and-start nature of video games, that’s how Millennials come to the workforce: with a trial-and-error learning style. They want to learn by doing.
With Gen Y, it is important that trainers who are passing on procedural or explicit knowledge recognize that the cohort lacks patience for a “must-do-it-this-way” approach to learning. Because they’ve had many options, there really is variance per individual. For example, a mix of traditional methods, such as job aids, should be made available, along with the offer of face-to-face coaching as needed.
Gen Y wants practical information when they need it, so the learning of deep, intuitive knowledge could include mentoring and on-the-job training, which enables them to map to their preference for feedback and communication.
Gen Y also benefits from job shadowing to learn the ins and outs of a business or department, and e-learning or videos also works well.
Training that’s on demand and easily accessible to them when they need it, as opposed to posting a notice saying, “We’re holding training from 9 to 4 on Tuesday” is key. While some HR managers have observed that Gen Yers have less patience for Boomers’ storytelling communication style (“Just get to the point, I don’t have time for a story”), there is no doubt that all people, regardless of age, learn through stories. People think and process knowledge and even dream in the form of stories—every experience, relationship, and object is stored in the mind as a story.
The best approach is to use narrative at every opportunity but without necessarily labelling it as storytelling. This distracts from the purpose—sharing knowledge—and may cause the listener to lose interest. Just tell the story, blending it into your work, and integrating it into your conversation.
In developing training, especially when Millennials are involved, put information-gathering tools in front of them and turn them loose. They’ll quickly find what they need best to learn.