Engaging All Generations in Workplace Learning

Creating training programs that target and engage multigenerational learners is important for learning & development teams to consider, but it can often be difficult. How can you effectively train employees from all four generations?

Historically, learning programs have focused on what the organization wants employees to learn versus what learners desire. But today many employees, especially younger ones, demand that their interests and needs be taken into account. With shifts in the secondary and post-secondary school curriculum, the way in which employees prefer to learn has shifted as well.

What does this mean for workplace learning and training? It means that Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Gen Ys all have different values, behaviours and expectations as well as differences in how they want to learn.

Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Gen Ys – Generational Learning Preferences

Many Traditionalists and Baby Boomers expect to be exposed to development opportunities, but the frequency, format and participation is often directed by the organization and their managers. They’re accustomed to having facilitators, trainers and instructors stand at the front of the room teaching to and talking at them. For these experienced generations, learning is not necessarily based on employee needs or desires, they expect trainers and facilitators to be experts who ‘teach’ relevant content.

Gen Xers, who witnessed various family members downsized during the recessions of the 80’s and 90’s, decided that it wasn’t a good idea to let organizations determine their career and skill development, so they committed to owning their own growth and development. This means that Gen Xers look for organizations that acknowledge and actively develop skills that employees are interested in building.

Gen Ys expect learning to be frequent, early in their careers, and be focused on their learning interests, including skill sets outside of their current role. They also expect the organization to provide those learning opportunities, internally or through subsidized external programs.

In a multigenerational learning environment, all four types of learning preferences may be present.

Multigenerational Learning in the Workplace

Meeting the needs of all four generations is never easy, but it is essential. However, it ‘s not possible or reasonable to have four different learning programs to respond to each generation. The key is to create a program that has elements and activities that tap into each generation’s objectives and preferences. Here are a few tips for doing so:

  • If the learning is technology based, tension can arise between experienced/older learners who may not be as comfortable using technology and younger learners who can be frustrated by the slow pace of the learning (in particular Gen Ys.)
  • To resolve this, create activities that partner up experienced/older participants with younger ones so they can provide support on how to use new technologies. Trainers can also assign additional activities for those learners who finish the formal learning more quickly.
  • Gen Ys often struggle with rules that are imposed on them. Involving Gen Ys in creating the protocols of the learning environment can alleviate this.
  • Wherever possible, encourage all learners to create group rules that establish a respectful learning environment as well as involving all learning groups in the design of the curriculum.
  • Baby Boomers tend to be low risk takers in the learning environment. They are often afraid that if they do not perform new skills/tasks well, they will be vulnerable on the job.
  • To make the process more comfortable, create multiple ways in which learning can be practiced in a safe environment before applying new skills in their day-to-day functions. Provide time in the learning event, or create on-the-job assignments that allow Baby Boomers to practice new skills without affecting performance ratings or evaluations.
  • Gen Xers are entrepreneurial in nature and devoted to developing their desired professional skill sets.
  • Create activities, stretch assignments or action-learning programs that are results oriented. What marketable skill could they put on their résumé as a business result by participating in the learning?
  • To accommodate the broadest audience possible, create multiple formats by which you can support learners in applying new skills.
  • For example, offer office time for face-to-face discussions as well as phone calls, email, chat, blogs, blackboard, texting, etc. Creating blogs and discussion groups that all learners can participate in will also encourage cross sharing of knowledge and peer to peer support.

Giselle Kovary

As president and co-founder of n-gen People Performance Inc., Giselle is dedicated to building strategies and programs that help clients target, motivate and engage employees in order to increase performance and productivity. She is a sought after resource to industry leaders, having worked with 18 of the top Fortune 500 companies across North America. Over 60,000 people globally have experienced an n-gen workshop or presentation. With close to 20 years of experience in learning and development, she has devoted more than 13 years to researching the impact that generational differences have on organizational performance.

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