We are part of a workforce dynamic that few may experience: five generations of employees sharing the same professional space. Gen Z, millennials, Gen X, baby boomers and even the silent generation work together toward common professional goals. The differences among the generations range from what motivates them to excel to what they seek from their careers and from their work ethic to their interpersonal relationship styles. And, of course, they differ in how they choose to learn.

Differences notwithstanding, a multigenerational workforce offers a distinct competitive advantage. It’s an opportunity to learn from experience and benefit from the innovation that a fresh perspective can bring. But…

Is it ever that simple?

We face several challenges in training a multigenerational workforce:

  1. Preferred Learning Modalities: On one end of the spectrum are learning preferences based on memorization and extensive studying with a group that had minimal to zero technology in the classroom. On the other end is a group of gamers who devour content digitally. The implications are far-reaching, influencing everything from levels of motivation to access and engage with learning content to the effectiveness of the learning experience.
  2. Uptake of technology: Contrary to popular belief, more baby boomers are spending time online than expected; at least 82 percent have a social media account. While this trend gives marketers cause to celebrate, do all generations bring the same enthusiasm to online learning? There appears to be insufficient data and mixed opinions.
  3. Motivation to learn: Most adult learners are intrinsically motivated to learn. However, it could take differing levels of extrinsic motivation to keep them engaged in the learning process, especially if it is perceived as non-critical to career development. While older generations may sometimes need overt methods, for a younger generation used to gaming, reward and recognition become almost mandatory.
  4. Required Skills: With representatives across generations spending over half their waking hours interacting in the workplace, unsurprisingly, soft skills are a major area of focus. In Deloitte’s 2018 millennial survey, more than one-third of respondents said that employees and leaders must have strong interpersonal skills, but not all of them felt supported in developing those skills. Other increasingly important skills are complex problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, judgement and decision-making, service orientation, negotiation, and cognitive flexibility.
  5. Sharing of Tacit Knowledge Older generations have been exposed to the resolutions of far more business problems than their younger counterparts. This experience might be lost if it’s not captured and transferred effectively.

Recommendations for Training

  1. Mentoring and Reverse Mentoring: It is encouraging to note that about eight in 10 millennials and seven in 10 Gen Xers welcome mentoring and on-the-job training, according to the Deloitte survey. Popularized by Jack Welch, reverse mentoring pairs older members of the workforce with younger employees. The time is ripe to build professional mentoring relationships.
  2. Universal Design Learning (UDL): UDL recommends multiple ways of acquiring information, engaging with content and demonstrating understanding. Take a multi-modal approach using elements like audio, video, simulations, exploratory learning and other interactive formats. Do your assessments rely more on rote learning rather than an understanding of the subject matter? Vary the mix with practical exercises or on-the-job evaluation. Then, give learners the flexibility to choose how to engage with content.
  3. Personalization of learning: To give learners flexibility, construct training around three basic pillars: the differing pace at which people learn, the subject matter that is most relevant to them and the format that they find most conducive to learning. This approach does not need to involve multiple solutions; rather, use a single learning experience that is granular enough to allow the audience to pick what suits them best.
  4. Technology: Use technology to reach a wider audience. If the subject matter lends itself to online learning, it’s time to make a switch from questioning whether to deliver learning online to finding ways to make online learning more engaging.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The answer to training a multigenerational workforce lies not in a unilateral approach to training but in a multi-lateral one that factors in the perspectives and preferences of the target audience. It’s time to say goodbye to classroom-based monologues and online snooze fests. Give your audience the flexibility of deciding how they will learn based on their work and life experiences as well as their professional capabilities.

As training professionals, we often walk a tightrope between what we believe to be the perfect learning solution and business realities, such as time, effort and budget, on the other. Taking into account the learning needs of a multigenerational workforce needn’t be the gust that blows you off that tightrope but rather the mindful perspective that keeps you balanced.

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