Much has been written about the impact of millennials and future generations on the workplace. How, when and where people work, as well as what is important to the employee, are all changing. But it’s not just the millennials who are recalibrating the workplace dynamic.

The same environmental factors that shaped millennials (born 1980-1999) are affecting all generations, from boomers (born 1945-1964) to Generation X (born 1965-1979) and Generation Z (born 2000-2015). The accelerating evolution of technology, extended periods of economic uncertainty, globalization of business, and increasing demand for innovation and change have had a profound impact on how all generations approach work individually and collaboratively.

The fundamental difference is that millennials have been immersed in the changing environment and have grown up at “ground zero.” They are responding most acutely to the changes everyone is experiencing. In many ways, they may also be those best equipped to navigate this increasingly complex business ecosystem effectively.

One of the greatest benefits of the focus on millennials is that the learning and development community is coming to grips with the fact that some traditional approaches have not been working. The truth is that they were ineffective long before millennials joined the workforce.

Millennials and Generation Z are shining a bright light on the inadequacies of traditional approaches. Successful companies will be those that can engage each generation by recognizing their talents and needs, empowering them in key roles, and enabling them to perform at high levels.

Enhancing Performance for Millennials and Beyond 

Now that millennials represent the largest generation in the workplace and are quickly moving into management, it is reasonable to focus on them as a primary audience. However, the learning solutions designed for them should work across generations. The rise of approaches like the 70/20/10 learning model and the 5 Moments of Learning Need is a direct response to the needs of today’s workers, including millennials.

Although organizations are adopting these approaches, many of them are using a traditional lens, where the organization controls the structure and pacing of learning. Too often, organizations take the self-service mentality of “if we build it, they will find it, learn it and apply it correctly.” Unfortunately, this approach is only successful with true high performers – employees who would succeed with little support.

Training organizations must quickly shift to a learner/performer-centric model, where employees (not the organization) define the learning need, contribute the content and collaborate with others to move the business forward. This approach leverages and nurtures the behaviors of high performers from all generations. Self-starting, resourceful employees will not let a lack of direction keep them from learning what they need to get the job done. This approach also reinforces the importance of using technology to create social connections, collaborative problem-solving relationships, and peer coaching and mentoring networks.

The question is: How should we modify traditional approaches to meet the needs of both the business and a multi-generational workforce? We recommend a four-element model to designing and delivering a performance-oriented employee development experience: Engage, Focus, Wrap and Nurture.

1. Engage

The first step is to connect with the whole performer and establish a strong relationship between the performer and the organization. This relationship sets the tone for the employment and performance experience from the outset. Engagement based on this two-way dialogue is critical, especially for millennials and Generation Z. Organizations are purposefully stepping back to make critical decisions about the full experience before throwing their employees into a “learning churn.”

Onboarding is the first time organizations can lose the millennial and Generation Z performers. When they join an organization, members of the younger generations are looking for an open architecture where they have some support and guidance but also opportunities to create their own experience and contributions. To meet these needs, companies should set an expectation that millennials are not only empowered but also expected to lead their own development.

During the engagement stage, the conversation should focus on the purpose of the organization, opportunities to make an impact, a plan for progression, paths to success, and ways to build their personal brand within the organization. This step is a great opportunity to start the relationship with a focus on performance. A critical output of the engagement step is a learning approach that engages millennials and will pay dividends when Generation Z hits the work scene in the next few years. 

2. Focus 

Once you have engaged the employees, the next steps is to focus on desired performance and outcomes. Anchor the learning journey to the desired performance and the performance support network, and make sure it reinforces problem-solving and continuous improvement. Given that a lot of today’s work is collaborative, it is important to integrate not only individual performance but team performance as well.

3. Wrap 

With engagement established and a focus on performance in place, the next step is to wrap the performers with a performer-centric learning system – delivering the right content at the moment of performance in the space of performance.

Although boomer and Generation X are quickly embracing a collaborative or social element in their learning, millennials are already looking for it, and Generation Z expects it. Generation Z is the most connected and technologically immersed generation, and this inclination has been reinforced in the way they have learned from birth.

In addition to leveraging sound design approaches encompassing the 5 Moments of Learning Need with a healthy dose of on-the-job learning (70/20/10), a performer-centric learning system should:

  • Establish relevance by ensuring that learning goals and tasks are set through the learner’s lens
  • Leave enough room for employees to set their own path
  • Leverage a scenario- or goal-based approach connected to an ecosystem of learning resources
  • Be instantly accessible across a range of devices
  • Offer content in multiple formats and using a range of media
  • Incorporate a strong content curation strategy
  • Allow for social connections around the learning, including peer mentoring and coach networks

4. Nurture

The final step in the process is to nurture the performer-centric learning ecosystem. This stage is the continuous and deliberate evolution of the first three steps. The key to success is establishing two elements: alignment with the organization’s evolving strategy and a rigorous but fluid evaluation and measurement system.

Engagement is a continuous process, and an ongoing two-way dialogue is critical to finding strategically aligned stretch opportunities. These opportunities will benefit the organization but also enable employees to add more skills to their resume and to have experiences that will benefit them outside of work. The performance focus will always need to evolve with the organization’s internal and external challenges and needs. Accordingly, organizations will need to adjust the learning ecosystem wrapping the performers.

This step is where L&D organizations will provide the greatest impact moving forward. Instead of creating an onslaught of formal and structured learning events, their function will be to monitor and measure how effectively each element is performing and then to make evidence-based decisions on how to tweak the dialogue, performance focus and learning system.

A critical new role to support the model 

As L&D organizations make the shift toward a performer-centric learning model, the need for a critical new role is growing. Content/context curators, learning Sherpas and virtual librarians have emerged as critical links in the learning-performance ecosystem. Although all employees find them valuable, millennials and members of Generation Z have especially connected with them.

These professionals help make connections between the performers and the organization’s content, resources and networks. They don’t create or own a majority of the content; instead, they are responsible for: 

  • Searching and sifting through the expanse of information
  • Creating meaning from the content
  • Sharing with and engaging the performance community
  • Monitoring, adjusting and evolving the performer-centric learning ecosystem 

In many ways, content curators are the architects of a successful, collaborative experience through a partnered learning approach. This experience will help millennials succeed in owning their learning experience. As they become more comfortable, they then become the guides for employees joining the team.

This longer-term plan accomplishes several goals:

  • Enhances the nimbleness and contributions of a generation that requires ongoing engagement
  • Provides opportunities for millennials and Generation Z to be successfully self-sufficient without an overly structured learning experience
  • Nurtures a collaborative learning and teaching mindset that will ripple through the organization 

Indicators of Success 

Millennials have a natural curiosity that will cause them to change jobs. Once in place, key indicators of the performer-centric learning system’s success include reduced attrition rates due to lack of development. Organizations should also see millennials taking the opportunity to mentor and develop new hires. We want the millennial workforce to understand that they may be newer to their roles and the organization, but they have great advantages to offer their new colleagues. When people not only choose to fulfill their learning goals but also help determine how their learning happens, it’s a strong indicator that the learning approach is working. Finally, successful performer-centric learning systems see millennials become a participating force in self-managed learning communities. 

As society changes, so must L&D. Both employees and learning professionals are partners in the continually evolving process of workplace performance. The millennial generation brings the workplace the gift of more collaborative and efficient approaches to learning – an opportunity everyone can learn from moving forward.