Today’s workforce is more demographically diverse than at any other time, with four generations working side-by-side in companies across the country. The generations have many distinguishing features. They have different ways of gathering and communicating information. They eat and play differently. And, many would agree, they have distinct work ethics that guide their decision-making, adherence to rules and personal interactions.
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Different In Many Ways
The generations are typically described by birth year and perceived values:
- Veterans or Traditionalists (pre-1945): Loyal, sacrificing, strong work ethic
- Baby Boomers (1946 – 1964): Hard working, committed, rule followers
- Gen X (1965 – 1980): Practical, Resistant to rules, extensive users of technology
- Gen Y or Millennials (1981 – 2000): Operates with a sense of entitlement, assumes a robust technology environment, demands job flexibility
The generations’ learning styles reflect these disparate worldviews. Tracey L. Cekada, a faculty member at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, described the differences in an article on multigenerational training in Professional Safety.
She explains that Veterans/Traditionalists clearly outline and state objectives and learn from key sources. Boomers like an organized presentation, group discussion and case studies. Gen X learners favor hands-on, experiential learning. And for Gen Y, the more digital the better, including electronic games.
Why It Matters
Gaining insight into how the generations learn is more than interesting. Contracting expert Ratiera L. Harrison says it’s essential to business success and harmony.
Writing in the Journal of Contract Management, she noted that corporations risk “long-term instability because of shortsightedness in training and development” when they permit negative interaction among the generations due to competition.
And while many thought leaders agree that a training approach that addresses multigenerational learning is important, few are taking action.
"I’ve yet to see many organizations making any distinctions for generational learning differences," offers Lori Addicks, a long-time leadership development and executive coaching consultant and a member of the TrainingPros talent pool.
Many have a ho-hum view of the generational issue. In part, Addicks says, that’s because the anticipated exodus of Baby Boomers from the workforce was delayed due to the recession.
When the Boomers do disappear en masse, organizations that have put off training future leaders will be in for a rude awakening.
"Of the organizations I work with," Addicks said, "I’m not seeing significant changes in the content and direction of learning programs overall, not just the lack of generational changes, but any changes."
One Size Does Not Fit All
A training approach cannot be all things to all people. Adds Harrison, "Instead of addressing the complexity of a robust training and development strategy that personalizes the cultivation of the generations inherent in the workforce, many training and development programs today are ‘one size fits all’ in nature."
Gloria Polard, who manages global training initiatives for GE Energy, suggests a custom approach. That means mixing and matching age-related preferences with personal learning styles (visual, auditory, tactical, kinesthetic, etc.).
"Gen X and Y expect to be entertained because they’ve grown up with technology," she says. "And younger learners seek interaction and response, compared to Baby Boomers who will better tolerate a trainer standing in front of the room and imparting wisdom."
The Engagement Piece
The experts recommend engaging employees of all generations in the training effort. Notes Leon Singletary, president and CEO of FirstcontactHR.com, "We are very inclusive and hold regular staff meetings, ask opinions, solicit ideas and keep everyone informed. The key is being flexible in how we lead and manage."
At Cooper University Hospital in New Jersey, learning leaders hold multigenerational focus groups to discuss learning preferences. Beth Green, vice president talent management, says that as a result, the hospital now offers online as well as face-to-face training options.
For Singletary, the Millennials present a particular challenge in terms of knowledge transfer. "They have little loyalty, want flexible hours and want everything now." And with less invested in a company, Singletary wonders, "Once knowledge has been transferred, how long can we count on a Millennial to stay?"
GE’s Polard recommends providing learning mentors. These are individuals who are senior in their roles and can reinforce learnings for more junior employees. She adds, "This is even more critical when you’re looking at just-in-time training."
Beware of Low-Hanging Fruit
Addicks says some organizations turn to eLearning as an easy-to-implement, lower-cost alternative that’s attractive to younger learners. But depending on the quality of the training, that approach can backfire.
"If you look at what’s available from an eLearning perspective, it’s actually pretty boring content," she said. For example, video imbedded in canned eLearning is often not interactive enough to keep Gen Y engaged.
"They don’t want what they had in school," she advises. "They want it to be exciting and new."
Start A Conversation
Successfully training diverse generations is closely tied to communication. How do you balance face-to-face communication with texting and instant messaging? What’s the appropriate medium for communications regardless of generation? Addicks suggests, "Getting the generations to talk with each other and understand differences and preferences and agree on approaches is a great place to start."
GE’s Polard reminds L&D professionals to continuously assess tools and approaches to examine what’s working for their audience. "Some things will be [appropriate] and some things won’t," Polard said. "As a learning leader, you have to be open to listen and to see what’s out there."
From the Traditionalists who still yearn for the card catalog to the Millennials for whom research and social connection are as close as their iPhones, the generational gap is wide. But with engagement and communication, the training gap doesn’t have to be.
Lori Addicks, president and CEO, The Larkspur Group
Douglas Allen, senior vice president human resources, Cooper University Healthcare
Beth Green, vice president talent management, Cooper University Healthcare
Gloria Polard, training manager, GE Energy
Leon Singletary, president and CEO, Firstcontacthr.com
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