Overcoming Generation Differences When Building Learning: Part 2

When we last visited this topic about a week back I promised to create a visual—a chart of sorts—to encourage learning and instructional designers to consider how generational bias in training delivery. Just looking to start a conversation.

A Quick Review
You might want to pop back to the original article: http://tiny.cc/qpsrax

We know we’re engaging three distinct groups in today’s workplace, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y (Millenials). Each has specific preferences for general communication and they carry over in training as well. Whether creating a training program when all three groups are in the room or accessing courses online demands the learning designer incorporate specific ways of delivering information with the appropriate assets, techniques, and technologies. Initially, we would hope learners, right from the first word or screen, slide or handout, would buy-in and see value; a predisposition that his will be a good experience. During the training, we build formative experiences to keep all groups interested and motivated to continue, committed that the investment in time is worthwhile. Finally we would want participants to exit the training experience appreciating it was translatable into their work life. If this is accomplished, the next training experience will be viewed much more favorably and meet with less resistance.

Acknowledging their generational age, and considering their technological age (how savvy are they to tech) as well as comfort with social media, influences how they will respond to courseware. Though there are three distinct groups, many learners exhibit the preferences for learning outside the generational ‘norm’. These people are to be commended for either learning new technology, appreciating other ways of ‘seeing’ learning or just curious enough to drop a toe in the fast flowing stream of change. We need to depend on these folks to help convert those who tend to be inflexible.

Caveats abound:

  • This is not a fully scientific approach nor based on academic, androgogical research
  • It is the product of crowdsourcing, anecdotal research and discussion with hundreds of learning/instructional designers and clients not to mention intuition
  • My professional experience over thousands of hours of course building across more than twenty verticals and five geos and over 25 years of design have informed these findings, too

I am fully prepared to hear from all quarters. It’s a living document—a work in progress— so send your ideas to rshadrin@wonderfulbrain.com. I’m hoping criticism will help improve this instrument not merely tell me where to get off or how narrow-minded, oblique or stupid this exercise is.

Anyway, someone had to put a stake in the ground. Apparently me. I hope it doesn’t end up in my heart.

Ultimately, the learning designer has to make everyone happy if information transfer is to take place. Elements that ‘favor’ one group more than another will always be necessary. If knowledge, skills and behaviors are to be transmitted, absorbed and used than instructional design should seek balance. Occasionally this compromise is not appreciated nor well tolerated across the generations. Nevertheless, it is absolutely necessary to honor each aspect of the generation’s learning preferences and mitigate those that irritate others. Skillful designers know how to navigate these choppy waters and subtle mixtures of learning preferences can always be developed. Can the design ever be perfect. Well, no. But reasonable learners in all generations can recognize when attempts are made to entice them into a learning experience. And the organization expects each generation, besides tolerance, adapt as necessary to improve performance and solve problems through learning and training experiences.

GenCon

NOW EVERYONE WINS: OVERCOMING GENERATION DIFFERENCES WHEN BUILDING LEARNING

During an interview about a week back I asked the project manager about the audience for which the training courseware would be designed. The strongest criteria, emphatically made, was the consultants ability to work out a curriculum for 24 to 70 year olds. She added, by the way, some of them ‘don’t play well with others’ or didn’t want to take the training…and were clearly hostile. I know the second part is actually more enticing to discuss than the first but we’ll save that for a sequel.

It’s far from the first time any educator has faced this situation but it did get me wondering. A good place to start in preparing for such a project would recognize the characteristics of learners in each of the 4 major generational groups in today’s workplace. From that point discover, categorize and develop with some confidence the types of learning each would be most comfortable with then craft an overall rubric to be used when designing courseware for multi-age audiences. Looking around I did find an article where this conundrum was voiced. That solution was to conduct a needs assessment, offer basic training particularly in the technologies for those unfamiliar with online learning, and then take out an ‘insurance policy’ by creating what really was a back up curriculum in case of mass lethargy or a pedagogical mutiny. This answer seemed too superficial and really doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.

The Generations
Although these descriptions may seem a bit broad there is agreement the characteristics of each generation are accepted as real and true.

Baby Boomers (Post WW II, 47-65 years old)
Creating a pleasant work environment is paramount

  • Like steady work and climbing the corporate ladder, consider their coworkers to be their main social network
  • They put work at the center of their life and focus on building the company
  • Viewed as ‘seasoned’, thought leaders, or subject matter experts, has a stronghold on experience
  • If you want something done, pick up the phone instead of waiting on an email or text response

Generation X (Born between 1963-1980, early 30s to mid 40s)
genxfemale

  • Often labeled ‘slackers’, but are the best educated generation
  • Display a casual disdain for authority and structured work hours, dislike being micro-managed, skeptical and embrace a hands-off management philosophy
  • Will put in the hours while maintaining a reasonable work-life balance
  • Incorporate social media seamlessly into their personal and professional lives

Generation Y (Also called Echo Boomers or Millennials, born between 1981-1994, early 20s to early 30s)
millenial

  • Will make up 46% of the US workforce by 2020
  • Expect near universal positive reinforcement from authority figures while seeking job satisfaction
  • Incredibly technology savvy, immune to most traditional marketing and sales pitches
  • Rely heavily on blogs, instant messages, tweets, text messages
  • Demand work-life balance, flexible hours, work-from-home options, and mobile technology

 Generation Z (Soon to enter the workforce, born between 1995-2009)
First generation never to have experienced the pre-internet world. Already technology-focused

Where the Problem Begins
Let’s just back up a bit. School is the common denominator amongst all generations. But the problems that continue to arise in public education are magnified when boomer type instructional modalities are used to pitch information at millennial students. Teachers, the curriculum, methods and even the spaces for instruction are evidence of a generational disconnect. There are many superior older instructors who have made the technological and sociological leap to align content with context to educate their charges. But, in general this divide is not uncommon and where that happens, little learning goes on. Unfortunately many youngsters get patterned and adapt attitudes that, even as adults carry a distaste for learning not in their preferred mode. However these students are now our employees and need to be convinced by example learning can be made meaningful respecting the ways they want to, and best can learn. The question to consider? Are employees of a generation too rigid or overly reflexive in their rejection of training? Put another way, how malleable and adjustable are employees willing to be?

Where is Alignment in the Organization?
In corporate training we expect all generations to make adjustments so courses, training and instruction can be cast from a single or a few uniform models. After all this is the workplace. But that no longer cements an employee’s commitment nor guarantees willing participation. If we don’t honor the fundamental attitudes and proclivities of each generation we risk losing learners at the outset. Often staff, having endured training delivered in essentially a mode akin to a foreign language, have attitudes about training harden into instant negativity every time a required learning experience comes around. The problem that begs a solution is how best to design learning for all  generations.

Organizational Intolerance
Corporate leaders are skeptical  about the costs associated with learning and training believing there is not a high enough dividend in performance change to drive up profits. They would be extremely unlikely to embrace multiple course types to engage each generation in their learning ‘sweet spot.’ Instead corporate education needs to innovate, devising learning experiences to lure employees by offering a variety of ways to interact with information, absorb and most importantly use what they learned to be better at what they do—for themselves and the organization. Enough quality experiences and the fear, inertia or rejection displayed by generations will dissipate replaced by a more optimistic attitude about training at work.

A Way to Look at Instruction with Generational Regard
The goal is to reach every generation in their preferred learning style suggested by their social description. How? Develop learning elements, experiences, and technologies integrated into the content of courseware or training that speaks to each generation. This balanced methodology will engage all learners—not all the time nor in every instance—but enough so each group can sense an invitation to learn has been extended to them. Such an experience might offer elements (scenarios, interactivities, video, animation) techniques (direct instruction and gamification) experiences (role playing and decisions making strategies), assessing for competence (tests, role plays, scenarios, games) and media where learning might be best delivered (live, virtual, online, mobile, mixed), so that every generation can find relevance. Content will be carried forward in multiple modalities; formal, informal, social, participatory, for collaborative teams and individuals. Text, visuals, audio and interactivities will drive information respecting the sensibility of generational familiarity.

And while many employees are archetypes of each generation there are enough who just marginally typify the description of that generation. Of course this does not mean they are outliers, they simply fall into some other generational category.  I believe we can make some reasonable assumptions about the elements that once incorporated into instructional programs will reach every generation in their preferred learning style leaving no one outside the scope of education.

So what would a multi-generational learning plan look like? That’s going to need a well crafted visual. Stay tuned for Part II.