Baby boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, how to engage learners, L&D, Laura Overton, learning and development, Learning live 2012, learning professionals, Millennial, Towards Maturity, training and development, what learners want
Times are changing. What we as employees and learners want and need is increasingly influenced by the development of modern technology. As a result and by using the tools available to us, we are expected to respond faster to demands both at work and in our personal lives. This means we’re not able to devote as much time for learning and aren’t able to spend days on training courses or be away from our jobs. Relevant and timely information has become the most important commodity for today’s learners. Training managers realise this and are creating new solutions to support our personal and professional development, and to help us do our jobs faster and better. So why is it so difficult to keep us motivated and engaged when it comes to training? Well, I blame the labels.
Recently I’ve noticed that terms such as Millennial, Generation X, Baby Boomers and Digital Natives are appearing more frequently in industry articles and blogs to describe today’s learners. In fact, if you look at the 2012 LEARNING LIVE event programme you’ll notice some of these terms featuring in lecture topics. Laura Overton from Towards Maturity referred to these as ‘labels’ in her seminar ‘What learners really want’. She observed that many organisations tend to label their employees as a way of assuming what they like, want and need as learners.
Lately, a common label seems to be Millennial (or Generation Y), to refer to the generation of employees who were born in or after 1982. These are now in their 20s or early 30s and most left school fully competent with using internet and social media. The majority are just entering the workplace or are at an early stage in their careers and mobile technology is like an extension of their senses. Their values, learning habits and expectations are heavily influenced by technology, media and today’s pace of life, and are often considered different to those employees born as Baby Boomers or Generation X. But are they really that dissimilar?
Learners that don’t fit any label
According to Laura, many learning and development experts tend to assume how their learners like to train and what they need to know and do. Yet, Towards Maturity’s benchmark study shows that top performing organisations don’t put labels on their learners. Instead, they challenge assumptions about their employees and their learning habits which is what L&D professionals need to do because every learner is an individual. While often faced with similar issues, each learner is different and has different learning preferences. One learning solution or model won’t fit all and what works for one person may not necessarily work for another.
My date of birth would suggest I’m a Millennial. I grew up with the internet as a main source of information (I can’t really remember time before the internet) and there was a moment when I spent half of my time on social networking sites. But that’s about all that would make me a Millennial. I don’t consider my smartphone as an extension of my senses. In fact I find it rude when someone checks their messages or tweets when in conversation with me or while socialising. More often than not I print out text because I like scribbling comments on the side, and I take notes with my pen and not on a tablet. I think my learning habits would be a combination of a Baby Boomer, someone from Generation X and a Millennial – so what sort of learner does it make me? What label should I have?
I don’t think I’m the only one with a mixture of values, learning habits and expectations from seemingly very different demographic groups. There are many people from my generation who are not immersed in technology or media and prefer a traditional diary to a blog or a newspaper to a website, for example. But, if based on the general characteristics of their age group, they would still be labelled as a Millennial. The same applies to other generations that include learners who don’t fit in the general description of their demographic – much like how horoscopes are meant to describe the fortunes of all those under a particular star sign.
Labelling people doesn’t mean just putting them into a generation category. It’s also expressed in what L&D professionals think their learners need to know, what they need to do and how they like to learn. Are you sure they learn only while in the office? Do you know for certain that they don’t need to access those training materials over the weekend? Do all of them tend to reach for their smartphone or iPad to learn something? What do you really know about your learners?
When making assumptions about when and how people like to increase their knowledge or change their behaviours, L&D managers are missing many opportunities for their employees to learn. And it’s not enough to simply open the door to all available training and learning technologies and assume people will take advantage. They need navigation and direction. Laura Overton says it’s important to challenge assumptions but also to find out what our employees really need by asking them the right questions and guiding them.
Don’t assume, ask.
When I attended Laura’s seminar at LEARNING LIVE 2012 I had a feeling I was the only one present who wasn’t an L&D expert. Like everybody else, I was there to learn something new but I felt I was the actual learner. At my table people debated about what it is their employees need and how they like to train. I could only listen and chip in my subjective point of view and share my learning wants and preferences.
I discovered that the questions I would have asked myself (as a learner) if I was a learning and development professional were different to those I heard at my table. I would simply ask myself: what would help me do my job better and faster; or easier and faster? Which at the time I thought was probably a silly and too broad a question. What I heard from those sitting around me professionals was ‘what would motivate you, or what would make you engaged?’ And I think all those questions are important. Asking questions makes the gap between those responsible for training and their trainees smaller; and moves L&D managers closer to discovering the best solutions to their learning challenges. As Laura pointed out, “When we [L&D professionals] don’t know much about our learners, it’s difficult to decide about the solution our learners need.”
A simple conclusion
One of the biggest obstacles learning and development professionals face is the diversity of their learners. Although faced with similar issues, each learner is different and one solution won’t fit all. But if we’re labelling learners in ways that aren’t relevant to them and the information or training they need isn’t available to them as a result, it’s no wonder that many learners lack engagement and motivation.
A good starting point in engaging learners would be, as Laura pointed out, challenging assumptions about them and not labelling them. Maybe L&D experts should become the learners for a change and get to know their employees by asking them what it is that they really need to do their jobs well.