Millennial Learning “Needs” Work for Everyone: Unlocking Organizational Potential


By Lynn Oucharek

Imagine sitting in a still room with no windows, dim lights, and just the sound of someone speaking in the background. If the picture that rises to mind is a surgical theatre, consider that this how many training and development environments still look today.

While that is changing, and has needed to change for some time, we can credit the Millennials and younger in the workplace for pushing that change forward—encouraging and enabling significant changes to the learning opportunities provided with a focus on education and development that is both engaging and enduring. Moreover, while it may be a Millennial push, it serves to benefit everyone and is key for all organizations.

The New Wisdom of Youth
As a leadership coach, part of my time is spent looking at innovation in education, spotting trends impacting our youngest employees upwards. What I have noted is that while the Millennials needs are somewhat different—particularly regarding pace and feedback—what they are seeking are good shifts for organizations to be considering. Tapping into the Millennials who may seem to be on the fringe of your larger learning population can be a great way to develop new offerings that engage, entertain, and improve problem solving and the successful implementation of new ideas.

Consider that as we move through greater technological changes with ever greater volumes of information, the Millennials may be the first to see the opportunities, but only if we learn to look to them as bellwethers for integrating innovative potential. According to a recent Techcrunch article, every two days we now post as much information online as was available from the dawn of civilization to 2003.

This level of exposure has a definitive impact on our learning styles—particularly for those Millennials and younger who spend more time accessing digital information than the rest of us.  New research in a recent issue of New Media and Communications discusses the evolution of our neural pathways with increasing digital exposure, and stresses the importance for educators (a.k.a. HR professionals) to adjust our teaching styles and tools to ensure greater engagement and more effective take aways.

What Millennials Bring to Learning
We know that, generally speaking, Millennials and younger are more visual than auditory, and are looking for more experience based, practical hands on learning. Being behind a desk or sitting still in long presentations isn’t going to create better learning in most cases for them.

We also know that Millennials are generally tech-savvy, looking for socially-integrated components as part of their work/life experiences, and enjoy photo-sharing that makes them feel connected to information and people. They are more equipped to learn by intuitive leaps, and strongly value imagination and  gamification as part of their learning tool kit. The also value the ability to express their thoughts by questioning the learning that they’re engaged in; this is part of their DNA, and not seen as disrespectful to the presenter, but representative of being an inclusive participant.

Reframing the Benefits to the Bigger Picture
So, what happens when cater to what the youngest generation is seeking when it comes to learning? In short, we all learn. If we take this information and use it as a lens to create great learning for the  Millennials in our midst, the positive impact felt by our greater employee bases can be significant.

While some might find the adjustments unusual or even uncomfortable at first, there is tremendous value to everyone in developing a more active approach to learning.  Having had the opportunity to create learning for organizations using a variety of  approaches, I can tell you that the young people I’ve worked are the ones most likely to jump right in to experiment with the exercises.

Those participants who were originally hesitant often come away telling me how surprised they were by their enjoyment of what were genuinely new experiences—interactive trials and unusual implementations—and how much more they retained as a result of such an active and fun approach.

Five Learning Shifts to Inspire
So, how can you add to or evolve your current practice to create new learning and training opportunities that appeal to Millennials and inspire many others?

Here are some key elements and a few mindset shifts to get you started:

Remember that learning happens everywhere: Learning can happen in a closed room—but not all the time.  Most Millennials will tell you that switching up spaces for learning is in their DNA. They’ve grown up consuming information in every spot imaginable, so don’t be afraid to try alternative “fun” locations or even use some of the hacks that forward-thinking organizations are famous for like applying white board paint to convert a corner into a learning-and-exchange centre.

Think fresh and don’t be afraid for part of your learning to happen in fun and active locations. An organization I was with for years used both the local rowing club and yacht club as places for learning and team building. It was inexpensive and the change of venue meant we experimented with activities we wouldn’t have otherwise. Our egg drop challenges were legendary at the end of an intense day of learning.

Gamification means engagement, not just fun: Most people under the age of 35 have grown up with gaming as part of their integrated learning, both inside and outside of the classroom. Gaming often encourages curiosity and divergent thinking, as well as developing the ability to creatively generate many solutions to a problem. ??This can translate into learning, by simply posing “outside-the-box” questions such as, “How many uses does a paper clip have?” as part of your process. This invites thinking in alternative ways. Consider using everything from interesting questions to competing teams to pull learners in; I like Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rule Breakers and Changemakers, for pulling individuals together in problem solving and building soft skills.

Learning is a verb, experience and project-based components are key: For most of us, “sticky” learning happens when we are able to put information to use on real projects or in hands on situations; for Millennials this is seen as table stakes. If you think of learning as a verb then every program you create should have components which give the learner the ability to put the information into action, whether those are trials, mock interactions or experiments.

When information is seen and felt in action as opposed to being “talked at” in theory,  it’s much easier to understand how the learning will go to work. Ideally, the learning would be followed by an opportunity for the participant to apply it to an an upcoming project. The more participation, interaction and feedback in both directions the more committed participants tend to be to the outcomes.

Tie Learning to Community: Research on the power of project outcomes being outward-facing to a community are mind blowing. If participants and especially Millennials know that even trial projects are going to be seen by a population outside of their immediate group, not only will they strive to do their very best work, but that learning is actually held at a much deeper level.

I try to integrate a “social good” component with my learning to ensure that groups are able to apply new skills to a real-time challenge for a local non-profit. For Millennials this is a win/win, as they’re able to see their learning in action and know that it’s making a larger impact on the people around them.

Be Visual Heavy Instead of Auditory Based: If you want greater engagement then playing heavier to visuals and imagery is absolutely critical; younger learners have spent a greater part of their lives oriented toward visual cues. This age group will just not sit still for long, drawn-out presentations; they will tune out before you know it.

The truth is we are all becoming more visually-oriented, so it’s well worth considering reworking your presentation style. One of my favourite guides to switching over to a more visual nature in presenting information is a 99U article, “How To Create A Captivating Presentation.”

Storytelling and Story Sharing: We know that storytelling as a means of sharing ideas is something that draws people in, but it also promotes long term retention of thoughts. For Millennials, the ability to participate in the stories of others and share their own is seen as a natural extension of themselves, as is the ability to integrate new concepts into their existing pool of ideas; this makes their learning personal and intimate—and may be one of the simplest items you can integrate into your current training that is guaranteed to cause the greatest impact.

Focus on expressing either your own stories or those of other organizations or individuals to help illustrate a point. Create openings for dialogue and “feeling part of the process.” A natural bonus is the resilience built in the learners; when individuals hear stories of how others fail and then bounce back, they are more likely to do the same and rise to new means of putting fresh learning into action.

Millennial Learning Raises All Ships
The ability to create learning that appeals to Millennials can move your employee development practice to a place which helps mainstream participants build on their existing strengths and integrate new concepts into practical applications, moving from exposure to experience. For me, finding ways to empower the whole person no matter what their age leads to building growth mindsets and cultures that do great work.

Lynn Oucharek is the founder and idea juicer of Ovision Consulting, committed to igniting the desire for great work, engagement and bigger ideas.

(PeopleTalk Fall 2016)

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