Learning strategies for a changing workforce

For the first time in history, there is the potential for four generations of employees in the workforce at the same time. While it may be odd to think you could be working alongside your great-granny, it is not out of the question as the age at which employees can afford to retire extends ever upwards.

This may be only a mathematical possibility in real life, as the generations usually defined when discussing workplace age diversity relate to demographic categories. However, these categories are much beloved by marketers and those who favour broad stereotypes over a more thoughtful understanding of differing needs, characteristics and aspirations.

Some Traditionalists – those born pre-1945 – are still in the workplace. While this may still be a little unusual, it is significantly more common than it once was. The Office of National Statistics in the UK reported over one million people beyond state retirement age still working in 2016. Having much better health for longer, a career which has defined them and adult children still relying on their parents for support, many of those in their 70s are still working.

The Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – are more numerous than any other generation, but are also beginning to leave the workforce. This creates two pressures for organisations – how to maintain the skillset of those who stay, and replace the expertise and experience of those who leave.

One key feature of those over 50, but within the ‘normal’ range for retirement, is that opportunities to move jobs may be fewer than they once were. Quite simply, most over 50s report a significant lack of interest from firms who characterise this demographic as being expensive, out of touch and likely to retire before they add real value in a role.  Much of this is, of course, nonsense.

That 50-year-old applicant could have 20 years at work ahead of them. They may be more financially independent and – having got rid of the kids and the mortgage – be prepared to take a pay cut to undertake work of real value and interest. Most importantly, this is the generation that invented most of the technology that has disrupted our daily lives. If anyone can view this technology critically but constructively, they can. But, as with any employee, their skills need maintaining and updating. As change happens, it happens to everyone. As these people are likely to stay in your company longer than their younger colleagues, developing their capability is a need to do, not a nice to do.

Generation X – born between 1965 and 1980 – are often characterised as entrepreneurial risk takers. Obviously, if your parents wore flares and flowers in their hair, this has naturally led to you being independent and driven. A rejection of parental influence perhaps? Who knows? Like all these generalisations it is simple to deconstruct the stereotype and show it for the guff it clearly is. The fact the supposedly learned management thinkers still pedal this stuff is both disheartening and maddening in equal proportion.

Finally, we come to the Millennials – those born since 1980 and entering the workforce within the 21st century.  These impatient digital natives are allegedly more values driven, less ambitious, not focused on work as a defining feature of their existence and more collaborative in nature.  We are told that they are constantly connected and that they value instant social interaction over face to face meetings.

As a parent to and colleague of millennials, I struggle to reconcile these characterisations with my own lived experience. My adult children and the people with whom I work with do not fit any single definition that snugly. Are they connected? Sure. More than older people? Maybe, a little. Does it drive collaboration?  Not noticeably. I could go on.

A couple of years after the 2008 financial crash, I recall reading an article which described millennials as the saviours of our planet. Their social concerns and deep and abiding worries about global warming meant that they were the generation to lead us to a more harmonious future. They were the generation shocked by the financial crash and anxious to put shared values above individual profit.

The same week I saw a report from the Association of Graduate Recruiters; this included application numbers for different graduate schemes. On average, around 80 students nearing the end of their degrees were applying for each graduate scheme place.

Except in one industry.

At the point in history when bankers were being reproached for elevating personal profiteering over sound business; the point at which the level of City bonuses was bringing opprobrium on the heads of those working in finance, the over-subscription for graduate schemes in merchant banks was twice as high as the average. Over 150 millennial graduates were applying for every single vacancy for banking graduate recruitment schemes.

Now it would be crass to make a judgment about generational values and outlooks based on this one insight, but it suggests that the portrayal of millennials as being somehow different from their more individualistic, self-interested forebears may not stand a lot of scrutiny. When billions in bonuses are on offer, our idealistic millennials are as interested in cold, hard cash as any other generation.

By now you may have guessed that my acceptance of these generational archetypes is less than wholehearted. I despair about most kinds of generalisation, but at least when applied to race, religion, gender or sexual orientation there will be some kind of protest. When applied to large swathes of people on the basis of their date of birth, stereotypes seem less likely to be questioned.

This seems to be particularly true in the case of millennials. Not only have older people seemed to define millennials as somehow ‘other’ or different, this generational badge seems to have been adopted by many within the millennial age range. Some millennials seem especially keen to self-identify with the characteristics foisted on them by others.

Within the world of learning and development these ill-thought out millennial tropes have informed a lot of focus of late. Reviewing product literature – especially in the area of learning technology – reading blogs, articles and listening to conference speeches will show you how the myth of millennials has infiltrated the zeitgeist. Google ‘HR and millennials’ and 684,000 links pop up, mostly to advisory white papers by large, prestigious consultancy businesses who really ought to know better.

When it comes to challenges with apps, digital, social and anything else that feels like another language for learning, maybe it helps us feel less overwhelmed if we can be consoled by the idea that the ‘kids get it’.  Well, sorry to break it to you – they don’t.  Feel overwhelmed.

In 2016, Towards Maturity, the non-profit think tank and learning technology benchmarking organisation sought to understand once and for all how different generations learn. Their Learner Voice 3 report from October last year is subtitled “What can millennials teach us about supporting learning in the workplace?”

As the introduction to the report says: “The focus on today’s younger generation joining the workforce has provided a renewed vigour for L&D professionals to review their current provision. They are looking to modernise learning to address the perceived needs of a new generation of demanding and digital workers.”

With over 4,500 respondents to the survey, a third of whom were under 30 years old, the questions were around how people learn at work, what components of a development initiative they find useful and the initiatives they were involved in to develop their own skills.

A headline finding from the report is that there is only a marginal difference across generations when discussing learning preferences, attitudes to technology and the support needed to help them develop knowledge and skills. In other words, good practice in learning design is good practice in learning design. The age profile of the participants is irrelevant. Providing informal learning opportunities, line manager support for self-development and opportunities to collaborate, are valued by the over 50s just as much as they are by the under 30s. The things that don’t work; dull and irrelevant content, badly organised information that is difficult to find, poor IT infrastructure, become a turn off regardless of the decade of your birth.

Now at this point, it would be easy to say “Who knew?” in an especially sarcastic voice, roll our eyes and carry on doing what we’ve been doing for years. In Learning and Development we’re pretty good at doing the same thing over and over and hoping for different results. That’s the definition of stupidity, after all, and a lot of L&D practice is pretty stupid.

The biggest conclusion from the Towards Maturity report is that there is a clear gap between what L&D does and what learners want. Employees have strong feelings about how they like to learn, but L&D do not necessarily prioritise activity in these areas. There is a focus on delivering certain types of experience to some staff which would be equally valuable for everyone else. L&D teams infrequently engage with audiences. This inevitably means that specific learning solutions are based on assumptions rather than insights, on feelings rather than facts.

By looking to these two issues, the solution to a multi-generational, diverse workforce and the challenge faced by HR and L&D teams starts to become clear. We need more insights. We need more facts. We need to know who our people are – their aspirations, challenges and ways of working. We need to build solutions capable of being adapted to individual needs, without compromising on core messages and common values. In short, we need a personalised route to gaining collective capability.

If we reject the idea that ‘one size fits all’ or that ‘something’ needs to be capable of working at a large scale, we need to replace it with something. Imagine the situation where you wish to transform a way of doing things in your organisation. My colleagues and I work most often with people involved in selling. Periodically most top class organisations review sales processes looking for means of improvement.  Organisations which are serious about transformation look for an evidence based approach, which helps their sales teams deliver more value to customers than the competition. As well as process redesign, this also requires new skills and therefore new learning. It may also require ‘unlearning’ – helping experienced sales people to adapt their skills to new paradigms and ways of working.

How can this be personalised? It is not a matter of each individual in an organisation coming up with their own way of working. The whole point of this kind of sales transformation is to enable sales people to adopt recognised best practice, to use the same vocabulary and processes. To work as one team with a unified vision and a collective approach.  The ‘what works for me’ model is inconsistent with an enterprise wide adoption of key skills and behaviours.

But as the Towards Maturity report also makes clear there are three learning modes or activities that all generations find valuable. The good thing is that all of them work to support a degree of personalisation.

  1. Collaboration with peers: sharing information and learning from the experiences of others is cross generational. Indeed, over 50s found this slightly more valuable than under 30s , but in all age groups this was valued by over 80% of respondents.

Creating mechanisms for collaboration is an essential part of 21st century learning activities.  Learning from each other’s successes (and mistakes) and working at something together maintains momentum – not least when it’s easier to simply go back to doing things in the way we’ve always done them. Most importantly, it enables each individual to shape their learning to their needs. To speed ahead in the vanguard when appropriate, to take their time and observe others when required. Collaboration that works needs to be consistent with team and organisational culture and very often that requires active leadership involvement. Which is good, because manager involvement is number two on our list.

  1. Support from a line manager or leader: If, like me, you can recall a situation where you attended a course, came back all fired up and excited to implement what you had learned and were met by indifference by your team leader, then you can identify the importance of manager involvement in developing skills. It’s a shame that most of us can recognise what happens when it is absent more easily than when it is present.

Again, all ages found that their manager’s interest in and support for learning activities was valuable. Our millennials slightly more so than their older colleagues, but this is a function of experience, as much as age. If an individual is to make that leap from finding out about new things to trying out new skills in the workplace, then manager involvement is essential. It may be granting permission to try things out, to experiment, to do things differently. It could be active encouragement and being given time and space. It might be one to one support or coaching. It could be active enablement from a manager with additional expertise and experience, who can assist the team member to navigate new environments.

Whatever level of engagement, the manager’s role is non-negotiable. But managers will complain that it isn’t their job, that they don’t have bandwidth or time to support learning. This is a roles and responsibilities issue; Managers who do not think their role involves helping their team build skills and capability are not managers. Managers who know it’s their job but don’t do it need help planning their time or prioritising their personal workload. Managers who are incapable of supporting learning interventions need learning intervention themselves.

Towards Maturity found that only a quarter of organisations are equipping their managers with the skills to help their teams get the most from formal learning activities.

  1. Learning at their own pace: The third insight about learner’s preferences is that it is valuable for individuals to work at their own pace, to develop the skills they need when they need them. This could, and does, lead to a laissez faire attitude to development. Individuals are told in general terms that maintaining and updating their skills is expected, but little support, resource or direction is offered.

The key is to relentlessly focus on performance. What standards need to be met? What does good look like? What is acceptable, what is outstanding? Focusing on what people should do and how well they should do it works, but only if the means for capability improvement are available.
But remember, one size does not fit all.  Your armoury will need to be well stocked. Courses, resources, formal learning and informal job aids. FAQs and forums. Ask the expert and share your expertise.

Your people need learning which is Just In Time, Just Enough and Just For Me.

By properly understanding adult learners at work we can provide them with a learning eco-system designed for any eventuality.

We can’t define what will work on the basis of generational generalisations. Understanding the ‘three justs’, requires us to understand our learners as individuals who want to do their job to the best of their abilities

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By | 2017-09-26T13:08:01+00:00 September 11th, 2017|Categories: Learning & Development|

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