Meet Jacob. He’s a single, thirty-two-year-old, second-generation American living with his parents in the suburbs. He takes the train to work and is saving for his first condo. Jacob’s hoping to move to the city, closer to his office, so he doesn’t have to spend so much time commuting by train. He’s smart, connected to the world through his phone, and frequently finds new ways to tackle problems at his workplace that have been there for years. He wants to advance in his career and his boss supports his initiative and would like to move him into a leadership role in the company. So how can this employer train Jacob so he progresses faster? 

What Are Millennials?

Millennials are those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. They are a generation that is often compared to other groups such as Generation X or Z and are considered radically different and at least as influential as their parents or grandparents, the baby boomers. This is mostly due to the fact that they are the largest segment of the working population in most countries, and definitely so in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center

This is a generation that has had the Internet, mobile communications, and access to a myriad of information and collaboration tools and resources from childhood. They are the least likely to invest in cars, houses, or other ‘status symbols,’ in great part due to the enormous debt they incurred going to school or the lack of hierarchical promotion they receive because the generations above them are staying in the workforce longer. 

This is also the generation that is currently in early to middle management – and they are changing the rules. According to Columbia Business School’s Senior Lecturer Todd Jick, because millennials are beginning to run management areas, “…hierarchies are flattening and ‘horizontal cascades’ of messaging are becoming more common and internal. Social media is helping to democratize the organization and drive more transparent dialogue.” 

Once they get into management or leadership roles, millennials recognize that the Internet and all the other electronic media available to even small agile organizations have flattened the curve and made global competition stiffer. They recognize that changes must be made for organizations to survive. Millennials rely on larger groups of people both in and outside their companies for advice and as role models. And, consequently, they are looking to balance and democratize decisions, benefits, development opportunities, and learning.

What Does This Mean When Teaching Millennials?

According to Clark Quinn, there is no real difference between teaching the millennial generation and instructing any other generation of individuals. The issue is not how their generation is characterized in the realm of teaching and learning, but rather, where are these people in today’s social structures and what are their priorities that will influence what they consider important? How do they approach learning? (Quinn, C. Millennials, Goldfish & Other Myths. 2018, ATD Press) There is recent evidence in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies (2012 and 2014), from which Quinn draws his information, that while people may perceive generational differences in teaching and learning, there really aren’t actual differences when measured objectively.

That being said, there is no doubt that these new employees and managers are indeed looking for new ways to approach learning, living, and working. They are challenging the priorities of previous cohorts of learners. The challenge for instructional designers and learning professionals in teaching and learning is to recognize the cultural differences and other challenges millennials are facing, and in some cases, driving.

6 Keys to Developing Training and Learning for Millennials

The Pew Research Center reports that the generation of people who are currently between 20–40 years old are more likely to rent, less likely to marry early, and more likely to be educated, compared to their older siblings or parents. So how does a learning manager engage this group of people who have created and thrive in a Facebook, Instagram, and network sharing world? There are 6 issues that should be taken into account when creating learning and developing opportunities for educating this group of people.

1. They like to share, co-create, and collaborate – so capitalize on that!

Engaging millennials means giving them an opportunity to share their experiences on the job and benefit from the experiences of others. They are less likely to want to sit quietly in a room and ‘witness’ information transfer and more likely to want to ‘experience’ it for themselves. This can be accomplished with case studies, like those used in post-secondary graduate programs like the Harvard MBA or role-plays with an expert or coach. 

The Harvard case study model allows students to take opposing roles and engage each other and their professors in open discussion and collaboration for the best solution to the case problem presented. While there is a real outcome, as cases are based on real-world businesses, students are encouraged to come up with a different solution or build on the outcome to develop the case even further. 

Role-play, even when done in an online environment like an immersive eLearning simulation, will allow for further discussion in the classroom and beyond. Sharing how the players made their decisions, how they felt about the other positions in the problem, and how their choices affected the outcome will allow them to create new solutions together.

Millennials also benefit from social learning environments with discussion boards, chat rooms, or open learning sessions in their formal learning environment. 

Consider establishing collaborative workplace learning programs that involve different departments, levels, or even management. Here are several examples of how to make learning part of the flow of everyday work:

  • Choose a real project with a deadline that applies to the concept being studied
  • Integrate the topics into the project milestones and include journaling, peer discussion and collaboration, and mentoring from a senior member of staff of a supervisor
  • Set email reminders to have participants respond regarding how they are applying the training concepts to their projects
  • Set discussion boards to tackle common problems seen in the emails
  • Create a follow-up peer coaching session for all participants to brainstorm and guide each other (with the help of the facilitator) in solving these problems

2. They want to balance their time between work, life, relationship, and play. Build opportunities to blend interactions and engagement, and keep things well paced.

No one wants to sit in a room silently for hours on end, listening to a ‘sage on the stage.’ Millennials are almost allergic to this approach to workplace learning, and for good reason. By the time they get to early management they are also trying to date or raise children, buy their first home, or help their parents downsize. They are busy!

When building training for millennials, pay attention to where they are in their life stage as well as their work experience. Give them time to do training in shorter bursts, with frequent check-ins, to allow them to accommodate their own personal priorities. This is true for corporate learning and also for post-secondary education. Providing a variety of learning opportunities such as eLearning courses, video recordings or podcasts, open class time for discussions, project work based on clear competency demonstration, and reflective reading and research will help to engage millennial learners and keep them engaged with you as the expert. 

3. Use eLearning and online self-paced activities to allow learning to happen in their spare time.

eLearning courses and other self-paced activities like games, quizzes, and short videos or podcasts are a way to deliver small pieces of information in a dynamic and interesting way. The smaller pieces allow a learner to consume the content without having to devote a lot of time, while still getting relevant and timely information. Games, videos, and quizzes enable the learner to have some fun while learning or practicing.

Happily, in eLearning today, there are some very easy-to-use tools that don’t require a lot of time or expertise to use and produce great learning content, such as iSpring Suite Max. It allows you to easily create a variety of eLearning activities that will capture your information and provide a simple way to train millennial learners. With this tool, you can build online courses with quizzes, screencasts, and dialogue simulations in a matter of hours, not days or weeks. 

This is what a course created with iSpring looks like:

Check out the guide on how to create an eLearning course with iSpring Suite Max →

4. They want feedback that is immediately useful to them – coaching is key.

In the same way that millennials like collaborative learning experiences, they like getting useful feedback to help them course correct as they move through the workplace hierarchy and navigate unfamiliar politics and unspoken cultural rules. 

Millennials need to form networks of trusted advisors and mentors to keep them on the path they are designing for themselves, and feedback in teaching is part of it. What kind of feedback? Something that will help them replay, retry, or rethink their approach. If designing this into eLearning, for example, directing the learner back to the content or exercise where they first experienced the learning is important. In a live classroom, direct but empathetic feedback on how to approach a problem is also useful.

A good model for empathetic feedback is to reflect, summarize, empathize, and guide. More specifically, repeat the answer, summarize the approach, empathize with why that approach was taken, and then using that perspective, guide the learner to the correct or a better answer. In eLearning or project-based activities, this same process can be done with rubrics or with guided statements. In eLearning, a guided statement might say something like, “You chose [answer], which is incorrect. You can return to [a page in the course] to review the information, which tells us that [insert key fact]. Would you like to try again?”  For most classroom facilitators, this likely will take some practice to move away from the binary “correct/incorrect” response or the direct statement of course correction.

5. They have access to a lot of information but not much deep experience – give them the opportunity to “fail forward fast.”

Millennials are often perceived as being experts because of their enthusiasm, ability to research and find the answer to a question quickly, and their need to be participants in a project or challenge. What they lack, however, is the deep experience of having been in a location, business, client environment, or other working space for a long enough time with the same people from whom they can draw experience.

Training millennials should include opportunities to take chances and potentially fail. Spaces to learn and moments for reflection are very important in engaging and helping them appreciate the training. This can be done by doing ‘model businesses,’ case study proofs, role-play situations, or immersive learning experiences. All of these types of learning allow the participant to make decisions, discover the consequences of their choices, and feel the outcome of their compounded decisions, all without actually affecting their reputation, their clients, or the company in which they are employed.

Learn how to improve your employees’ skills with dialogue simulations →

The phrase, fail forward, comes from a book published in 2000 by author John C. Maxwell called Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones. The intention of the book is to help people recognize that the lessons in failure are far more valuable than those that are easily achieved. It may sound obvious, but it is a lesson learned through experience, not just exposure to others or the gathering of a lot of information. Millennials, while they have access to a lot of information and a lot of people, are still young enough in their careers that they lack this experience.

Developing training for millennials should include more than just opportunities to access discrete information (like that done with microlearning modules).  Build chances to see how changing perspectives or adding to their own knowledge through experience and reflection can increase overall engagement and collaboration. This can be accomplished by having the learner give their initial reaction and then go back to that reaction after learning has taken place, to see if they would change their answers. 

6. They are ready to try out new models, but in some ways are more conservative than previous generations. Give them some solid guidelines to try, experiment, and change.

Consider where millennials are in the culture of the world today. They have witnessed the incredible explosion of data and technological breakthroughs in their lifetime – and they’re not even at the height of their careers! Global change and increasing competition are speeding up the rate of adoption and abandonment of business and technology trends as the world gets smaller due to the Internet. Millennials are changing the world, but they are also the effect of the change as they try to move within their organizations or the professions they have chosen.

How do you get millennials to embrace change, move with the new norms of business culture, and navigate the inevitable ups and downs of changing economies and politics? You give them solid guidelines and rules that can help them form their own approach to working and allow them to experiment safely.

  • Keep your training specific. You can do this by giving them specific objectives and telling them what success looks like. eLearning is particularly well adapted for this. Present the information and test it to keep them interested and on task.
  • Build case studies or problem sets and give them the guidelines for solving the problem. If part of the point of the teaching is to get them to think beyond the information you’ve given them, tell them that and let them approach you with new ideas or ways of solving the problem you’ve set up in the training. Using email to provide project ideas or keep things working in a discussion board is probably the best way to do this type of work. If you have the opportunity of an online classroom scenario, this is where group work is ideal.
  • While previous generations of learners may have thrived with the open brainstorming approach of some learning activities, millennial learners are less likely to be comfortable with this approach. Learning managers need to understand that this conservative approach isn’t due to a lack of engagement, but is because of a generational set of experiences that don’t allow trust and culture to form just because the participant is considered an ‘employee’ or ‘team member.’ Integrate time into the learning process to help build a trusted advisor, guide, or group mentality. Use empathy and sharing in environments where this is possible to help participant employees develop an affinity toward each other.
  • Acknowledge that not everyone in your training space is there for the same reason as you have developed the training – which means that you should have very clear learning outcome statements so all participants know what success looks like at the start of the learning experience.

So how do you train millennials?

The same way you train everyone else, but:

  • Allow time for collaboration, discussion, and affinity building.
  • Make safe trial and error a standard part of every teaching and learning event.
  • Have clear guidelines and outcome models of what ‘good’ looks like to allow for participants to compare their own experiences and ‘scaffold’ from others.
  • Keep the training moments brief and to the point.
  • Use eLearning courses and other technology-based learning experiences like videos, games, quizzes, animations, and podcasts to allow learners to take their learning according to their chosen schedule and pace (and on their smartphones!).
  • Blend different types of teaching and learning in your workplace training environment by using eLearning, lectures, discussions, models, and practice.

Final Thoughts

Millennials, like their grandparents’ generation, are a huge force of people who are changing the very fabric and culture of business today. Engaging millennials in workplace learning is different than doing so with their predecessors, in that more collaboration, less open experimentation, and more feedback is likely required than ever before. Additionally, because millennials are probably approaching their own life stages later than their predecessors, learning and training need to accommodate for changes in priorities for this generation.

Keep the culture and life stage of your learners in mind as you develop fresh ways of approaching content and employee development. Use easy and cost-effective tools that allow for rapid training development to offer a new perspective for millennials.

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