Millenials


Here are more reflections on the article I read recently on the impact of Millennials on the workplace.

Millennials are a hot topic.  There presence is all around us and unavoidable.  The ubiquity of millennials reminds me of the late 90s, when the Internet was young.  It was fresh and exciting.  It was new and full of potential.  We were told it was the solution to all our problems.  The train was leaving the station and you needed to be on it.

I share this as a word of caution.  In the late 90s and early 2000s many organizations believed that e-learning was the solution to their training problems.  It was flexible.  It saved time.  It was cheaper.  Time revealed that e-learning had limits.  We have learned how to integrate e-learning into a larger strategy that addresses the learning outcomes in an instructionally sound manner and accommodates the needs/preferences of every learner.

We should take the same approach with millennials.  Try to avoid getting caught up in the hype.  Resist the pressure to focus on them at the expense of the rest of your workforce.  At the same time begin to explore how to revise your training strategy to account for their preferences.  I have advocated for many of the changes identified in the article above in this space.  Taking a calm and methodical approach will serve you and your organization well.

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This morning I read yet another article on the impact Millennials will have on the workplace.  This time the focus was the training implications.  While the author clearly has thought through the learning options and preferences of Millennials, I found myself asking if they justified the wholesale revision of instructional strategies.

Full disclosure: I believe in the basics and am not easily persuaded by calls for new strategies. I am especially wary if those changes put the medium ahead of the learning need.  I have experience working with Allen Communication.  I respect their work and perspective.  However, the have an interest in selling “learning solutions.”  Without questioning their motives, one must bear that in mind.

Before revising its learning strategy, every organization needs to understand their culture and how learning fits into their overall strategy.  Only after considering the needs of the organization should one consider changing their learning strategy to focus on the learning needs and preferences of a particular audience.

In this article, Dr. Rainer succinctly describes the traits of some current and future employees (see below).  I can’t improve on what he wrote so I won’t steal his thunder.

  • The Free Agent Employee
  • The Less Constrained Employee
  • The Reinvented Employee

I appreciate Dr. Rainer’s attention to this but I think the future is now for some of these traits.  I have felt like a free agent in the not so distant past.  I learned that employment should not be taken for granted.  Even the best employer has to make hard decisions sometimes.   On the flip side, an employer should not be shocked if an employee decides to pursue an opportunity.

The challenge for leaders is to adapt and utilize these traits.  I have written over and over in this space that leaders need to face and embrace change.  Meeting these challenges with fear or not facing them at all will have negative consequences.  I believe the consequences will not only affect current employees but will make it harder to attract new ones.

I’ve read my fair share of articles on millenials and feel like I have a good enough understanding of how to work with them.  However, this blog post was a wake up call for me.  Here is an example.

HotSchedules employees, half of whom are millennials, enjoy unlimited paid vacation, and they’re not the only ones to be pampered. Euro RSCG Worldwide PR employees, the majority of whom are members of Gen Y, enjoy company-sponsored rooftop happy hours three days a week, half-day Fridays and time off for volunteer work. Most recently millennials at the PR firm have asked for free food and reimbursement for a personal trainer. The company’s CEO, Marian Salzman, says this is part of hiring millennials – they’ve moved past 9 to 5 and gray flannel suits. Even as a millennial myself, I have to ask, are these companies spoiling Gen Y? (Emphasis mine)

I thought stories like this were over and done with.  I worked in Silicon Valley in the late 90s and remember the perks companies offered to attract top talent.  But money was plentiful then.  This is not going to be a post about how companies can afford to offer these kinds of perks.  If they can afford it, great.  I wish them well.

I want to focus on the last statement in the paragraph above.  A perception of millenials is that they have a sense of entitlement.  Based on this blog post a natural reaction could be, “ya think?”  But a closer examination reveals something deeper.  A desire for flexibility.  I believe this is based on the perceived (and actual) malleability of our culture and how we (millenials and the rest of us) interact with it.  The author of the blog post offers a summary below.

But the millennial style of working can yield success if the boss is willing to remodel the status quo. Gen Y moves as fast as or faster than the market and is eager to change the way business is done. While bottom lines, quarterly reports and profits are important to millennials, brewing change is more important in the Gen Y world.

So how do we balance flexibility with accountability?  In an example from the blog post, “Grooveshark is your everyday office with a conference room, chill room with a ping pong table and a kitchen with a chef that makes breakfast to order every morning . The office is occupied 24 hours per day and scheduling is as flexible as possible as long as teams are working together.”  This clearly fits the culture of the organization.  If you look at the staff of Grooveshark you will notice they are all millenials.  This is comfortable for them and the company is willing to provide perks that attract talent.  What’s in it for the company?  A loyal, dedicated, satisfied team.

Not every company can or should offer these kinds of perks.  Grooveshark is small (about 50 employees) and fairly homogeneous with regard to age (millenials).  Bigger companies with a more diverse staff have to balance the capabilities and preferences of everyone with the needs of the business.

What are my take-aways from this post?  Some of the stereotypes about millenials aren’t completely accurate.  They are willing to work hard and care about the quality of their work.  They also care about things outside of work and expect to have time to pursue other interests.  Every organization has to decide how to accommodate these preferences.  This post provides rich insight into how millenials work.  Give it a read.

Yesterday NPR presented a story on the positive affects of video games.  According to research cited in the story, “video gamers show improved skills in vision, attention and certain aspects of cognition.”  This also has a positive impact on real-world skills involving “attention, speed, accuracy, vision and multitasking.”

I read a book a few years ago that suggests there are other benefits to the design of today’s video games.  In his book Everything Bad is Good for You Steven Johnson suggests that elements of our modern culture are making us smarter.  One example he cites in video games.  Below are some quotes from his book.

Start with the basics: far more than books or movies or music, games enable you to make DECISIONS.  Novels may activate our imagination, and music may conjure up powerful emotions, but games force you to decide, to choose, to prioritize.  All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue, because learning how to think is ultimately about learning to make the right decisions: WEIGHING EVIDENCE, ANALYZING SITUATIONS, CONSULTING YOUR LONG-TERM GOALS, AND THEN DECIDING.
p. 40 (Emphasis mine)

Its not WHAT you’re thinking about when you’re playing a game, it’s THE WAY you’re thinking that matters.
Here’s John Dewey, in his book Experience and Education: ‘Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only that particular thing he is studying at the time.  COLLATERAL THINKING in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned.  For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.
p. 41 (Emphasis mine)

“If you stopped playing in the early 90s, or if you only know about games from secondhand accounts, you’d probably assume that the mid-game objectives would sound something like this: Shoot that guy over there! Or: Avoid the blue monsters! Or: Find the magic key!
But interrupt a player in the middle of a Zelda quest, and ask her what her objectives are, and you’ll get a much more interesting answer.  Interesting for two reasons: first, the sheer number of objectives simultaneously at play; and second, the nested, hierarchical way in which those objectives have to be mentally organized.
p. 48-49

What does this mean for learning?  I believe learners will respond more positively to content if they are actively engaged with the content rather than passively receiving the information.  While there is a place for traditional training where the instructor lectures, learners WANT to be challenged.  This is particularly true for millenials, who grew up in the age of video games.  This does not mean organizations need to make a large investment in technology.  It means learning opportunities need to reflect real-world situations where right answers are not always clear.

A popular way to design learning this way is problem based learning.  In this approach learners are presented with a problem that does not have a clear solution or path to a solution.  Learners must work individually or as a team to solve the problem.  As they work towards a solution they must find information that helps them achieve their goal.

Here is a post I wrote on problem based learning.
Here is the Wikipedia page on problem based learning.  It provides links to other sites if you want to learn more.

In a post last week I referenced an article about the positive impact millennials can have in the workplace.  The article’s author, Andrew McAfee, ended his post by saying he would write a follow-up about mistakes millennials can make in the workplace.  True to his word, here it is.

In the post he focuses on two points:

  1. Filter what you share.    In his words, “narrating your every opinion, emotion, lunch, happy hour, hangover, etc. on your company’s emergent social software platforms is just narcissistic clutter.”
  2. Don’t “act as if all employees are equals, and equally interested in airing the truth.”

The first point comes down to self-discipline.  In a culture where privacy is getting increasingly difficult to protect a person is well advised to be careful what they make public.  Research indicates millennials are comfortable with a blurring of the line between their work and private life.  That is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, developing a filter for what you share on your office social networking site will help your credibility, increase traffic to your site, and maybe save your job.  Here is some advice about having multiple accounts for common social networking tools.

The author’s second point deals with some of the finer points of work culture.  From a learning point of view I disagree with his assertion that it is “a really bad idea” for millennials to “voice their thoughts on topics both related and unrelated to their job descriptions.”  Organizations with effective mentoring programs can use social networking to assimilate employees into the culture and educate them in the process.  Time spent contributing online should be monitored.  This too has value.  It can build accountability between a supervisor and the employee and also reveal opportunities.

Mr. McAfee refers to Gen Y as “digital natives.”  One characteristic of digital natives is that they are “indifferent to pre-existing hierarchies and credentials, and sometimes even hostile to them.”  This is a good observation.  Any young person has to learn the right times to contribute and the right times to listen.  This can be particularly challenging in an organization that has a vibrant online culture.  My experience has been the two ears/one mouth approach.

When it comes to online contributions, striking the right balance between making a meaningful contribution and interfering is difficult.  This goes back to developing an effective filter.  The best way to do this is through thoughtful experimentation.  Careful observation will let you know whether a contribution is acceptable and appreciated.  Another tip I would offer is to develop a thick skin.  I comment on things that I think will shed light on a subject that might otherwise go unnoticed or topics on which I can offer a unique perspective.  However, I realize no one may care what I write.  I accept that and don’t feel like I am owed anything.  I appreciate it when my site traffic goes up but don’t worry if it doesn’t.  My posts are for anyone who may get value from reading it.   I think this makes me a normal Gen X’er.  Phew!

After three posts on millennials in two weeks I promise to take a break.

Going through my backlog of articles I want to read I came across an interesting post that touches on how to manage millennials.  No I am not obsessed with them I just post what I think might be helpful.  There is also a learning angle to this but you’ll have to read on to find it.

In this post, Tammy Erickson reviews the events that occurred in the formative years of millennials and how that has formed their identity and habits.  Below are  a few excepts I found interesting.

  • Y’s want to feel they are doing work that is challenging and important.
  • Focus on the actual completion of tasks; hold them accountable for outcomes, not for time spent.
  • Create a collaborative, team-based environment.
  • Leverage technology to create more efficient processes.
  • Provide frequent feedback; first-line managers should teach rather than assess.
  • Provide a variety of world-class learning opportunities.

Aren’t you glad you read to the end to find out what the learning tie-in is?  Read the whole thing.  It will only take a few minutes.  There is more in the post that is worth taking a look at.

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