You can’t download behaviours – why e-learning isn’t always enough
Finding new and innovative ways to engage with learners seems to be a top priority for many L&D departments, with the main driver being the rise of the millennial workforce in most cases. But while the younger generation of workers are typically very up to date with the latest technology and keen to try new ways of doing things, this is causing some L&D functions to lose sight of their primary purpose: to educate and develop the workforce to enable them to excel and contribute to the business’ success. Having effective ways of engaging with individuals in order to convey this learning is of course, important, and this is likely one of the predominant reasons for L&D practitioners making this switch towards digital and gamified learning. Because the latest generation are so comfortable in using technology in their everyday lives and work, it therefore makes sense to use this to engage them in learning too. However, what cannot be denied is that despite the rise in technology, the fundamental way in which people learn hasn’t changed. People still need to experience things for themselves, have the opportunity to learn from others and put their learning into practice. Without these three pivotal elements, then it won’t matter how innovative and appealing the training may be, it won’t be able to deliver what it needs to i.e. long lasting, impactful learning, and it will ultimately be a wasted investment for the business and the individual. In addition to this, trying to entice millennial employees with e-learning and digital gamification further undermines the importance of the interpersonal skills many of them need to develop, and reaffirms their belief that everything they need to know can be absorbed in a digital format, when in fact for the vast majority it’s the ‘real world’ experiences that they most need to learn.
This is not to say that digital learning doesn’t have a place in the L&D arsenal, it’s a cost effective and easily accessed tool that can offer learning en mass for instances when time away from work isn’t practical. It’s equally important to be aware of when it’s most appropriate to use a digital format, and when more interactive and traditional methods are needed. For topics such as workplace inductions or providing information on processes, digital approaches are a great way to covey this information. But businesses aren’t complaining about millennials’ poor knowledge of their processes; they are complaining about their lack of soft skills and commercial acumen and these things are much harder to transmit via digital means. Even millennials themselves are quoted as desiring the opportunity to advance in their career and, this cannot be achieved by digital learning alone as it requires experience of team working, leadership and strategic thinking; all things that necessitate practical learning opportunities.
What the new generation need to know
As with many things you may be able to learn the theory of how a business works in a digital format but in very few scenarios will the reality match the expectation. As such you can’t effectively develop commercial awareness unless you immerse yourself in the commercial sphere and the only way to do that is to get exposure through work and learning from more experienced colleagues. It’s therefore much more effective and efficient for organisations to consider how they can support millennials in gaining exposure to the commercial aspect of the business; this may be via including them in relevant meetings or by encouraging them to interact with colleagues to better understand how things work within your business.
A lack of ‘soft’ skills is one of the most significant complaints many businesses have about hiring millennial employees. Despite their importance in the workplace it is still not something traditionally focussed upon within education, and as such when young employees join the workforce they are severely lacking in skills such as team working, analytical skills, effective communication, the ability to negotiate and time management. Again there are elements of these skills that can be learnt in a theoretical way via digital approaches, but to really embed this kind of learning, it is essential for individuals to experience it themselves and have the opportunity to put them into practice. The feedback received when using these skills in a real way, with other people, is vital in order to help establish how an individual can improve, and a theoretical approach simply won’t be able to do this in the same way. To ensure more effective learning and application of soft skills experiential learning is the most useful approach. This may occur organically via real life workplace interactions, or it may come as a result of an experiential learning programme outside of the work context. Whatever approach is used, what’s most important is that individuals are offered feedback and support from others to help them recognise the importance of the skill being learnt, reflect upon them and consider how to apply them in different situations.
Getting the balance right
As stated previously there is no doubt that digital methods have their place in professional development. But the focus for L&D teams, in partnership with the wider business, should be on creating the most effective and impactful learning programmes for the workforce they support and the vision of the organisation. This will inevitably involve both experiential and digital elements; the difficult is deciding where and when to use each of these. There are some cases where one will be undoubtedly more appropriate and viable than the other, but there will be cases where the lines are less clearly drawn, and making this decision will become more complex. There will be numerous considerations that will influence the outcome of the decision such as cost, time availability and engagement levels of staff. But these should ultimately not be the deciding factors; what should drive the question is the needs of the individuals and the business. For many millennials for example, they may prefer to complete training digitally, it may be cheaper and will mean less time away from the office. But in many cases they will benefit significantly more from actively taking part in something, experiencing it first hand and being pushed out of their comfort zone. Thus while on paper digital solutions may seem like the fiscally responsible choice, that’s not the case if it doesn’t embed the learning and it won’t have the return on investment/expectation that the business actually needs to see.
How millennials digest information or learn, isn’t and shouldn’t be, just through a screen. They may be glued to their phones, but perhaps rather than focussing on giving more digital distractions, we should take millennials into the real world and inspire them through experience, rather than allowing them to continue to be blinded from the ‘blue light’ of their phones. Just because the world is becoming more technologically advanced, does that really require L&D to gamify their development? The biggest problem with millennials businesses are facing is that they don’t possess the correct behaviours to thrive in the world of work – and behaviours are embedded, not downloaded.