Generational differences in learning

The impact of technological change in our everyday lives has never been as immense as it is now and in the coming years. Because of cloud technology, business applications such as customer relationship management, productivity tools, artificial intelligence and analytics tools are more affordable, easy to deploy and easy to use.

Hence, we’re seeing a lot of companies deploying at least two large enterprise-wide applications, not to mention the functional ones such as in marketing, finance or human resources. Companies whose employees learn these new technologies as fast as possible will gain competitive advantage in terms of productivity and efficiency gains, innovative products and services and customer satisfaction.

Nowadays, companies approach learning and development (L&D) differently. Many are implementing online education to deliver learning content digitally, expecting to reach more employees. Others are still stuck in traditional classroom trainings. Others still resort to a mix of classroom and online due to preferences of specific groups.

But are human resource departments optimizing their L&D spending while maximizing learning of employees? In this day and age when the employee mix of companies in terms of generations has never been as diverse, there is a need to optimize each generation of learners in an organization due to the differences in how they learn.

In our research while conducting workshops and trainings to several organization, we noted that Generation Z, those born after 1995, account for more than 20 percent of many organizations. On the other hand, millennials or Generation Y, those born between 1981 and 1995, comprise more that 50 percent of organizations; while Generation X, born between 1961 and 1980, reach more than 30 percent; and Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1960, are dwindling in number but still comprise as much as 10 percent in many organizations.

Generally speaking, as we age, chemical imbalances in the brain become more pronounced which affects our cognitive activity.. Hence, across generations, employees’ learning capacity depends on two factors – personalization and independence. Personalization is all about fitting the content and learning methodology to the individual learner, while independence is whether the individual learner needs the control or influence of others to learn, such as a trainer, coach or other human resource (HR) interventions.

With these two factors, employees need varying degrees of personalization and independence for learning to happen more effectively and efficiently. To achieve this, we need to segment the different generations of learners, to wit:

Baby Boomers. As they are the most senior cohort, their cognitive activity is the slowest. When implementing changes in an organization that involves new technology, they are the hardest and slowest to learn and adapt due to hardcore beliefs and values. They require the highest degree of personalized learning and display the lowest degree of independence from others. The strategy for them is transformational learning, i.e. more personally-focused learning structure, classroom delivery, and in-class participation, reflection and feedback to bring them more directly into the process. They are willing to adopt new approaches such as online learning, but should be supplemented with video content and classroom training.

Generation X. This generation is “adaptable, flexible, technology savvy, goal oriented, and responsible” but also “impatient, not attentive to detail, not fully committed to work, and fickle-minded”, especially if they are not involved in the learning program development. They are often noted as the most fiercely independent of the four groups; hence, the approach is self-directed learning that enable them to learn on their own schedule. But like Baby Boomers, their thinking and recall is slower; therefore, mental cues in training are important to help them recall, analyse and synthesize.

Millennials. They easily learn the use of new concept or technology, but quickly lose interest. They favor highly personalized training on a self-directed schedule. They also prefer to access information on-demand, whenever and wherever they may happen to want it. But due to their short interest and attention span, online learning approaches should incorporate gamification, e.g. quests and missions with leader board and digital badges as rewards.

Generation Z. This generation is the first cohort of workers that grew up with the internet from day one. They were raised on connectivity and near-instant updates to apps and hardware. They both value and use a steady stream of information, insights and recommendations to inform decisions and guide experiences. Thus, they are the most independent and require the least personalization among the generations. Microlearning is an effective approach where few-minute-long content is available online and on-demand.

By understanding how these generations learn, the organization can maximize organization learning, may it be acquiring new skills, learning new technologies and adopting new processes. L&D practitioners need to appreciate that when it comes to learning, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

The author is President & CEO of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation firm. He is also the Co-Founder of Caucus, Inc.. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. The author may be emailed at