How to make learning and development relevant for gen Z

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The younger generation has a very different learning and working style to its predecessors, so it’s essential that organisations get to grips with this if they want to attract and retain the best talent.

In an era in which the workplace, technology and society is changing so quickly, businesses are facing some serious challenges to re-shape their learning and development programmes for an incoming generation that will approach the world of work very differently.

Generation Z (those born between the mid-1990s to mid-2000s) not only have different opinions about what they want from an employer but, as true digital natives, have a very different orientation towards learning.

As generation Z comes to comprise an ever-greater proportion of the workforce, it will leave employers with some novel challenges, one of which being how to develop people for whom traditional training methods may seem arcane or even unnatural.

How can employers engage a workforce that will challenge long held assumptions around work and life such as ‘a job for life’, or ‘employer of choice?’

These challenges occur at a time when the very nature of organisation and company is being challenged.

The average lifespan of a business is now less than 20 years, down from a long-held average of 60. The rise of the gig economy and an increasing number of collaborations and start-ups are just a few ways that work is shifting into a more agile, less structured paradigm.

Shifting perspectives

In the modern workplace, the rapid pace of change and availability of technology is proving disruptive to the very fabric of how we live.

Reports of automation and artificial intelligence, and the possible impact on the jobs market, send shivers down the spine of anyone in a role where repetitive actions form a large part of their day.

In the long term, the challenge for society is to prepare our workforce for a future we don’t really understand.

In addition, society’s shifting retail habits to online shopping are predicted to decimate the high street, leading to a loss of nearly 33% of jobs, or around 900,000 positions, according to the British Retail Consortium.

In the long term, the challenge for society is to prepare our workforce for a future we don’t really understand.

A recent report by the World Economic Forum predicts around two thirds of children currently entering primary education are set to be employed in jobs that do not yet exist. Speak to a parent of a child under 10, and they will often report back how their children are learning to type and code.

However, they will also tell you that they are practicing their handwriting, memorising their spellings and learning to count using money.

Speak to a technologist and they will tell you that we are approaching a cashless society, where voice activation improvements in speech recognition technology is the next big thing.

Making the most of talent

In the shorter term, the challenge for business is how tap into the pool of young talent arriving on their doorstep.

So, what does generation Z bring to the table? We can group this into three critical attributes:

1. Ambition:

  • A confident and ambitious outlook that yearns to make a difference quickly.
  • Highly developed emotional intelligence, derived from using social media to connect and keep in touch with a broad network.
  • Rapid and unstructured learning capacity – the YouTube learners - unlikely to wait patiently in line to become experienced enough to be afforded opportunities.

2. Social impact and ethics:

  • A strong social ethic – many are looking for an employer that doesn’t just sell products or services, but also enhances society.
  • A team ethic based on a respect for peer review and social campaigning.
  • An in-built sense of equality – with no room for sexism, racism or glass ceilings.
  • Strong media and brand awareness.

3. Tech-savvy

  • An innate understanding and acceptance of technology as a positive influence.
  • An ability to rapidly build remote social networks.
  • Increased confidence in multi-tasking and strong abilities in sourcing information.

Where the opportunity lies for organisations is in converging the new reality of work – digitised, subject to disruption and rapid change (often referred to as VUCA) - and the potential of this new workforce to thrive in such an environment.

Distributed leadership

Organisations can make a conscious choice to totally rethink the structured development of their employees, reframing development programmes as a prerequisite for promotion to an experience that enables employees to truly develop.

Reputations are online, easy to access, and of ever-greater importance to generation Z.

Employees must shift their thinking away from the dependency of knowledge transfer towards the understanding that independent minds need to take ownership of key projects or challenges.

Organisations should encourage ideas of leadership being a self-selecting exercise, rather than something that is conferred on you from above. Some are going as far as making development programmes grade agnostic in a bid to open up possibilities for their workforce.

Teams and collaborations

Breaking out of silos has shifted to the notion of teams forming around particular problems, challenges or opportunities, and reporting through the matrix until a satisfactory conclusion is reached.

Internally, this has placed the emphasis far more on the soft skills required to innovate and solve novel problems with a group of people that were hitherto unknown to each other.

There is talk of healthy conflict – a sweet spot somewhere between groupthink and dysfunction – as a key driver of successful innovation means individuals need to up their game around communication, negotiation, and conflict management.

Social impact

A sense of wider purpose and impact on the world is taking ever more prominence as concerns about environmental degradation enter into our collective consciousness.

Reputations are online, easy to access, and of ever-greater importance to generation Z. Connecting the work, the organisation and its employees to the wider world is key.

Meeting that expectation means businesses must think now about how to engage the new recruits of the future and how to understand the way they learn.

Initiatives where employees help others in society through knowledge transfer or committing time (and effort) to raise awareness or funds for a particular cause merely scratch the surface of the possibilities here. Organisations can go further by using external experiences to augment the employee’s development.

Being exposed to different people and novel challenges creates the conditions for learning leadership skills. Managed well, these can be transferred and applied back into the business.

On a more immediate and micro level, HR teams and trainers can help generation Z integrate into the business and develop more quickly by:

  • Providing them with early opportunities to lead and take on challenging assignments.
  • Providing connections to facilitate networking and exchange of knowledge, also known as social learning. By leveraging peer coaching and mentoring, organisations can promote distributed leadership and teamwork by bringing together people with shared interests and ideas to overcome challenges.
  • Using gamification in their learning programmes to inspire generation Z, who have a healthy appetite for competition and fun.
  • Selling the business’ mission and values and showing how employee training and development fits into that mantra.
  • Reframing development experiences as ‘grade agnostic,’ and connecting any programme to the business by entrusting participants to work on real challenges. These can be internal or external, as long as they are consistent with organisational values.

The bottom line is that generation Z has a huge amount to offer British business. It will arrive in the workplace with far more confidence, social awareness, media awareness, brand awareness and technological knowledge than we have seen before.

It will also be demanding, ambitious and have high expectations in terms of personal development.

Meeting that expectation means businesses must think now about how to engage the new recruits of the future and how to understand the way they learn.

Like all people, generation Z may struggle to take in and implement new skills and new knowledge when they first arrive in the workplace, but training tactics that worked for previous generations may not be as effective as they have been in the past.

Focusing training around problem solving and achieving clear aims, especially those that benefit not just the individual or the business but the wider world – may prove to be key.

At the same time, development programmes can tap into the technology that inspires and engages the smartphone generation.

Interested in this topic? You may also want to read Improving soft skills among digital natives.

About Tom Blower

Tom Blower, Managing Director & Executive Coach, EMEA, Black Isle Group

Tom is Managing Director of Black Isle Europe and a leadership specialist. An MSc qualified consultant with post graduate certificate in training and performance management, Tom has worked internationally across a wide range of sectors, including Financial Services, IT, Pharmaceuticals and Oil & Gas.

Tom has significant experience working internationally, particularly in the UAE and Africa, often leading organisational change or leadership development projects to support wider organisational goals in developing countries.

Tom’s core expertise as a communications coach and leadership facilitator is creating sustainable behavioural change through the design and delivery of bespoke, practical advice and coaching. He has also designed and created fully equipped leadership faculties and organisational structures for global leadership and management training all around the world.

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