How to Think Like a Millennial

According to the Pew Research Group, Millennials are the largest generational cohort in the workforce, but many of us are still trying to understand their needs and expectations. In this post, we look at one of the most significant requirements of this generation: personalization.

There have been many attempts to define “personalized learning.” While previous generations might accept having a few choices or personalized recommendations, to Millennials this term has a much richer meaning. To understand personalization from this group’s perspective, let’s review a few key facts about Millennial behavior and preferences in general.

Millennials get bored quickly, because their brains are “twitchy.”

Millennials spend about six and a half hours online each day, often consuming media from multiple sources during the same session. Since the human brain isn’t really capable of multi-tasking, this means that they have learned how to switch rapidly between media and pick up where they left off. All of us can do this to some degree. However, each time we switch tasks, our brain expends energy, called switch cost. For example, if you’re reading this post during a conference call, it will take your brain a few microseconds to refocus on this document. Consequently, it will take you longer to read this post while you are “doing” something else than if you were to sit down and give it your full attention with minimal distractions.

Millennials can’t really multi-task either, but they have become much more skilled at making these rapid switches. From a biological perspective, their brains have been trained to operate on a “fast twitch” basis more often, giving them greater skill at moving back and forth between multiple stimuli while experiencing less stress and delay than an “older” brain. Because of their skill at moving between multiple media in microseconds, they are twice as likely to feel bored at work as any other age group.

Millennials expect to control how they spend their time.

Millennials have contributed a new term to our workplace lexicon: work-life integration. Unlike work-life balance, which implies that work and life are kept separate and roughly equal, Millennials expect to enjoy work and play “simultaneously.” (Remember, it isn’t really simultaneous in the brain, but that’s how it feels to them.) Their lives are so blended that they no longer distinguish work versus free time—it is all their time. Millennials expect their learning to be done on their time too, so they will embrace eLearning that has been built for “responsive design.” Simply put, this means that the course must work equally well on any size screen or device, and the learner should be able to move seamlessly between them. A Millennial may start a course in the office, pick it up at his or her daughter’s soccer game on their phone and finish it at night on a tablet while watching TV.

Millennials are intensely social.

All of us are hard-wired to seek out and enjoy social connections with each other. This is part of the  survival programming that we’ve developed as a species. For Millennials, however, “social” may mean something a bit different than the traditional definition. To them, social connections are often—and sometimes almost entirely—experienced online. Seen in this light, their tendency to be focused on their smartphones is a focus on other human beings—the ones who are communicating on that screen.

Millennials are motivated by meaning.

According to Forbes magazine, Millennials seek purpose above a paycheck in their work. Many employers are retooling their recruiting and onboarding methods to help enlist Millennials in their “mission,” rather than just interesting them in a job. This focus on the higher mission is important from a learning perspective, too. We used to say that training was all about the WIIFM (What’s in it for me?) Now, Millennials are asking: WDIM? (Why does it matter?) For more information on how Millennials seek meaning and contribution in their lives, check out our podcast with author Debbie Wooldridge.

Millennials take a non-linear approach to life and learning.

One of the implications and challenges of designing learning for this generation is that there is no single path to take. Millennials are living their lives in a non-linear manner, where time and place are not as important as choice and value. When each person is pursuing his or her own path, how can you offer truly personalized learning to each of them? Let’s take a look at a few practical ideas.

Start with curation, not design.

Truly personalized learning must be learner-directed, not designer-directed. This means you can’t “make” your training personalized. Instead, you can compile a wide range of learning resources with multiple means of access. Once assembled, or curated, you just need to turn the learner loose in your playground. A curated approach allows learners to consume content in any order that works for them, moving in and out of learning activities, job aids, videos and other resources as they choose, rather than following a prescribed order. Of course, you’ll want to indicate a few “start here” suggestions, but you’ll also want to let the learner decide if that is really where he or she wants or needs to begin the journey.

Give learners a chance to engage their “twitchy” brains.

By presenting multiple content and experience options at once, you’ll be encouraging the learner to jump back and forth between options, keeping the engagement and interest level high. While there will be a switch cost associated, you’ll avoid boring your learners, surely a greater danger to the learning process. You’ll probably also find that they revisit the content many more times than a traditional course design would allow, fighting the dreaded forgetting curve inherent in more traditional learning designs.

Help learners connect with each other.

Because social connection and collaboration are so important to this generation, make sure you give learners an opportunity to share their ideas and questions with each other all through the experience. Millennials are never truly “unplugged,” so make sure that they can access discussion boards, collaboration platforms and other ways to engage in social learning on their own schedules and any device.

Stop designing “for Millennials.”

Following the suggestions above is the start to designing a more personalized experience that will appeal to these employees. The effort doesn’t have to stop there, though. If you think about it, don’t all of us want the same things we’re saying are so important to Millennials? Who wouldn’t want more freedom to do work on their own terms at times of their own choosing? Who doesn’t love to surf the web and enjoy multiple online experiences “at the same time?” I imagine that most of you reading this post have at least one important relationship that was started—and maybe even continues to be—100% online. The research shows that the same practices that are appealing to Millennials are appealing to most of us, even if we haven’t fully realized it yet.

Maybe it’s time to stop fretting about getting ready for Millennials and just make great learning happen. If it’s flexible and engaging enough to appeal to them, chances are it will be a home run for every learning audience.

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