Customer Education That Delivers Across Generations

Thought Industries
March 4, 2021

Generations expert Dan Schawbel examines how learning and development professionals can address the preferences of Millennials and Gen Zs for better results.

Online training isn’t new. All companies have been using virtual learning to some extent. What’s changed now is that because of the pandemic, it’s the only form of education they can make available to their customers. Gaps in the training approach can turn off the youngest workers within those companies when they most need to be on top of their game. In normal times, this is especially true in business segments that hire larger numbers of young people — professional services, technology, and healthcare. These days, however, the big hiring is taking place in other fields, where quick, appealing training is essential: food and delivery services, retail, security services, education, and manufacturing.

The bottom line is this: If your customer education doesn’t appeal to Millennials and Gen Zs, it’s not really doing its job. Following is a generation expert’s take for identifying whether your training reaches across generations and how to fix it if it’s not.

The youngest generations

First, some basics. Currently, the world is populated with four bands of generations. The table below summarizes the facts. The two we’re focused on here are Millennials, people born between 1980 and the mid-1990s, and Generation Z, which came immediately afterwards. The oldest Millennials are just hitting 40, and the oldest Gen Zs are entering the workforce in their early 20s.

GenerationDefinition1Age in 2020Population of generation in 20192
Gen ZBorn 1997-present0-2367.1 million2
MillennialBorn 1981-199624-3972.1 million
Gen XBorn 1965-198040-5565.2 million
Baby BoomersBorn 1946-196456-7469.6 million

1 Defined by Pew Research Center projections

2 Defined by Statista

Besides age, a key marker that divides them generationally is technology. This is a subject that generation expert Dan Schawbel has studied at great length. Schawbel is a bestselling author and a Managing Partner of Workplace Intelligence, a research and advisory firm helping HR adapt to trends, drive performance and prepare for the future. His latest book, Back to Human, helps leaders to develop their interpersonal skills, based on research done among 2,000 managers and employees across age groups.

As Schawbel, who refers to himself as “one of the older Millennials,” points out, “When I was born, there were no cell phones. When Gen Z was born, there were. I grew up with technology and adopted it and learned it. Gen Z’s ability to learn technology and use it quickly is much greater than that of older generations.”

Generation Alpha, coming at you!

Generations just keep being born. The newest one is Generation Alpha. The oldest members of this generation are currently six years old. The advantage they’re born with, Schawbel says, is “access to more information resources, people and technology tools than any other generation.”

A big mistake you can make in customer education by ignoring generational differences

Yet, in spite of their attachment to tech, the youngest workers don’t want to live solely in a virtual world, insists Schawbel — as counter-intuitive as that sounds. “Gen Zs want to go back to the physical office. They want to work and live in cities. Older generations, including Millennials, are more likely to move to suburbs and not require the face time that Gen Zs require.”

That may be a small point — what does it matter where people want to live when they’re being educated through online means? But as Schawbel points out, it provides a clue about what your training products could be missing.

A big mistake is not paying enough attention to interactivity, which requires the use of real-time input. As Schawbel explains, “Everybody’s moving to digital learning, but they’re missing the boat if the digital learning content isn’t interactive enough. A lot of companies are finding that young learners are just not paying attention. They’re not logging in. They’re not consuming any of this material because it’s not engaging.”

That’s not because the technology for facilitating interactivity isn’t available, he adds. “Many companies have learning platforms that are more interactive,” he says. It’s just that those same companies aren’t taking advantage of what they have at their fingertips.

How to design your learning experiences to appeal to Gen Z

Designing learning experiences that appeal to Gen Z (or any other generation) needs to take preference into account. Schawbel has defined three lenses through which to understand the various preferences of a given individual:

  •         First, there’s the generation itself, “the time in which you were born and how that affects you in various ways — how you view money, what you value, certain preferences and choices,” he notes. High-achieving Gen Zs, for example, have told researchers that the number one consideration in choosing a prospective employer (for 72 percent of respondents) is the ability to acquire skills that will advance their careers. Training matters, full stop.
  •         Second, there’s where you are in life as part of the human lifecycle. “If you’re a teenager, you’re going to want something different in terms of employee benefits, for instance, than if you’re a recent college graduate versus if you’re older,” says Schawbel. He points to Gen Zs and Millennials, who are “more likely to value learning and development over healthcare coverage and retirement programs.”
  •         Third, there’s who you are as an individual. “People are people, and we mustn’t forget their individuality,” he advises.

In other words, there’s no lock-step route for determining what will appeal to one learner versus another of the same age. Your choices need to allow for fluidity. Here are five elements to help you to do that:

Add the in-person component. While the younger generations are more likely to consume digital learning material, says Schawbel, they still want “some sort of in-person learning vehicle.” That could be a mentor who meets with the learner online, participation in a real-time virtual class or something truly physical, practiced with safety uppermost, he explains.

While you’re at it, keep in mind that Gen Zs won’t wait around for lengthy reviews; they want immediate feedback, as much as possible. The Thought Industries learning platform, for example, enables you to incorporate instructor-led sessions and event-based courses into the training with embedded assessments, quizzes and check-ins to tell learners if they’re on the right track.

Promote peer knowledge. A truism, Schawbel has found, is that every generation likes what they had in school. For Gen Z, that’s “peer knowledge and knowledge transfer through peers.” Come up with learning assignments that include a peer aspect, whether that’s getting or giving feedback from fellow workers, collaborating on pilots that bring multiple people together to accomplish the job, or simply promoting the use of a learning community mindset through discussion forums and chat channels. For instance, the Thought Industries customer education and external training platform promotes flexible social learning and peer exchanges through community discussion boards that enable learners to post new topics, comments and video responses. Learners can also easily sort and pin discussions that they are interested in following.

Embrace the newest tech. While Gen Z may be first to “cling to” new technology such as TikTok or SnapChat or whatever’s next, you and your organization can adopt it too. “The reason why so many older people went onto Facebook over the past decade is that they want to communicate with their children, their siblings, people of different age groups,” says Schawbel. “Technology finds a way to democratize learning opportunities and information. And it levels the age playing field, meaning my parents can be on the same sites as I’m on.”

Call on the Gen Zs in your organization for help in figuring out how new tech can be integrated into current learning mechanisms. Make sure your learning platform enables integration with popular social media, so you’re not left behind.

Test VR. Virtual reality headsets are declining in cost with every passing quarter and are being adopted and used for training, notes Schawbel. The content being produced for VR is “much more engaging and immersive” than other materials, he says, making it “an effective way of transmitting learning material.” Get some units in and test out how immersive learning can work for your products. Consider calling on VR development companies for help in converting a subset of your learning objects to VR.

Invest in digital badging. In a skills economy, learning that leads to digital badges gets bigger pickup because it makes training seem timelier and more relevant. Gamification features can add a texture of competitiveness to the mix, which has appeal to these big-time game players, suggests Schawbel. Companies and local and federal government agencies are getting into the act by removing minimum education requirements for employment (except where legally required) and setting skills and competencies as the hiring bar. Badging plays well with that kind of approach.

Generationally, digital badges appeal to Millennials and Gen Zs who want to show achievement, participate in healthy competition and accelerate their learning in ways to align with their professional goals and aspirations.

Learn more about digital badging in this recent article:

How Digital Badging Drives Learner Engagement and Improves Business Performance

Learning that’s connected and professional

As the 67 million members of Gen Z join the 72 million Millennials already working, evolving your learning approach to engage them and their preferences can make the difference in how successful your training programs are. The learning you produce needs to reflect how they see themselves. That’s a combination of connected, professional, aspirational and innovative. Now is a great time to experiment because the old rules and practices are no longer enough.

Learn more about Dan Schawbel and his research at his website.

Gen S, the Tweeners

Recently, Aragon Research posed the theory that the term “Millennials” covers too broad a grouping and deserves to have more nuance, to distinguish the younger members of that generation from the older ones. According to Aragon, people ages 23 to 30 are “closer to Gen Z in terms of their experience coming of age” with technology but closer to Millennials in that they are often already “established” in the workforce. This “tweener” generation, which the marketing research firm calls “Generation S,” grew up with two dominant themes: services and sharing. Whether it’s services (think food delivery or getting directions) or sharing (Lyft, Airbnb, and shared household services), this generation has some unique expectations, among them:

  • Technology will be pervasive;
  • Digital assistants and immersion will be built into home and work experiences;
  • They want a high degree of customization through “mixing and mashing” of services; and
  •  They have an expectation of self-service rather than waiting for somebody else to provide what they want.

How does this fit into learning and training? Look for opportunities to provide a smorgasbord of learning objects to enable Gen S to help themselves and make sure you provide a choice of learning modalities and social learning that fits with their individual preferences.

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