The learning and development community may have a big problem on its hands.
According to a Gallup Inc. poll, millennials — individuals born between 1980 and 1996 — made up 33 percent of the United States workforce in 2013. Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, accounted for 31 percent. This 50-year time span means these individuals vary on more than just their taste in music. Their learning styles are different, and because mobile learning is shaping up to be a lasting addition to the industry, learning leaders must reconcile diverse learning styles with varying degrees of technological savvy.
Michelle Nolin, former learning leader strategist at marketing and training company Meredith Xcelerated Marketing Health, addressed the challenges associated with educating a multigenerational workforce by breaking the group into two distinct parts: digital natives and digital immigrants.
“A digital native is someone who was raised with technology, and it’s been a central part of their lives and educational experiences,” she said. “When they come into the workforce they are going to bring that with them as part of their DNA.”
As a consequence of their upbringing, digital natives demand easy access to learning materials, as well as the ability to ask a question at any time and receive an immediate response. They are also adept at crowdsourcing and sharing materials across digital platforms. “This learner isn’t going to respond to a linear training model that they have to sift through to find what they’re looking for,” Nolin said.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly how digital immigrants are comfortable learning new information. They didn’t grow up with technology, and computers were often not a part of their formal educational training. This group consumes content in a linear way, preferably in print, but also through lectures. Unlike their millennial counterparts, they do not actively seek to control content. They take it as it comes.
In theory it seems nearly impossible to teach these two generational groups using the same mobile tool. The solution? Don’t teach, support.
The generational divide among his workforce is not an issue for John Knoble, the director of sales learning at Ethicon Inc., a Johnson & Johnson company which makes surgical products. A year and a half ago the company overhauled its employee-training model, which had been in place for more than 20 years, to include a mobile application.
He said initially, the generational gap was one of the biggest concerns. He worried that baby boomers would not adapt, wouldn’t be interested or would be put off by a different approach that would appeal to millennials. “But, for me, it’s no longer a concern.”
On the other hand, Knoble said mobile learning is not a tool for primary knowledge acquisition at Ethicon. It’s a way to provide ongoing support after an employee completes an initial six- to eight-week course of combined classroom and field training.
Ethicon partnered with e-learning company Axonify Inc. to provide an online game that taps into the inherently competitive nature of its sales force. Each day employees are prompted with questions created to pinpoint the exact knowledge areas necessary for success in the field.
“It allows us to focus on what is strategically important to our business, so we can dial up in certain areas and make sure our reps are thinking about that every day and getting better in those areas,” Knoble said.
This mobile program employs a pull rather than a push approach to learning. As opposed to mandatory compliance training delivered online, this gamification technique takes a nonintrusive approach. Employees are incentivized by the novelty and competition of the game, but they are not required to play. It is a resource available if they want it, and they do. The game was offered to a pilot group of 90 employees in June 2013. At the end of the three-month trial, it had a 90 percent usage and acceptance rate.
The mobile platform should be used to reinforce learning concepts, not teach them for the first time, according to Bob Mosher, chief learning evangelist at consulting firm Apply Synergies. Further, Mosher said mobile learning has been misnamed and is consequently misused.
“Something we do in our industry all the time that frustrates me is that we brand things before we know what they do,” he said. “This is a support tool. We’re missing an entire world in which this medium could be so powerful because we think training first and support second. We need to consider the best use of the modality.”
Mobile’s strength is the immediacy of the intervention, which Mosher said is different than the traditional definition of learning. Mobile learning isn’t about sitting down with a tablet computer and trying to induce long-term retention. It’s about providing the employee with tools he or she needs to succeed in the moment. For that to occur, the delivery method and the content offered need to change.
Leslie Knowlton, managing partner of U.S. talent development at consulting firm Deloitte, agreed that for mobile learning to be useful to a multigenerational workforce it should take on a support role. Deloitte uses a wide selection of technologies that can be used within classrooms in its university or out in the field.
“When we first approached the issue of mobile learning, we began by looking at it as a way to enhance learning experiences and supplement programs we already had in place,” Knowlton said. “For us, the important thing is really to identify the places where the mobile capabilities can contribute to the experience rather than just shift content to a new medium. We really want to think about where the technology can be impactful and how.”
Don’t Believe Stereotypes
The first step to creating an effective mobile program is to stop treating baby boomers like technological novices. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that as of January, 88 percent of adults age 50 to 64 own a cellphone. Of that group, 49 percent own smartphones.
From a usability perspective, Ron Zamir, president and CEO of corporate training company Allen Communication, said anyone who can operate a smartphone has the ability to learn and interact on a mobile learning platform. Those people are often more accepting of social media and hand-gesture-driven interactivity.
“That population, no matter what their age, is very open and demanding that training is shorter, can be accessed through more devices and can be shared more easily,” Zamir said. “They don’t want the lock-down, linear-based education we’ve been doing pretty much since the Revolutionary War.”
Therefore, the pressure is on learning leaders to develop mobile programs that engage the workforce and are useful within workflows. The first step to achieve this goal is for the designer to forget the fundamentals of learning and development.
Employee education is rooted in classroom-style learning and calls for a conditional environment to extrinsically motivate the new employee to absorb information, Mosher said. This practice accentuates differences in learning styles between generations and should not carry over onto a mobile platform.
The beauty of the mobile environment is it can exist within the workflow, so the intrinsic desire to perform a job well becomes the only motivation necessary to use the technology.
The learning leaders at Deloitte recognized the distinction and kept it in mind when developing nano learning modules. These three- to seven-minute tutorials focus on a specific concept learners can access at the time of need. When developing the learning tool, the company focused on mobile learners’ needs instead of mobile device capability.
“It’s easy to get enamored with the latest and greatest technology surrounding learning and the tools you can use,” Knowlton said. “We use mobile learning as a way to extend the learning experience with supplemental content and performance support. That’s really helpful beyond a generational standpoint because our professionals are busy traveling and serving clients on the go. This gives them a way to access content without having to boot up a laptop or connect to a network.”
Deloitte’s approach to mobile learning prioritizes all employees’ immediate needs, regardless of age, and solves them using technology that fits seamlessly into the workflow. This and any other successful mobile program is rooted in the following three principles:
User experience: The design must be intuitive and match the appearance standards set by commercial apps. It also shouldn’t be a scaled-down version of a Web browser. Each device warrants its own experience.
Smaller bites: The density of information hasn’t changed, but the way in which the content is parsed should. It needs to be chunked and organized in a way that allows employees to learn just what they need in that moment while keeping in mind continuity so that all pieces work together to achieve a larger business goal.
Just-in-time learning: Time is a major factor for the mobile workforce. Opportunity cost should always be considered. As important as it is for employees to learn how to perform a task, it is more important that they have enough time to complete it. Keep the experience short and easy to access so little time is wasted.
Adhering to these principles circumvents the generation gap by positioning mobile learning as a tool that is necessary to get work done. If something is essential to job success, employees will be motivated to use it regardless of their natural learning preferences.
Sarah Sipek is an associate editor with Diversity Executive. She can be reached at email@example.com.