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Learning on the Job

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 12-12-2007 Print
Learning on the Job

Differences in learning styles can present sharp contrasts between generations. "The way you do training or development has to be different today," says Mike Roberto, a management professor at Bryant University who consults with numerous well-known companies. "The old, standard classroom style increasingly is not the way to go." Younger workers tend to want hands-on, experiential learning. They grew up playing video games that they figured out by playing, with no dependence on written instructions, and they aren't into sitting around for lectures—although they may well listen to them on their own time, via iPod. That reality led package deliverer UPS to create an experience- based training program, complete with mock houses for practice deliveries.

But older workers may feel left behind by newer methods of training. For example, Roberto uses as a training tool a multimedia case study of the Challenger space shuttle disaster that he developed while teaching at Harvard Business School. It's been well received at numerous companies, including Apple, where European employees used it this summer in a training exercise. Participants watch videos, read actual e-mails sent between NASA staffers and contractors, and even see reproductions of NASA phone messages as they get into the roleplaying assignment. But some companies are intimidated by the immersive experience, and a couple have even requested written versions of the case instead. "They have worries about older workers," says Roberto, who created the case while teaching at Harvard Business School. "They are fearful of the multimedia aspects."

At Lincoln Financial, CIO Cornelio says, training methods have been "altered radically," with a strong push toward Web-based training and away from classroom training. "It's much more about iterative processes over the Internet these days," he says. Lincoln still offers more traditional training options geared toward older audiences, but is pushing them toward online methods as well. The danger for managers is that older workers will feel left out as training methods change. Says Roberto, "Fairness is really important. You have to be aware of the needs of older or less tech-savvy workers." At the same time, managers have to balance the perception that one group or another is getting special treatment.

But there are opportunities, too, for training to forge bonds across generations. Legendary former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, after learning that one of his senior executives was being mentored on e-commerce by a young employee, encouraged the practice of the young teaching the experienced across the company. Erickson says that suits the preferences of Gen Y workers, who are comfortable moving across hierarchies and bonding with older people.

At VF, Schneider encourages what he calls "informal, two-way mentoring" that leverages the knowledge and talents of different generations. "I'm amazed at the skills of young people coming in—they are prepared for multitasking and have presentation skills— but they lack understanding of how a business really runs. The boomers are amazed at what you can do from a multitasking standpoint, and they understand the business process. So the more we can put them together, the more each group can learn."

One of the first things people say about Generation Y is that young people are in a hurry, and many younger workers have other options in mind if things don't work out to their satisfaction on the job, such as opting out of the career chase to focus on quality of life and family issues at rates higher than their older colleagues. For Ben, 30, an engineer who works at a global manufacturing company, old concepts of career paths no longer apply. (Ben preferred not to have his last name published.) "For people my age and younger, there is no negative feedback for switching jobs to get ahead, so there's not really company loyalty anymore. I know a lot of people who hop back and forth between the same companies—that's just how it is."


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