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The Guide to Engaging Millennials with Experiential Learning

By Sue Wigston on September 26, 2017

Millennials are often labeled as one of two extremes: discontented and entitled, or ambitious and idealistic. While many find this generation (the group of individuals born between 1980 and the mid-1990s) frustrating, we think it may be time to recalibrate the way we approach Millennials in the workplace. After all, this generation’s career goals and work habits aren’t all that different from those of their peers—oftentimes aligning closely with the characteristics of previous generations.

But where do Millennials differ? What do they care about, and how can we retain these future leaders in our organizations? According to a Deloitte survey, 42 percent of the Millennial generation seeking new employment believe their current job does not make good use of their skills and abilities. Those who are planning to switch jobs cite a lack of career progress (37 percent) and challenge in their jobs (27 percent) as the two top factors influencing their career decisions. Another Deloitte survey found that 63 percent of Millennials said their leadership skills are not being fully developed. Finally, while Millennials crave coaching and feedback from senior leadership, only 7 percent of organizations invest in coaching and mentoring programs with senior leaders.

Ultimately, the biggest difference between Millennials and other generations is their explicit vocalization of their objectives and needs from your organization. Regardless, organizations need to listen to this feedback and act on it in order to build an organization of future leaders who are engaged with their development.

Why choose experiential learning? Discover everything you need to know about  this powerful training tool.

Training and Development Tops the List

An aforementioned Deloitte survey found that 86 percent of Millennials think the success of a business should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance, ranking “education, skills, and training” as equally important. It also found that this generation appreciates working in collaborative, consensual environments rather those that directly link accountability and responsibility to seniority or compensation. In a PwC study of Millennials, it was found that the Millennials’ “desire to learn and progress is apparent in their view of the benefits offered by employers. When asked which benefits they would most value from an employer, respondents named training and development and flexible working opportunities over financial benefits.”

The workforce of today has outgrown concepts such as tenure-based rewards, hierarchical structures, and command-and-control leadership styles. Instead, Millennials thrive on training that is engaging, practical, and relevant.

Based on this evidence, it is clear that opportunities for development, coaching, and mentorship are a nonnegotiable for up-and-coming Millennials. Inclusive leadership development programs should be designed to train future leaders on relevant issues such as teamwork, communication, and conflict management. Regardless of what skill sets or core competencies organizations are attempting to influence, equipping employees with core leadership skills not only helps them become more productive in the short term, but it prepares them for leadership opportunities as they arise.

Providing the Opportunity to Grow

Having a clear line of sight and subsequent opportunities to advance in their careers is important to Millennials. In fact, 87 percent of Millennials rate "professional or career growth and development opportunities" as important, as compared to 69 percent of non-Millennials who say the same.

Unlike training initiatives of the past, Millennials prefer structured, well-thought-out training programs that actively support personal and professional growth. Presenting a clear path to leadership—with achievable milestones along the way—demonstrates that organizations want their employees to advance within the company. Milestones help benchmark specific stages of career growth and set clear, attainable goals. Furthermore, structured training programs demonstrate a commitment to Millennial employees’ futures, which increases employee loyalty.

Increase Millennial Engagement with the Help of Leadership

Millennials perform well within a structured chain of command, so setting up direct coaching programs can give them access to feedback on what’s working and what needs to improve. According to Gallup, more than twice as many Millennials report feeling engaged at work when they have frequent meetings with their managers, compared to those who said they do not have frequent contact with managers. Additionally, according to an aforementioned Deloitte survey, Millennial employees with mentors are twice as likely to stay with an organization for more than five years.

Investing the time and resources into creating one-on-one coaching and mentoring programs goes a long way with Millennials. This generation wants to understand how their work connects to an organization’s current and future goals. Monthly meetings with mentors provide continual reinforcement to ensure that employees are aligned with organizational goals and are on track for career advancement within the company. Not only does this benefit Millennials but you as well. These programs will ensure you are grooming future leaders to develop a specific set of characteristics, behaviors, and skills that the successful predecessor had.

Maximize the Potential of “Digital Natives”

The term “digital native” refers to the generation of people who have grown up with technology as part of their everyday lives. From the internet to smartphones, Millennials have access to information at all times. Therefore, incorporating technology into training and development programs will help keep Millennial employees engaged, increase the practicality of the training, and consistently reinforce the messaging and purpose of the training.

Because Millennials are digitally savvy, training programs can be augmented with integrated technology to support the learning for the participants and the investment for the organization. In the age of social media and constant connectedness, Millennials are used to interacting with others frequently and in short bursts, even in the workplace. Open, transparent communication is important for this demographic, and internal social media and communication platforms can be used to quickly disseminate information and solicit real-time feedback to show the effectiveness of training programs.

Experiential Learning Does It All

Despite the differences seen in Millennials, many organizations still attempt to engage this generation with traditional training methods, such as videos, case studies, and lectures. While these methods are easy to implement and often affordable, the concept of learning decay illustrates that these methods will only provide limited results on their own, because most of the information is forgotten shortly after training concludes. Not only is it entirely possible to curb learning decay, but it’s possible to achieve all the things mentioned that are most important to Millennials.

Enter experiential learning.

Experiential learning is a crucial aspect of any training and development initiative that targets Millennials. Done correctly it can directly impact employee retention. If organizations provide employees with what they are looking for, they’ll be more inclined to stay. Ultimately, to retain talent, as well as minimize the burden and cost of turnover, you can optimize training and development initiatives with experiential learning.

Not only will your training programs be aligned with what employees are asking for, but they will prove to be a worthwhile investment for the organization today and in the future. Experiential learning is universally engaging, regardless of participants’ learning style, and connects the learnings to the real world in actionable, attainable ways. All of which has been proven to drive results.

In a report on a study from Christy Price of Dalton State College in Georgia, Price lists the five aspects that Millennials feel create the ideal learning environment:

  • "Students know one another" and "work together in groups." This is consistent with Millennials' team orientation, interdependence, and desire for connection.
  • Learning is "relaxed," "enjoyable," and that awful "F" word we dread hearing: "fun."
  • A multimedia format is utilized, including podcasts, online activities, video, and PowerPoint.
  • "Real examples" that are "relevant" to their culture are used..
  • The number-one characteristic that Millennial respondents desired in an ideal learning environment was that it be "interactive" and "participatory."

So, let’s take a closer look at the distinct components of experiential learning that make all of this possible.

Activities Require Hands-On Participation

During an activity, participants take part in a hands-on situation where they have to work together to solve a problem and succeed. The participatory nature of this training method builds conviction by engaging participants’ hearts, minds, and hands. Not only is experiential learning fun and engaging, but its ability to build conviction maximizes ROI. Compared to traditional training methods—in which participants may tune out or ignore information altogether—the game aspect of experiential learning requires participants to use their critical thinking and problem-solving skills throughout the entire experience, in order to see the desired results.

Trainees Participate as Themselves

Unlike role-playing scenarios, which may be dismissed because they are not realistic to the participants’ reality, experiential learning has participants participate as themselves. This demonstrates visceral cause and effect for participants, as it shows them exactly how their behavior can influence outcomes. By connecting the lessons learned in training with real-life situations via a targeted debrief, participants’ conviction is built to act on the new behaviors and skills back on the job.

Activities Are Themed Metaphors

The key differentiator of experiential training is that it creates scenarios that mimic workplace situations. For example, an Eagle’s Flight experiential learning activity may have you searching for gold in the desert. Admittedly, this is not everyone’s everyday reality. But the skills necessary to succeed on this journey are. Skills required include planning, teamwork, and collaboration. By separating training from the real world, it allows participants to practice new skills in a comfortable environment—without the fear of failure.

A Results-Oriented Debrief Connects and Concludes the Experience

The connection between the experience and the workplace is realized during the debrief. Experiential learning activities are designed to produce results based on behaviors and decisions that participants make. By applying applicable skills, training bridges the gap between theory and practice. After activities are complete, a facilitator links the experience to situations on the job, which enables participants to understand how to apply these new skills on the job.

Experiential Learning Drives Real, Tangible Results

Digital measurement and reinforcement tools keep training concepts top of mind and promote ongoing engagement after the training concludes. Even the best training experiences are at risk for learning decay if steps are not in place to reinforce and measure the transfer of theory to practice. The success of training programs not only depends on learning new information but also if that new knowledge is actually applied at work.

Digital tools, in combination with a retention strategy, help combat learning decay so that individuals retain more information for longer—which shows real results.

Measuring results, and seeing results, inspires participants to stay committed to the changes. When they’re aware of which outcomes are being monitored, employees are more inclined to use what they know and have at their disposal, to produce the expected results. By using digital tracking tools, the progress can help tell teams which areas need additional focus and which behaviors have become completely ingrained. Ultimately, digital training measurement helps encourage permanent behavior change and drive individual success.

Why Your Organization Will Benefit from This Approach

Overall, Millennials may be a misrepresented cohort of your workforce. Although engaging this generation may require a restructuring of your training and development strategy, taking an experiential approach will be far more effective for all generations.

Proactive, impactful training and development programs that use experiential learning make a difference. Not only do they give your organization a competitive advantage, but they help increase loyalty and build a robust leadership pipeline. Creating a culture of success and enjoyment—one that emphasizes professional development through coaching—is key in retaining and developing top talent. By establishing a foundation for employees to contribute to their team, organizations are setting Millennials up for success.

Modern training and development programs must incorporate effective coaching and immersive, experiential learning. Practicing in a safe environment the skills that will lend themselves to future leadership roles enables participants to try new behaviors without the risk of failure. Expand the impact experiential learning can have with digital tools and one-on-one coaching that supports Millennial preferences for using technology and developing personal connections.

Experiential Learning: The Key to Effective Employee Development

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As Chief Operating Officer, Sue's extensive senior leadership experience and facilitation skills have established her as a trusted partner and organizational development expert. She has a proven track record of successfully leading culture transformation in Fortune 500 companies and has established herself as an authority on training and development. Sue has over 20 years of experience in the creation and delivery of programs and custom designed solutions for Eagle's Flight.

About Eagle's Flight

Founded in 1988, Eagle's Flight has earned its reputation as a global leader in the development and delivery of business-relevant, experiential learning programs that achieve specific training objectives and lasting behavior changes.

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