Liz Wilson headshot

Multi generational learning

Enabling your 4G Network

For a while now I’ve had the urge to mix people up – to have the long-serving, highly respected experts marvel at the bold ideas and radical expectations of their young talent – to get these groups working and learning together so there is no generation gap, no mis-match of expectations and no expensive “waiting” for mutual enlightenment.

As we find ourselves in the midst of a well-documented increase in “4G” workplaces - where employees from four generations will work side by side for the first time in history - there can surely be no better time to do this “mixing up” than right now.

Traditionally, development programmes have been aimed at non-diverse populations – a team development programme for graduates, a coaching skills programme for middle managers or a leadership development programme for executives. At Impact, however, we’re discovering that - particularly when it comes to graduate development - there is huge value in designing and delivering interventions which bring together participants from all levels and generations for mutual learning. Done in the right way, creating development solutions that span organisational hierarchies not only brings exciting new opportunities for learning through increased diversity, it can also improve engagement levels across the board and help to achieve strategic goals. All told, it’s pretty exciting stuff.

It’s also a big challenge to get right. Just imagine what it takes even to get to the point where you are about to begin a programme bringing together such a diverse set of participants - it’s not for the faint hearted! I recently ran a programme where the participants ranged from one who was in the first 18 months of his career to a senior, very well established VP of Global Sales…and a wide range of levels in between. These situations take incredibly careful, creative design and acutely sensitive facilitation to manage expectations, enable trust and engagement and build a shared desire to learn. Everyone in the room has to be (or become!) convinced that there is something they can learn from the others.

Like most trends, there’s a range of different entry points. Some of our clients at Impact are embracing Multi Generational Learning wholeheartedly, whilst others are choosing to test the water by incorporating smaller elements into their graduate development journeys. Both approaches are testimony to an emerging trend for a more democratic style of programme design, which essentially recognises that everyone in an organisation has something to bring to the table.

Impact’s recent research shows that 77% of organisations have Director-level sponsorship on their programmes. Whilst it’s great to have this senior support, it should also be noted that almost the same number of respondents (76%) thought that Directors should play a more active role in the design.

It seems it’s no longer enough to pitch up at the beginning of a programme, deliver a motivational speech and exit stage left. What we’re increasingly proposing to clients is creative ways of more directly involving senior players in the learning. Need your C-suite to deliver key messages to your participants? Then why not create an enquiry-style project demanding interaction and networking, rather than handing it to them on a plate?

“Reverse Mentoring” is another useful element of Multi Generational Learning. This approach, which fits in perfectly with Impact’s Acts of Leadership© model, sees increased focus on the benefits for the mentor as well as the mentee. We’re seeing younger employees mentoring upper management, sharing their expertise in areas such as technology and social media and allowing older workers to gain insight into new markets. Knowledge share through mentoring has begun to flow more freely both ways, reflecting a wider trend for collaboration, cross-functional networking and effective team working across traditional boundaries.

It takes a brave L&D professional to begin to break with tradition - to reject the uneasy middle ground in which the generations of their company have followed a well-worn journey on which as much learning is lost as gained.

Yet what could be a more exciting challenge than creating melting pots? Crucibles into which we welcome the brilliance and life experience of all of the generations and let them develop their own hunger for what each other brings and find a way, together, to create the type of organisation that will attract the next wave of customers and talent.

How to design a multi-generational programme - a few top tips:

•    If a full Multi Generational Learning programme is not yet an option, consider introducing elements in more subtle ways, for example look at the pockets of senior sponsorship/involvement you have on a graduate programme and re-design them to increase involvement and mutual learning.
•    If you are going for a full Multi Generational Learning programme  you’ll need to build trust as quickly as possible. Consider positioning a carefully facilitated challenging experiential project up front. The right project will have to put everyone out of their comfort zone, on a level playing field where no one is the expert. Projects that involve a high level of consequential individual exposure in an unfamiliar setting work well here.
•    Sensitive, expert facilitation is key. Specific skills are required to establish a learning environment that allows people to show up as people rather than job titles. Choose your facilitator carefully.
•    Set up mechanisms to support continued learning between the generations – perhaps an on going business project or a relay project passed on to the next cohort.
•    Sustain networking. Give past participants the physical and virtual areas they need to share their thoughts as well as the time to do so.
•    Invest in coaching – create a multi-generational pool of internal coaches. It’s never too late or too soon to learn this life skill.
•    Remember that the multi generational structure of your workforce is likely to be reflected in the nature of your market/customer base. Design projects which capitalise on this parallel to bring you the added benefit of new market intelligence.
•    Think Strategically.  Involve Directors in a programme design that not only addresses people development needs but also creates opportunities for a diverse population to tackle other strategic projects.
 

Have you started any initiatives around Multi Generational Learning in your organisation? We'd love to hear any challenges or best practice you have to share!

Liz Wilson is a Senior Consultant at Impact.