Using different styles of training for different audiences
This article was originally written and published by Speak First
Workplace learning has an interesting role to fill. Its purpose is to educate and help people with their personal development, but in large organizations one course or learning solution often needs to serve a large number of people. So, how can anyone expect ‘personal’ development while tied into a one-size-has-to-fit-all approach?
When creating and organizing learning opportunities, L&D professionals should consider the diversity within their audiences. Different ages, cultural backgrounds and personality types will all play a part in how learners are able to interact with the content, and they’re all going to have their own preferences and learning styles.
By recognising this, we can start looking for ways to shift towards a mindset where L&D is created to be cross-cultural and be effective for multiple learning styles.
Different Generations, Different Styles
In the United States, there are currently five different generations all in the workforce together. According to 2020 data: Millennials (born between 1980-1994) make up the biggest share at 40%, a little above Generation Xs (1965-1980) 33%. Baby Boomers (1944-1964) come in third with 19%. Those in Generation Z (1995-2015) are just starting to join the workforce, and currently make up just 6%, but will increase as they grow into adulthood. Finally, the Silent Generation (1926-1945) have largely left the workforce, but 2% of them are still in employment.1
These demographics are important to know, as research has shown that people in different generations have different priorities when it comes to L&D and their overall workplace culture.
Despite often being viewed as technologically obsessed and anti-social, 71% of those in the up-and-coming Generation Z and 69% of Millennials want their workplace learning experiences to have social elements. As workers get older, they tend to want this social aspect less and less. Generation Z (43%) and Millennials (42%) also want independent and self-directed learning experiences more than Generation X and the Baby Boomers (both 33%).2 This means we can’t expect what worked for the Boomers and Gen Xers to automatically be as effective for the younger members of the workforce.
The traditional instructor-led training definitely still has its place, with 55% of all learners preferring this method,3 but these sessions take time. 74% of all workers say they’d like to learn at work, but compared to the older generations, Millennials and Gen Zers don’t feel they have the time to spare.4 So, the desire is there, and as L&D professionals we need to create new opportunities that match the priorities of the changing workforce.
When it comes to generational differences, we would of course be remiss if we didn’t discuss the evolving use of technology. In the UK, the average person checks their phone every 12 minutes and spends 24 hours a week online. This has risen due to the increasing habits of 16-24 year olds, who average 34.3 hours a week online.5 Everyone has a smartphone in their pocket and, increasingly, people expect to be able to use it to learn. As these technologically-minded young people enter the workforce, the learning opportunities on offer have to adapt to match their style.
Different cultures have different attitudes and expectations of learning, and a person’s cultural upbringing will affect how they engage with training. One way to explore this is through the lens of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, a framework for recognising and understanding differences in cultures.6 When developing or organizing L&D opportunities in different countries, it’s important to keep Hofstede’s noted differences of power distance, individualism and uncertainty avoidance in mind, and when planning a programme which will run across more than one country, it’s especially crucial to consider how different cultural attitudes will interact with the content.
Hofstede defines power distance as how people believe power and authority should be distributed. In countries like France, Greece and the Philippines, organizations are expected to be more hierarchical than in the UK, Sweden or New Zealand, which tend to have flatter structures. This may have an effect on how people interact with trainers and coaches, as those used to less authority are likely to be happier talking to their trainer about their struggles than those who are used to authority staying at a distance.
Similarly, people from different cultures will have different attitudes about being part of a team or working individually. In the USA and UK, people generally focus on their own work and interests first, but in places with lower individualism – such as Japan – there is a greater focus on the way the individual can strengthen the group. When organizing training, remember to consider that people from these different cultures will respond differently to teamwork or personal effectiveness.
Cultures with a high uncertainty avoidance prefer definite structures and processes rather than ambiguous situations. For example, France tends to have more formal bureaucracy than the UK or Scandinavian countries, which have lower uncertainty avoidance and are more comfortable with flexible structures and diverse views. This may be relevant when setting structured times for learning or creating an ad-hoc independent learning system. Also, consider how different audiences will respond to vaguer anecdotes and models, rather than specific guidance to follow.
Other points to consider with anything international is the use of language and local examples. Some words and phrases won’t translate and others won’t resonate the way you’d want them to.
If you’re trying to discuss a time you were ‘sitting in the bar, having a few drinks and chatting about work,’ many audiences will be able to relate to this, and understand the implication that after a few beers you started speaking more freely than if you were entirely sober. But, if you’re talking to people from a culture where, for religious reasons, fewer people drink then your point may fall flat, sound insensitive or be entirely unnecessary anyway.
Personality types and learning styles
As much as age and background can change how you learn, you shouldn’t forget that even people within the same demographics will have different personalities, likes, dislikes and styles which alter how they engage with training content.
Consider a session with a group role-play scenario in which everyone is supposed to find a moment to speak up and showcase what they’ve learnt throughout the day. This is going to suit more outgoing and confident people, but how are the quieter introverts going to feel? Conversely, an instructor-led classroom scenario with plenty of handouts to read and quietly contemplate might suit the introverts better, but the talking-loving extroverts have either fallen asleep or are checking their phone.
There are a large number of learning styles and many theories and models to go with them, and while we aren’t going to delve into them here, the key point to know is different people learn in different ways. Some take in information best when it’s presented visually, others verbally and others retain information through touch or movement.
Practical Next Steps
Now that we’ve outlined some of the many ways that diversity within your staff will affect the way people engage with your L&D, the question must be: as L&D professionals organizing these learning opportunities – particularly those of you in larger organizations with staff of different ages, nationalities and backgrounds – what can you do about it?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution for balancing the needs of a diverse audience, but by being mindful of the range of learners in your organization you can start planning more deliberately and minimizing the issue.
Increasing the use of app-based, online learning should help to engage with the newest generations of learners, but be careful not to alienate others. Therefore, the best approach must surely be to offer more than one way to learn. For those who want a classroom experience, it should still be on the menu, but social, online and mobile experiences also need to be available to those who want it.
Make sure any design you commission takes into account all of these differences. An expert designer with the right experience in doing this will be able to help you make the learning work for everyone where they can. They will also help you work out how best to divide groups of learners to get the best results.
Having a range of localized learning solutions in a number of different styles is rarely a practical option, particularly for organizations with limited budgets. In this case, look to your data. Before organizing your L&D programmes, analyze data on skills gaps, learners and organizational needs etc. to run the most appropriate learning sessions for those who need it. As part of this process, while deciding which members of the organization would benefit most from the learning event, also consider which style of learning they would be most engaged by.
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1 CAB (2022) Building a multigenerational workforce
2 LinkedIn (2019) Workplace Learning Report 2019
3 Training Industry (2019) 5 training delivery methods to use in your L&D programs
4 LinkedIn (2019) Workplace Learning Report 2019
5 The Telegraph (2018) A decade of smartphones: we now spend an entire day every week online
6 CIPD (2016) International Culture
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