6 Ways to Leverage Millennials to Build a Learning Organization: Part 1

Times are Changing

By 2020 Millennials are estimated to take up more than half of the global workforce, crowding out the Baby Boomers and Generation Xers that came before them. With a new generation proliferating further and higher in today’s organizations, it is a good time to look at how organizations should be changing in response.

Of course, an organization needs to focus first and foremost on adapting to its business environment, but what if adapting to Millennials can also help organizations adapt to its external environment at an ever-faster rate? Fortunately, this appears to be the case. Changing the approach from adapting to Millennials to leveraging Millennials is the key to unlocking this possibility and opening doors to new opportunities to transform your organization into a Learning Organization.

The Learning Organization & Technology

A Learning Organization, as we all may have heard, is one in which an organization can flexibly adapt on an ongoing basis to a world where change is the only constant. While theorists and business pundits have been extolling the virtues of ‘Learning Organizations’ for some time, its status has changed from an extra advantage for market leaders to stay atop their perch, to now being par for the course, just to stay relevant. Even in staid industries, the rapid change in the technological tools we are using, means that employees must be constantly learning. Learning Organizations, of course, are not just trying to keep pace with technology, but can detect and explore new opportunities that technologies bring, and can make deep, significant changes in response.

In this turbulent environment, Millennials are primed to flourish. They natively understand the imperative of change and their clockspeed is already set for the accelerated learning this requires. Millennials are attracted to Learning Organizations because these environments will provide a place to experiment, learn quickly, develop skills, and make contributions that are highly valued. It is no surprise: the individuals best equipped to adapt to change are most likely to join organizations that embrace change. This creates a self-reinforcing positive loop between these employees and their companies. If your organization is not in this cycle, there is a danger that you will be left behind. But here’s a question: do you have eager Millennials in your organization? Then take a moment to breathe a sigh of relief (but not too long) and get to work to start leveraging them!

Three (of Six) Ways to Leverage your Millennials

While painting too broad a brush about Millennials can be inaccurate, the following are some helpful rules of thumb:

1. Increase Cross-pollination through Greater Teamwork

Collaborating and brainstorming together is second nature for Millennials, as this has been emphasized in school, from playing nice together in kindergarten to joint projects in college. This is good for organizational tasks when creative solutions are required, or when the issue spans departments, functions, or geographies. More cross-pollination creates more motivation, knowledge-sharing, and collaboration, by way of breaking down barriers.

Leverage your Millennials by encouraging the formation of teams and making sure they contain diversity in background, geography, and skills, and–yes, generations. This is an area where Millennials can model good idea-sharing and teamwork for others in the organization.

2. Establish a Feedback-Driven Culture to Learn and Grow Together

Millennials are used to receiving feedback on everything they do (and quickly). Whether it was in school or at home, everything they did was observed and either given applause or met with criticism–in real-time. They are used to this, in fact, they yearn for it. One could label this a type of neediness, but most organizations could benefit from a lot more and more immediate feedback. A shift to greater feedback will help your organization make changes more quickly, and also turbocharge the learning and progression of your people.

Leverage your Millennials by setting expectations for more frequent feedback. Reinforce the principle that feedback is best when nearly immediate. It should be done after major projects and events, and also after key meetings and workshops. From a management point of view, this requires a shift to a mentoring approach rather than a task-management approach. Your Millennials will appreciate this, as will nearly all employees, as your organization and people grow together.

3. Embrace a Trial-and-Error Approach to Learning to Drive Innovation

Millennials are used to trying out many different things before deciding upon an option or direction. In this process, failing is a common outcome, but is seen as a learning experience (in contrast to the Generation X mentality of trying to limit mistakes). By embracing experimentation, organizations can explore more creative new options. Additionally, people will also naturally develop a more analytical approach where the additional data and information generated by these experiments will be considered and discussed. This is a key to a good Learning Organization as well: it needs to learn from good data and experiences.

Leverage your Millennials by encouraging them to experiment: let employees test ideas in a limited fashion, and be rigorous in capturing the results of the tests, and make this data available for others to learn from. To do this well, the organization must showcase ‘failures’ as well as successful experiments, with the documented learning being the common denominator. Millennials, and all employees can operate in a more entrepreneurial and creative atmosphere. That is a benefit for them, as well as for your organization, which will be more nimble and adaptive in the face of change.

There’s More!

In summary, we talked about Millennials’ contribution to the Learning Organization in increasing cross-pollination by promoting teamwork, growing together by creating a feedback-driven culture, and valuing trial-and-error learning to drive company innovation. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll lay out three more ways Millennials can help your company become a better Learning Organization.