Targeting Employee Education for Digital Natives

To meet the needs of the future workforce, learning leaders must know how to reach employees who have grown up with wide access to technology. Here’s how.

The new generation of students entering the workforce has grown up with information and communication technology as an integral part of their everyday lives. Today’s leaders have to learn to communicate in the language and style of these students and understand that they’re digitally native. Growing up in a world dominated by the Web, many of today’s newest employees were born after the introduction of the microcomputer, are more comfortable using a keyboard than writing in a notebook and more content when reading from a computer screen than from printed documents.

“This is a generation that is characterized by its openness and willingness to share,” said Michelle Manafy, co-author of Dancing with Digital Natives. “Digital natives will learn best in open, collaborative, socially mediated environments. Given that their opinion has always mattered in the social networking environments in which they were raised, they want to feel their voice is heard, even as they learn about the larger picture.”

According to Manafy, many in older generations don’t understand how collaborative learning at work can be effective. They are accustomed to a more top-down style and feel it would be distracting at best to teach in a more group-like, open, social setting. However, if organizations can leverage digital technologies, they might see added benefits such as building a repository of learning materials as each employee is trained, which in turn can be used by subsequent new hires.

Millennial generation students and employees, many of who are digital natives, expect to use their own technology and mobile devices for work and are increasingly choosing their place of employment based on how accommodating companies are to their personal technology preferences. There’s an increasing demand for high-tech devices to connect with colleagues, peers, friends and family, rather than face-to-face contact.

“Digital natives like to actively participate in the learning experience,” said Heidi Gautschi, co-author of Dancing with Digital Natives. “There needs to be a give and take between the instructor and the learners. Generally speaking, this group won’t respond well to a rigid, hierarchical educational setting.

“In terms of employee education, it is also important to take into account the digital native’s work habits. These are people who don’t necessarily have the same expectations in terms of separating work from personal life. The education experience doesn’t have to take place in a traditional setting, nor during traditional work hours.”

One of the difficulties organizations face is capturing both tacit and explicit knowledge — when employees change departments or move on, their know-how often leaves with them. According to Gautschi, by tapping into digital natives’ knowledge-sharing skills and their social use of technology, companies could build rich and interactive knowledge repositories.

“If organizations opt for a more collaborative learning environment, it will be more beneficial in both the long and short term,” Gautschi said. “Companies will be able to train new hires more effectively and more efficiently. Employee education will become more flexible and more effective if companies are able to modify their training approaches to truly meet digital natives’ expectations as well as offer them the types of structures that will enable them to learn best.”

According to the authors, it’s important to find a balance between new and old forms of employee education. For example, building online and offline networks as part of the training experience will help employees learn from each other and capture and share knowledge. These types of networks can also give digital natives the sense that they are valued members of the organization they work for and possibly compel them to further participate in the network.

Many companies are already reaping collaborative, online learning’s benefits. For example, integrated food and facilities management services firm Sodexo developed a virtual management training program, Education Market Summer Training, in 2009 to better train 4,500 education market managers scattered across all 50 states and across the globe. The company recognized that a training effort conducted in the summer would allow the organization to regroup, reorganize and implement new concepts and programs.

The goal of the program was to efficiently reach as many managers as possible, introduce a new division president and allow seasonal workers to conveniently access to learning content while facilitating employee engagement and connection. So, in the following three months, Sodexo used virtual event service provider ON24’s Virtual Show as a virtual learning environment and refreshed content every two weeks. Webcast events featured subject matter experts speaking on a particular topic with special guests who helped drive attendance and participation in online chat sessions.

Sodexo estimates that in its first year of implementation the program saved the company approximately $1.4 million. Further, 4,050 managers registered; 9,322 webcasts were viewed; 1,175 peer-to-peer communications were documented; 3,082 chat sessions were scheduled; and 50,168 documents were viewed.

“Anytime you deal with a group the size of our education team, you face a real challenge in fostering a sense of team spirit,” said Lorna C. Donatone, Sodexo’s chief operating officer and education president. “By using a virtual training space, we were able to bring all of our employees to the table and they really embraced the experience and took advantage of the new growth and learning opportunities we provided.”

Sodexo is now preparing a content refresh for the virtual environment, and company managers have already made multiple submissions of material for planned online events.

“A decentralized workforce offers challenges in delivering effective communication, training and engaging them with leadership and the company,” said Michele Suprunowicz, senior director of talent management and development at Sodexo. “The virtual environment offers a unique way for senior leadership to connect with all members of the team. The format requires a concise and targeted content to hold attention. In our case, this allows the message to reach more than four thousand individuals and does not subject the message to interpretation before it gets to the end user.”

According to Suprunowicz, the previous learning methods the company used do not offer this level of immediate reach, clarity and connection to senior leadership. As digitally native employees take over the workforce, learning and development professionals will begin to appreciate the positive impact this environment could have on engagement of the workforce.

Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at