Millennials disrupt: report from the Think Tank

By John Helmer August 28, 2015

Man holding sign: 'Think Tank'The demands of bringing on a new generation of Millennials as leaders could spell big changes for organisations — and even disruption. Learning models and leadership models alike could come under pressure, and L&D face a loss of control over the learning experience. These were some of the possibilities raised by the first of a three-part Think Tank discussion we held recently in London.

Millennials are now the largest single generational cohort in the workforce and assuming leadership positions. To discuss how we can best support their leadership learning, and respond to the points raised in our recently released insight paper, Leadership, learning and the connected generation, we assembled an invited group of L&D leaders and now report their discussion under Chatham House rules.

Delegates were from organisations including Belron, The Home Office, IEDP, Lloyds Banking Group, MOD, Pragma Consulting, Rolls Royce and Vodafone. Most of our delegates have day-to-day contact with workforces that include large numbers of millennials, and some were from organisations whose workforce is drawn almost entirely from this age group.

Here’s what they had to say.

For the time-challenged … key points from our Think Tank discussion

  • L&D departments face frustrations in trying to provide appropriate leadership learning environments for their millennials due to the persistence of the traditional classroom model and the poor image of e-learning
  • Face-to-face is no less important in leadership learning for millennials (though it might work differently): group learning and even some classroom still have an important place
  • Doing things differently shouldn’t be restricted to millennials: neuroscience shows the brain is far more plastic than we once thought – older people will adapt
  • A change of learning model ­– from behavioural to constructivist – could be appropriate in the case of Millennials
  • Millennials may have a greater cynicism about the exercise of power that will affect how they engage with the issues around leadership
  • Millennials may value leadership more than management in the culture of the organisations they choose to work for
  • As a more enquiry-based, open-ended style of learning is shown to suit the rising generation, L&D may no longer be the custodians of their learning experience

Changing the mold is tough

‘I get really frustrated with the fact that most of our training is still stuck in the 1980s. Actually what we do today is no different to what we did 20, 30 years ago – and I have a real drive and passion to change that.’

There is an appetite to move more in the direction of experiential learning, and it seems clear that the learning needs of millennials, who are widely felt to be more suited to this style of learning, offer an opportunity to do this. However, change agents experience resistance from the conservative culture of workplace learning in the UK, which continues to be more stubbornly wedded to a traditional model of classroom training than many other developed economies.

In attempting to innovate with technology, they are also held back by the poor image of e-learning. One bad experience with ‘rubbishy e-learning materials … page-turning stuff … animated death-by-PowerPoint’ will prove enough to put a learner off for life, it seems – and if that learner happens to be the CEO, especially one from an older generation, then innovators can find they have a powerful blocker in the organisation.

This is often the case when trying to introduce technology-enabled learning for groups of senior managers. E-learning is in some quarters felt to be O.K. for the troops, but not really high-quality learning. This image problem of e-learning is a particular problem therefore when it comes to leadership.

Where the image problem can be overcome, however, there is no inherent reason why more senior members of staff (by which I mean old) cannot engage with technology for learning: one of the main things neuroscience has taught us in recent years is that the brain is far more plastic than we previously thought. Older learners will adapt (if they want to).

Which is just as well, because even where Millennials can be used as the excuse for bringing in more innovative learning, it was strongly felt by our delegates that doing things differently should not be restricted to just this one target audience. All can benefit from advances to learning.

BY the same token it was also emphasized that group learning and the classroom still have a key part to play in leadership learning. Technology has a bigger part to play, but it is not substitutive. Through expensive, Face-to-Face still rules.

Disrupting learning models

The survey of academic research summarized in our insight paper cast doubt on many of the received notions about Millennial attitudes, however a different, more personal relationship with technology came across as a distinctive difference from previous generations. At least one of our delegates saw this relationship with technology as having a profound effect on how millennials approach the acquisition and sharing of knowledge and information.

For him this should necessitate a paradigm shift from the behavioural model of learning to a constructivist model, which he feels is more appropriate to millennials; resuling in a more open-ended, enquiry-based type of learning, supported by the technologies that this age group is already so familiar with.

To varying degrees, others concurred with this, however given the command and control culture within many organisations, it was clear that a transformation of this kind had the potential to be a disruptive influence. This led on to a discussion of leadership models, in the course of which it became evident how central the concerns of leadership learning are to issues of change and transformation in workplace learning.

Disrupting leadership models

On the wider issue of leadership models, one of our delegates felt that we were still today responding to the challenge laid down in the 1980s and ‘90s by writers such as Tom Peters, James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, which can be summed up as the shift from management to leadership. Our delegate characterized this change as ‘the difference between “I have a task and a list that I have to complete”, and, “actually I have something to transform”’.

‘Leadership is everyone’s business’ became the mantra from the 90s onward. Where leadership learning had once been the exclusive preserve of those on a fast-track programme, the future top leaders of the organisation as identified and groomed from early stages of their career, suddenly leadership learning was potentially for everyone in the organization, from team leaders upwards.

More than a quarter of a century later, this is still (arguably) unfinished business. Command and control remains surprisingly resilient, and both models of leadership persist, in different organisations. In our delegate’s view, leadership learning is usually about 50/50 leadership and management, something he feels has to change.

Another of our delegates, however, who works in an organization that is almost entirely staffed by millennials, asserted that this management/leadership dichotomy has now given way to a different dynamic, which is more about power and leadership. This more cynical view, which he sees among his millennials, is a product of ‘the world that millennials have grown up in’, and is about ‘me versus you, self-interest versus collective interest’.

‘That’s where it’s at, and we in our generation are quite unaware of the way they see the world; as a layer cake … [for them] it’s all one big fix. It’s a conspiracy’.

He uses movies to engage his learners with leadership issues; as something they can connect to: a role-play scenario based on The Bourne Supremacy, for instance, (‘the synapses light up like a Christmas tree’) – and the red pill / blue pill scene in The Matrix, as an example of taking tough decisions.

He was zeroing in on an attitudinal difference here and discussion followed, in the light of our research, about whether this was a genuine generational difference or a matter of life stage. Opinion seemed to favour the latter. Young people, being relatively powerless, tend to experience power from the receiving end. Leadership learning, with its narrative of personal agency, is in some part about accustoming them to what it might be like to discover and exercise power of their own (limited in scope though this might be compared to that of Agent Smith, or the CIA).

A matter of perspective

Returning to the central question, young people’s aptitude with technology, the discussion began to reveal how this might act as a driver for change and as a disruptive force.

A central issue is the instant and constant access to knowledge and information that web technology, together with mobile and personal computing, bring about. This readiness of access to information in a way devalues its status. Once upon a time, knowledge was power, and a store of remembered information about a specific field of knowledge was part of what exalted managers and professionals above the common herd. Not any more. Any millennial with a phone and a browser feels they have access to anything a doctor, for instance, might possess in terms of raw information. Judgement and experience are of course different things, but as far as information goes, the playing field has been leveled. Similarly, managers were once gatekeepers of information within the organisations, in a way they are swiftly ceasing to be.

Because millennials disrespect knowledge for its own sake, one delegate observed, they value leadership in an organisation more than management. Over time, this could be what completes the unfinished transition from command-and-control to ‘leadership is everyone’s business’. Perhaps.

And the Millennial’s relationship with technology could have another effect, closer to home.

‘There are no millennials around this table’, it was pointed out. ‘This conversation is typical of our generation. It would be very, very different if millennials were having it.’ As a group we had all learned in a certain way, and formed our assumptions about learning as a result, but these were the assumptions of a previous age. The education system has changed since then, and constant internet connection had altered the way people learn perhaps even more profoundly. What if the future turned out to be a more open-ended, enquiry-led style of learning, with no learning objectives, no scores sent to the LMS, no ‘course completions’? Where would L&D be then?

The implication, according one delegate, who does a lot of mentoring work with millennials, was stark. ‘We might not be custodians of that learning experience … In fact “the learning experience”, from a corporate or organisational perspective, might be almost dead.’

This was not, I should add, anything like a majority view. However it points up one interesting insight that emerged from this discussion. Millennials’ facility with networked learning represents an opportunity for organisations (which by and large they are not exactly grabbing with both hands) – but it also represents a strong driver, potentially, for disruptive change.

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