Facebook Facebook icon Twitter Twitter icon LinkedIn LinkedIn icon Email
Millenials working


Designing learning programs for millennial tastes

Published 20 April 2022 in Innovation • 7 min read

Employers can reap benefits from making the learning journey more personal and relevant, including boosting employee engagement, as well as retention.

The millennial generation has already come of age and transformed the global workforce. They are the largest workforce segment and by 2025, they are projected to account for an even bigger share: 75%.

Therefore, employers have already shifted their main focus on attracting them to their workplaces. And when it comes to retaining millennials — a generation often characterized as disloyal job-hoppers — learning and development is the greatest lever organizations have. In fact, training ranks above salary, perks and workplace flexibility in the pecking order, according to one survey from venture capital firm Accel Partners.

In terms of content, the polling showed 71% of millennials who are likely to leave an organization after two years are dissatisfied with their leadership development. The data underline how organizations are having to adjust to what millennials want — not just in terms of their products and services, but their learning pathways too.

Much like their colleagues in sales and marketing, chief learning officers (CLOs) are having to make training more personal and relevant, as they respond to persistently tight labor markets and face aging workforces, particularly in the US and UK.

With respect to tastes, millennials (aged between 26 and 41) are more tech-savvy, collaborative, and socially-minded than any generation that came before them. And their different values, behavior, education and career aspirations are driving a shift in traditional training paradigms, particularly for organizations that have built their training for baby boomers (born between 1946 to 1964), a shrinking workforce, as well as Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1980.

Statistic learning Millenials

Connecting learning to purpose

When it comes to the subject matter, CLOs should be thinking about designing and customizing learning experiences around these issues that matter most to the millennial workforce, in order to boost engagement and retention. If you’re not tapping into what people find personally authentic and rewarding, they will quickly move on.

Increasingly, millennials want to respond to society’s most pressing issues. In an era of uncertainty due to the Ukraine war, Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, millennials are looking to take meaningful action, with protecting the environment among the top priorities.

In turn, they expect employers to do more to help them tackle these challenges. And education is seen as crucial to promoting such action, because it helps employees understand and address the impacts of climate change and other crises, while giving them the skills to become agents of change.

Flexibility and personalization

Beyond the content itself, the design of learning journeys is going to have to change too. A key factor for millennials is the chance to learn different skills outside the scope of their current role; computer scientists want to build their creative skill sets and accountants want to learn data analytics.

That’s because millennials do not want to follow traditional corporate hierarchies; they want multiple pathways to move up in an organization. Having grown up in a fast-paced digital world, they crave new experiences; they see themselves more as portfolio careerists.

Because of this, employers need to be prepared to facilitate job rotations. And that means flexibility and personalization in training are central to retaining millennial talent. There is a strong preference for informal learning that occurs away from structured, formal development programs. This includes videos, articles, forums and coaching sessions that are weaved into daily work, and give learners the chance to explore and experiment with new skills for the right purpose at the right time.

As well as becoming ubiquitous, learning must become continuous, particularly as this generation prepares to live longer and retire later, as a result of demographic changes.

But in tailoring learning journeys to millennial tastes, a key success factor will be keeping them involved in the process. That’s because surveys show millennials expect a horizontal power structure that is more democratic and where their voices will be heard. Organizations that structure learning in a top-down fashion can expect to lose millennial employees — and their critical skills and competencies.

Millennials expect a horizontal power structure that is more democratic and where their voices will be heard

From theoretical to experiential

Another core consideration for employers will be pedagogy. Research shows that practical training is far more important to millennials, who prefer to learn by doing instead of listening to lectures. Theories without application are uninteresting to them; they report being easily bored with traditional learning methods.

This reflects shortening attention spans: the average for a millennial is just 12 seconds. That has been attributed to them having grown up in a digital age with many more distractions than previous generations.

The result is that they tend to be kinesthetic learners, who prefer hands-on experiences and inquiry-based approaches like role-playing or simulations, in order to retain information better. They are simply less willing to absorb what is put in front of them. Furthermore, since millennials are easily distracted, they prefer precise, bite-sized content that is served up frequently and in varied forms.

On top of this, collaborative learning, or using groups to solve problems, complete tasks or learn new concepts, in order to capitalize on everyone’s skills and resources, is also important to this generation. Millennials want to learn through peer interactions, largely because they are well connected, through social media platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

And, partly because of the instant gratification that such platforms provide, immediate feedback on their development is also vital to this workforce group. Surveys show that millennials want an even greater amount of feedback than other generations, because they have grown up with a high degree of connectedness that provides instantaneous and ongoing communication.

Yet research also shows that millennials don’t necessarily ask for feedback very often, so learning managers need to be proactive in providing pointers if they are to raise the engagement levels of this younger workforce.

“Millennials identify flexibility as one of their top priorities when job hunting”

Digital learning strategies

Another way to boost their enthusiasm for learning is to make use of technology, which appeals to millennials because it enables both personalized and collaborative learning, which is particularly valuable for organizations with increasingly dispersed workforces.

Millennials identify flexibility as one of their top priorities when job hunting. This means that constructing a digital learning strategy that incorporates various technology platforms, such as YouTube, TED talks or MOOCs, should be a core focus for companies that are adapting to the millennial moment.

Yet while technology enables connectivity, it does not necessarily provide a sense of community, which is important to this generation. The pandemic-induced shift to remote work has reminded us all of the value of human interaction, and that is more difficult tofacilitate online. So, in designing a learning journey for millennials, bringing people together physically must feature as a core component. There is no substitute for in-person interaction.

Managing intergenerational conflict

That is particularly critical in managing intergenerational conflict. With up to five generations working under one roof, differences tend to emerge around communication, technology, feedback, time management and work-life balance. There is often a dissonance between the more linear and traditional older generations and the innovative energy of younger groups. The tension was encapsulated in an infamous Time magazine cover article which derided millennials as “lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents”.

Part of the problem is that we all bring with us into the workplace subjective biases. It’s hard not to see things through our own filters. This means CLOs have an important role to play in helping the workforce to unlearn inbuilt biases, in addition to building mutual respect and understanding between the generations.

The learning journey should be about fostering an appreciation for a diversity of perspectives — because, as an abundance of empirical research shows, this is a key to unlocking greater organizational performance.


Arturo Bris

Arturo Bris

Professor of Finance at IMD

Arturo Bris is Professor of Finance at IMD. Since January 2014, he has led the world-renowned IMD World Competitiveness Center. At IMD, Bris directs the Boards and Risks, Strategic Finance, and Navigating Fintech Innovation and Disruption programs. He also previously directed the flagship Advanced Strategic Management program between 2009 and 2013.

David Ringwood

David Ringwood is Vice President of Client Development for EMEA at the Management Research Group.


Learn Brain Circuits

Join us for daily exercises focusing on issues from team building to developing an actionable sustainability plan to personal development. Go on - they only take five minutes.
Read more 

Explore Leadership

What makes a great leader? Do you need charisma? How do you inspire your team? Our experts offer actionable insights through first-person narratives, behind-the-scenes interviews and The Help Desk.
Read more

Join Membership

Log in here to join in the conversation with the I by IMD community. Your subscription grants you access to the quarterly magazine plus daily articles, videos, podcasts and learning exercises.
Sign up

Log in or register to enjoy the full experience

Explore first person business intelligence from top minds curated for a global executive audience