By Neal Bruce, Director of Product Strategy, Lumesse

Technological advance is powering a motivational disconnect between what Gen Y/Millenial employees can achieve when it comes to learning and development (L&D), and what they actually want to, or are committed to, achieve. While this is mostly a problem for the enterprise that offers a more traditional structure and less ‘room for manoeuvre’, small companies will also be impacted by this new generation and its demands.

Generation Y will make up to 75% of the workforce by 2025 according to BPW. As digital natives, these employees are empowered as a consumer, using social networks to research and inform their purchasing decision. They want the same easy use of new technologies at work but often feel restricted by the lack of available tools according to research by IT consultancy CompTIA. Some enterprising Gen Y’ers will use freemium tools to achieve the digital results they expect and want. Yet tools are only a part of the solution. Ultimately, Gen Y wants new and fresh learning content that will help them to propel the digital side of the business forward.

While this aspiration has some advantage to the company, it also widens the knowledge and communication disconnect between the business and Gen Y – they simply are not in synch. Gen Y sees digital as an essential component to future innovation, and any company not embracing it both through tools and L&D programmes are behind the curve. Frustration with a lack of digital understanding can lead to demotivation and ultimately, less commitment to the company. 70% of recent graduates reported leaving their first jobs within two years, according to Experience.com's survey. While the report does not point to the reason for this figure, it highlights a growing, flexible work force willing to change jobs much more often if its needs are not met.

HR teams in global enterprises have a task on their hands – they must harness the potential of the disruptive force that is Gen Y, close the disconnect that exists within the business, while also enabling employees to grow within the traditional culture and structure of it.

The empowered employee and disrupted work force

To add fuel to the Gen Y fire, the recession has influenced the way young people view work. Gen Y’ers who were unable to get a job after university spent time building online businesses or becoming freelancers – seeking out autonomy and responsibility in a way that previous generations did not. Other Gen Y’ers are encouraged by the success stories – with easier access to the internet and free web tools than ever before, creating a business from a basement has never been easier.

Businesses may be tempted to be wary of such autonomous, creative and digitally empowered employees perceiving them to be a disruptive force. However, if their creativity and innovation is harnessed, it can spur a wave of innovation within the company, so it’s worth hanging onto them. This is especially important since innovation is the key to long lasting success; only 13.4% of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 were still on the list 56 years later in 2011, and almost 87% of the companies either went bankrupt, merged, went private, or still exist but fell from the list.

Closing the L&D disconnect

So how does HR motivate this generation and keep them engaged? L&D programmes are a good place to start. Often learning portals, modules, and courses are not linked to how they will benefit Gen Y in their day to day activity. Gen Y employees are looking for learning courses that focus on digital experiences, tools and equipment that will help them execute on their ideas and creativity. Half of the jobs that exist today, including roles such as data scientists, didn’t exist five years ago let alone 20 years ago and they are gunning to train up for them. This trend will continue and in the future jobs will exist that we have not even considered.

HR simply won’t be able to tackle all of this at once. To surmount the L&D disconnect and deliver skills to the front line it leaders should:

Identify high performers
Identify who amongst the Gen Y are high performers (those are able to handle the largest workloads, get things done, both quickly and to a high standard) and be able to offer these employees tailored growth opportunities and learning in exchange for commitment. These growth opportunities should include a balance of digital/creative training and traditional business skills such as management of people, accounts and best process practice.

Open an honest dialogue about commitment & growth opportunities
HR should lead the charge in building an open and honest dialogue with employees about what they are willing to commit to with regards to development. By proactively evaluating engagement in such a way the business can act to mitigate flight risk and line managers are encouraged to identify new projects to help develop growth potential into talent, moving high potential employees up the ladder when appropriate.

Involve line managers
Line managers are an important asset in helping turn the negotiation of commitment into action and opportunity. Each manager should be encouraged to hold this open and honest discussion about commitment with the staff that they review. This can be difficult as the topic is a fairly new concept and a sensitive subject in many businesses - many feel that employee commitment is a basic expectation. In return, employees have felt that honestly engaging in a conversation around commitment may put them on the back foot by suggesting that they won’t always be loyal. To help them overcome any worry with regards to these conversations, HR should outline a best practice rule book that looks at how these conversations should be had, with whom and when.

HR is tasked with delivering new skills to the front line to boost productivity and competitiveness in a rapidly changing, and global business environment. But it can’t do this if Gen Y employees are demotivated and uninspired by learning programmes that do not help them develop skill sets that will be needed for future and current work demands. By negotiating commitment and understanding specific training requirements and desires, HR, working hand in hand with line managers are better able to cater for the ever changing learning needs of the business, and of course, Generation Y.