Gen Z and the Learning Revolution

Gen Z and the Learning Revolution 150 150 Francisco Menezes Reis
Multiethnicity colleagues looking at their mobile phones during break time in the office


Yesterday’s entry-level work were around repetitive work (stocking mailrooms, answering phones, or making copies). The requirements to obtain a job were more basic (many entry-level workers did not need a college degree to get a job).

Today, in almost entire world the nature of work is shifting from routine work to ones with growing complexity. There has been growth in highly cognitive non-routine work and no generation will be more affected by this change than Gen Z when entering the workplace.

Nowadays, many organizations ask their entry-level workers to analyze data, perform research, and program advanced technologies. In many cases, a college degree is the basic requirement to qualify for a job, with some jobs even requiring some experience.


With the Generation Z (Gen Z) entering the workforce, organizations are forced to deal with two converging trends. First, Gen Z bringing a high level of technology skills and expressing apprehensions about their interpersonal communication skills. Second, emerging technologies, particularly automation, disrupting the nature of the entry-level jobs that Gen Z is prepared to fill.

In a study of 4,000 Gen Z participants, 92% are concerned about the generational gap that technology is causing in their professional and personal lives. Another 37% expressed concern that technology is weakening their ability to maintain strong interpersonal relationships and develop people skills. While these digital natives may bring a high level of technology skills to the workforce, there are some apprehensions about their ability to build strong interpersonal relationships.

Technology has impacted the development of cognitive skills, including intellectual curiosity, among the next generation, creating the risk of skill gaps when they enter the workforce. A deficit in highly cognitive social skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and communication, could be particularly evident. Most of the always-connected generation too acknowledges the importance of in-person communication and its own deficiencies in this area.

The need for professionals with more developed cognitive skills may encourage organizations to look beyond the more technical majors and explore students with a stronger liberal arts focus, who typically have refined communication and critical thinking skills. This idea of a mixed workforce, which brings technical knowledge and cognitive skills, such as connecting with other people, is gaining traction. It may also mean prioritizing candidates who demonstrate mental agility and the capability to move between disciplines and across roles within the organization.

Most Gen Z professionals prefer a multidisciplinary and global focus to their work, with the expectation that this can create opportunities for mobility and a rich set of experiences. An internal mobility program would allow Gen Z professionals to grow and develop within an organization and at the same time resonate with Gen Z career wishes of job security. Whether organizations support internal mobility through a formal rotation program or by setting cultural expectations, leadership commitment to this approach is fundamentally important to gain the trust of Gen Z professionals.

Many organizations are modernizing their learning delivery methods concentrating on nano-learning videos in a format that is familiar and comfortable to Millennials and the growing Gen Z population. Many have also increased the amount of experiential learning in these programs, specifically diversifying the experiential techniques. Now, in addition to simulations, many are introducing programs focused on critical problem-solving skills that Gen Z professionals can develop in the entrepreneurial environment that they wish.

From a content perspective, many are accelerating the delivery of soft/social skill training earlier in a professional’s career. Historically, these skills were primarily taught through shadowing, with junior professionals working side-by-side with more senior professionals and learning through observation and continuous coaching. Now this content is being included in onboarding programs, helping Gen Z professionals get early access to key skills development such as communication.

Once this foundation is set, there can be incredible value in a continued on-the-job learning through coaching/shadowing/mentoring. Gen Z professionals, like Millennials before them, typically expect frequent coaching and feedback. This approach is well-suited to help develop the softer skills of Gen Z, whether communication, critical thinking or creativity.

A space for reflection and collective learning where leaders can review and debrief their mistakes, talk openly about it and learn, can be part of a broader commitment that leaders should make to create growth and development opportunities (Growth Mindset) for professionals. Senior leaders can focus on sharing experiences and allowing junior professionals to try out new skills and capabilities they are developing. While this is not new advice for leaders, it seems increasingly important to act on it when it comes to Gen Z professionals.


As a result of these forces, the operation and mission of corporate L&D are facing radical change. Only a decade ago, organizations were content to build virtual universities and online course catalogues. Today, the learning function is a highly strategic business area focused on innovation and leadership development by delivering learning experiences and bringing multifunctional teams together to connect and collaborate.

Bringing together multi-disciplines teams is a new focus area. Forward-thinking L&D departments are facilitating this approach by transforming the corporate university in a space for collaboration instead of a training center. As people become more dynamic in their careers, the need to build relationships and communities become fundamentally important for cross-functional innovation.


In the 21st century, careers are no longer narrowly defined by jobs and skills but through experiences and learning agility. The ongoing transformation of work, the need for people and organizations to constantly upgrade capabilities and shifts in employee preferences demand new approaches to learning, job design, performance management, succession planning and career development.

What is a 21st-century career? I see it as a series of developmental experiences, each offering a person the opportunity to acquire new skills, perspectives, and judgment. Careers in this century may follow an upward arc, with moves in different directions, progression and promotion at various times. It will look nothing like the linear stair-step career path of 2-3 generations ago.

Old rules vs. new rules

The impact of the fourth industrial revolution is fundamentally changing the nature of work and the meaning of career and making it imperative to constantly refresh one’s skills. Unlike some of this year’s trends where the organization can help drive what needs to be done, when it comes to learning, the organization’s role is to create the space and systems to allow employees to constantly learn, unlearn and relearn. The explosion of free content means that the learning organization should seamlessly integrate internal and external content into their learning management platforms.

Old rules                                                                               New rules

Employees are told what to learn or the career model             Employees decide what to learn based on needs

Careers go up or out                                                                         Careers go in every direction

Managers direct careers for people                                              People find career direction with leaders & others

Corporate L&D owns development and training                         L&D curates and creates learning experience

People learn in the classroom and, sometimes, online             Learn all the time, in micro-learning and groups

The corporate university is a training center                               The university bring cross-org groups together

Learning technology focuses on compliance and catalog          Learning tech creates collaborative experiences

Learning content is provided by L&D and experts                      Learning content is provided by everyone 

Credentials are provided by universities.                                     Credentials come in “unbundled credential” form

Skills are only certified by credentials.                                                   People obtain certificates in many ways


Millenial Mindset

Organizations are beginning to understand the new skills landscape. Complex problem-solving, cognitive abilities, and social skills are the most needed capabilities for the future. Businesses are clamoring for workers with this blend of skills, not pure technical competency. As well as the capability to learn, unlearn and relearn in a Social Age is a fundamental capability (learning agility).

The first skills that social age learners must have are digital literacy and digital fluency.

Literacy in the past was solely text based. Over time, text became complemented by images, and later by screens. Today, Gen Z have developed an ability to communicate and express themselves with images, sound, and other media, which is a crucial aspect of the new literacy. Information navigation is perhaps the key component of literacy in the social age. This digital literacy skill is complex and is a necessary skill for social learners to become more autonomous and empowered in this social-era.

In the other hand digital fluency is the ability to interpret information, discover meaning, design content, connect the dots, and communicate ideas in a digitally connected world”. Digital fluency can be compared to foreign language fluency, where you must not only know the language, but you must be able to use that language to construct and express complex ideas in compelling arguments and stories. Digital fluency is the learner ability to create new things with what has been discovered.

Learning in this social era is evolving from an authority-based model to a discovery and experiential-based model. Today learners discover new things every day, as they search the web and explore new resources. Then, they decide whether they want to further study a topic through experiments. Social learners are inclined to try new things which are action oriented and just in time, where from reading the user manual or attending a course, is not as important as learning with and from each other (as much social as cognitive).

In a study to define the “modern learner” it was found that “todays employees are overwhelmed, distracted, and impatient. They want to learn from their peers and managers, as much as from experts. And they’re taking more control over their own development.”

Overwhelmed: 1% of a typical workweek is all that employees have to focus on training and development.

Distracted: People unlock their smartphones up to 9 time per hour. Workers now get interrupted as frequently as every 5 minutes, often by work application and collaboration tools.

Impatient: 2/3 of knowledge workers complain that they don’t have time to do their jobs. Most learners will not watch videos longer than 4 minutes. Online designers now have between 5 to 10 seconds to grab someone’s attention before they click away.

Untethered: Today’s employees find themselves working from several locations and structure their work in non-traditional ways to accommodate their lifestyles. About 70% of the global workforce is “mobile” (do not seat behind a desk every day). 35% of full-time employees do most of their work somewhere other than the employer’s location. About 25% of workforce is comprised of temps, contractors and freelancers.

On-demand People are increasingly using their smartphones to find just in time answers to unexpected problems. To learn what they need for their jobs, 70% employees use search engines, and 50-60% use online courses.

Collaborative: Learners are also developing and accessing personal and professional networks to obtain information about their industries and professions. 80% of workforce learning happens via on-the-job interactions with peers, teammates and managers. Learners are asking other people and sharing what they know more and more.

Empowered: More and more people are looking for options on their own because they aren’t getting what they need form their employers. The half-life of many professional skills range from 2.5 to 5 years.


  • Exceptional Learning Experience

Companies should offer the most stimulating context for workers to develop their skills and reach their full potential. In a PWC research, young professionals were asked about which factors most influenced their decision to accept their current job. 65% answered: the opportunity for personal development. The employee learning experience is a major component of the overall employee experience.

Throughout their learning journey, we need to help learners navigate through content and generate personal meaning and relevance so they can apply their learning in the real world. In order to make an engaging learner experience, one must become learner-centric, designing learning through the learner’s eyes. Approaches like design-thinking must be applied when designing those experiences. Learning professionals must make a shift “from instructional design to learning experience design”.

Learning must also require an effort from the learner, and needs to be challenging, within limits. To strengthen a learner’s confidence and sense of competence in learning activities, the assigned activities should be slightly beyond learners’ current levels of proficiency.  Some organizations combine this approach with a carefully designed “safe-failure” experiments at the beginning of a learning journey to make the learner realize that there is a real challenge.  Game mechanics and simulations may also be a way to ensure engagement and attention from learners.

  • Personalized Learning

Developments in digital technology have enabled learners to choose what, how and when they learn. Empowered learners have now direct and free access to a network of peers and experts, to knowledge and assets available online. This has dramatically changed the relationship between  learning organizations and modern learners.

A recent survey rated the importance (value and usefulness) of 10 different ways of learning in the workplace. It revealed that ‘web searching for resources’ came second only to ‘knowledge sharing within the team’. ‘Company training/E-learning’ was rated tenth or least important. Learners want to be and are in control.

Social learners are also taking their development journey into their own hands rather than trusting a “one-size fits all” curriculum. They seek learning that is personalized and fits their individual preferences and needs: they want a “one-size fits one” learning experience.

They expect to play a leading role in deciding what, when and how they learn. A culture of self-directed learning is emerging. Individuals are directing themselves towards which learning to take, or which micro-credentials to get. Nowadays, learners are also empowered because they can become teachers and share their own knowledge and experience through easy-to-use social digital tools.

  • Just-in-time, on-demand and contextual Learning

In a recent study, Deloitte found that more than 70% of employees are now using web searches to find just-in-time immediate answers to their unexpected problems. Social leaners want to learn at the time of need when they encounter a specific skill or knowledge gap that prevents them from completing a task or from achieving a desired result. Some of us will recognize the example of going onto YouTube to find a solution to a specific problem we are dealing with.

Organizations must complement formal learning (classroom and virtual) with on-demand mechanisms that fit as much as possible in the “natural workflow of the organization”. In other words, rather than only focusing on teaching knowledge and theories, learning should also support the activities that employees perform on-the-job. Individuals should be able to access learning within their own context, when they need it.

A major shift is taking place from instructor-centric curriculum towards learner-centric searches for relevant learning resources as needed. The shift has sometimes been characterized as changing from “push” to “pull”. Workers need access to learning resources from any location, whether they are traveling, working from office, or at home.

  • Social, experiential and informal learning approaches

We cannot restrict the scope of learning to its formal classroom dimension and organizations need to embrace informal ways of learning. Learning happens all the time in a multiplicity of contexts and modes, supported by technologies that enable any learner to easily access internal and external information and interact with networks of experts.

This phenomenon was first studied in 1988 and suggested a 70:20:10 model for learning, recognizing that 70% of learning happens on the job and is experience based, 20% happens while interacting with others (social, coaching, mentoring, etc.) and 10% happens in a formal learning environment. This is still valid today with some calling it the “70:20:10” model, and others referring to it as the “Experience/Exposure/Education” model:

Experiential Learning (“70” or “Experience”): learning happening through performing day-to-day tasks, practicing on-the-job, and challenging project assignments.

Social Learning (“20” or “Exposure”): learning happening with and through others, in the form of coaching and mentoring, leveraging networks of contacts, and collaborative exploration and actions.

Formal Learning (“10” or “Education”): learning happening through structured programs and courses.

Informal learning (which includes experiential and social learning) is also a term often used to describe the new ways of learning.

  • Inquiry and Exploring based Learning

It is critical for individuals living in the social age to take ownership of their own development and to continuously learn. Not only governments and universities, but also organizations have a role to help workers develop the skills and attitudes necessary for self-directed, lifelong learning.

The organization should not be the place where one stops learning; it must be the place where constant learning (formal and informal) opportunities enable workers to stay relevant within their industry and their entire career. Companies should un-bundle their “courses” and transform them into “resources” and job-aids and ensure that the context for their use is well described and searchable.

In addition, learning design must promote curiosity, inquiry, exploring and doing so that the individual of the social age is equipped to be a continuous and autonomous learner. Rather than focusing on covering existing content that is given to them, learners who research answers to questions build their own mental model based on their experience and their existing knowledge.


It is clear that learning in the Social Age goes beyond content virtualization, massification of e-learning, and digital technologies. Social Age Learning is about building learning communities, it is about social learning, it is about focusing on the learner and the business needs, and it is about being more flexible and agile as learning professionals.

In the Social Age, everything is moving faster. It means that the learning organization must support the business and learners needs with more speed and agility. It can be done through leveraging the power of cross-functional teams and allow them to collaborate and share their experiences to each other.

Learning in the Social Age must fall under a larger Digital Employee Strategy. This will ensure that a seamless end-to-end learning experience integrated in the “natural workflow” of the organization can be delivered. It also means that the design of the learning solutions must evolve and leverage learner-centric design and build techniques, as well as the right mix of social, experiential, formal and informal delivery mechanisms.


Virtualization                                                               Digitalization

E-learning                                                                                          Digital, Experiential & Social learning

Focus on contents and their virtualization                           Focus on learners and on the business

Massification                                                                                   Personalization

Organization structured in departments                              Agile and transdisciplinary teams

Focus on digital technology                                                        Focus on learning communities’ spaces


  • Learning in the Digital Age: A Capgemini point of view
  • Generation Z enters the workforce: Deloitte Insights
  • Deloitte Human Capital Trends 2017
  • Deloitte Human Capital Trends 2018
  • LinkedIn: Gen Z Is Shaping a New Era of Learning