Thanks to the accessibility of technology, it’s become increasingly clear that workers these days are less apt to form their own intelligent and independent thoughts. And, the question begs, why should they?
After all, a simple Google or Facebook search gives employees quick answers to all their questions and ready-made opinions for any political conundrum. And, while we may agree that technology helps these same employees work faster and more efficiently, it certainly isn’t doing them any favors in terms of fostering critical thinking and problem-solving among the younger generations.
Don’t get me wrong: Understanding how the progression of technology fits into the future of work is one of the most important contributions to innovation younger employees give to any workplace. And certainly millennials, who are the largest generation in the American workforce, have no issue adapting to new technology and teaching the older generations to use new gadgets that can improve the way they work.
However, in a digital-first world, where millennials obtain all their answers to problems at the click of a mouse or swipe of a finger, the reliance on technology to solve every question confuses people's perception of their own knowledge and intelligence. And that reliance may well lead to overconfidence and poor decision-making.
Employers should also be concerned that technology is preventing young employees from thinking critically to solve problems. Currently, over 85 percent of employers believe that employees should be able to complete a significant applied-learning project to succeed in the workplace, but only 14 percent of employers believe today’s young employees and recent graduates possess the knowledge or skills to do so.
Further, as the next cohort, Generation Z, begins to trickle into the workforce, this technologically-superior and digitally-innate group of workers will face the same problem-solving and critical-thinking skills gap as their millennial predecessors -- unless educators and employers take action.
To solve these problem-solving challenges, here are three areas employers should focus on, in terms of their youngest current and future employees:
1. Their education
With more than 5 million students enrolled in at least one digital course, higher education, much like the workplace, continues to move online. However, over the last five years, the progression of digital learning and the direction of edtech has focused on self-led, adaptive learning. By doing this, the industry has moved away from implementing face-to-face interaction at a scale where teachers facilitate synchronous learning.
Yet, with this trend, the edtech industry has gotten it wrong.
The reason is the end result: a generation of students who are not motivated or encouraged to collaborate and share solutions to problems. Four in 10 U.S. college students graduate without the complex reasoning skills they need to manage professional work, and nine out of 10 employers judge recent college graduates as poorly prepared for the workforce in such areas as critical thinking, communication and problem-solving.
While online education was created to transform and disrupt traditional paths to a degree, there is a huge disparity in meeting these goals in terms of motivation, collaboration and primacy in online learners. The chief reason is the lack of face-to-face interaction in online learning.
Because of this lack of interaction, students aren’t taught to solve problems or collaborate with classmates to reach conclusions. Indeed, most online courses are simply void of emotional learning. Online learners instead mindlessly watch videos of lectures or swipe through readings. They fulfill their class requirements by completing multi-choice quizzes, text-based discussion boards and solitary assignments.
2. Your company's educational role
You can alleviate these problems by investing in training for your people. Even if you're an early-stage company, you're wise to invest in training by some of the best in the industry. While employers can’t change the education an employee has received, they can create companywide educational programs that expose young workers to problem-solving and critical thinking from day one.
Investing in such professional development should be a nonnegotiable requirement for any younger employees you recruit and retain. And your employees may thank you for it: 59 percent of millennials say they prefer a job that offers professional development; indeed, young workers say they are more interested in and satisfied with receiving on-the-job training than making more money.
Not only will such training keep millennials satisfied in their jobs, but making problem-solving and brainstorming activities and workshops an ongoing part of management and training will also foster critical thinking and innovative results at your workplace.
To begin with, consider the flipped training model, which starts as a self-led training program, then offers face-to-face mentor/trainer interactions and peer-led discussions along the way. Through such foundational, micro-learning modules, millennials can easily consume training from their mobile-devices when that fits with their schedules. Once the foundational knowledge is set, you can have them move to higher-level cognitive exercises that simulate the actual application of the training.
Those exercises may include group projects, class discussions and simulated learning environments. Not only does simulated learning lead to a better understanding of a concept, it creates foundational knowledge that provides an opportunity for case-based learning.
After the formal training is complete, establish a means for employees to continue to share best practices they’ve learned in the field. This will not only create a real-time problem-solving community, but also deliver continuous improvements to foundational training materials and activities. Learning at their own pace, younger generations will learn to think critically while simultaneously contributing knowledge and solutions to others along the way.
3. Your company's culture
The overall goal of professional development is to empower young workers to become more productive, informed and innovative future leaders of the company. However, these efforts are meaningless if organizations neglect to create a culture that motivates employees to reach outside their comfort zones.
They need to learn to step up and into new roles where they feel comfortable with not only problem-solving using technology but also staying ahead of the curve and “problem foreseeing.”
Take a pulse check on how your company culture is supporting critical problem solving by evaluating your company’s attention to millennial and Gen Z “culture carriers,” such as:
Structure of management and tools in place to support their work styles
“Meaningful work” given and the opportunities to contribute to or lead projects
Flexible and collaborative work options offered.
Employers who take the time now to evaluate how their organizations can help young employees think critically without “Googling the answers” will transform those employees into productive, innovative and strategic decision-makers for the future.