Millennials vs. Boomers: How Flexible Learning Is Bridging the Technology Gap

September 20, 2018, 7:57 PM UTC

The idea that millennials are far quicker to welcome new technology than their older colleagues is so familiar by now that it’s become one of those stereotypes that just won’t go away.

Consider, for instance, a new study of 1,000 employees, whose ages span more than 40 years, by giant IT trade Association CompTIA. A little over half (51%) of millennials report using cloud-based tools, versus 33% of baby boomers. millennials are more likely to use collaboration software, the survey says; and, while millennials say they want faster implementation of new technologies at work, their older colleagues “want more of a focus on making existing technologies more user-friendly.”

But does your willingness to welcome new technology really depend on when you were born—or is it more a matter of how you’re trained to use it?

EY has been exploring that question for the past couple of years, spending some $500 million annually to “upskill” its 260,000 tax, audit, and advisory people around the world. The firm, which last week reported record profits for fiscal 2018, has been steadily adding big chunks of new tech to its own operations, including replacing 2.1 million yearly people-hours of in-house manual operations with an army of 700 bots. In 2018 alone, EY also made 21 acquisitions aimed at expanding its know-how in areas like artificial intelligence and data analytics.

For Martin Fiore, the big challenge has been coming up with training to show everyone how to put so much constantly changing new tech wizardry to practical everyday use. A managing principal in EY’s U.S. tax practice, Fiore has designed a series of training programs. One thing he’s noticed so far: How ready people are to welcome and apply new technology may be partly related to their age. But it’s much more connected to how they learn best.

So EY delivers training in just about any form you can think of, from videos to e-books to classroom sessions to MP3 files.

“We have five generations at EY now, and they do learn differently,” says Fiore. Millennials, for example, tend to thrive in interactive classroom settings, while what Fiore called “tenured” (read: older, and usually more senior) employees often learn better in one-on-one coaching sessions.

But even within the same generation and similar rank, individual preferences can differ widely. Notes Sharda Cherwoo, a partner in the tax division who has been at EY for more than 30 years, “People learn in different ways, so we want to give them options.” Cherwoo absorbs new technology best, she says, by watching EY’s videos online. Rather than spending days in a classroom, “I like bite-sized chunks—an hour or two of very focused information that I can apply immediately.”

Flexibility is essential in a firm like EY, since many employees spend so much time on the road that they’re never in one place long enough to take traditional classes, anyway. Matthew Sambrook, a tax partner who is also a principal in EY’s international transfer business, relies on web-based and audio training on airplanes and in hotels, but he’s also partial, he says, to “hands-on demos of new tech, where you can see it, play with it, and try out what it can do.”

At age 43, Sambrook is a GenXer who rubs elbows with every age group at work, from so-called “digital native” Gen Z recruits, right on up to boomer senior executives. “It’s hard to see distinct differences in how the generations use technology, or learn it,” he says. But, even if such differences are real, “giving people the chance to do [tech training] in the way they retain it best benefits everybody, whatever generation they’re in.”

It’s always refreshing to see a stereotype made irrelevant.