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Learning While Doing

by Hank Barnes  |  June 28, 2016  |  Submit a Comment

My daughter is in the beginning of her 4th year of med school.   And she has been harassing me about not mentioning her in any blog posts recently.  So this one is inspired by her.

As Alix has gone through med school, the program at UNC Chapel Hill has been interesting to observe.  There is a decent amount of formal instruction (most of the first 2 years are dedicated to that, but includes many labs and participatory approaches), but the last two years are all about learning while doing.   You don’t sit in a classroom.  You walk around a hospital–meeting with patients, observing doctors, providing some of the services (with increasing responsibility).   You spend weeks practicing various specialties (family practice, OB/GYN, surgery, etc.) It is all about a path toward becoming a great doctor, in a field that you care about, and leading to the next step–residency.


Effectively, the model bears many similarities to apprenticeships of the past (and, no, I don’t mean Donald Trump’s show).

Personally, I think it is an approach that many enterprises should adopt to develop their employees, particularly for customer facing roles…be that in sales, marketing, or service.    While training programs are not unusual, how often are the multi-year apprenticeships?    I suspect that is rare.   There may be some good reasons for this.   Alix is paying for med school v. being paid to be an apprentice.   There are independent tests and certifications she must take to move onto the next stage (this may not be a bad idea).   Once she is done, she may not return to work at the school that is developing her.

But there are a lot of positives:

  • The ability to have a much deeper understanding of the role.
  • Learning while doing is more immersive–particularly with experts involved that cactively observe and coach both during and after interactions (for example, Alix has to complete visit reports–as though she was the doctor.  That report is then checked by the actual doctor—with guidance to Alix on if she needed to make any adjustments.)
  • For the student/employee, they can explore specialization in more detail, helping them determine what specific job/focus they would like to have.

This last point has been invaluable for Alix.   I’m not going to call her indecisive, but she started out wanting to focus on pediatrics.  Then she started working with an advisor that was a hospitalist and got interested in a blended role, called Med-Peds (working in a hospital with a wide range of patients).  As she has gone further, I believe her latest interest is Internal Medicine, with a focus in intensive care.    So the process has lead to her refining her focus and gaining clarity over what she really wants to do.  It has also exposed her to job roles that she really was not aware of.

It goes a bit further than that.  The experience has convinced her that she wants to work in a teaching hospital.  Working cases, but also acting as an instructor, advisor, and/or mentor for future med students.

I don’t think she would have ever come to that conclusion without the learning experience she has had.  Which also points to another factor if you are going to look toward a program like this.  You have to have people who love teaching and coaching serving as the mentors, advisors, and role models.    Personally, that is not me.  I am more about getting things done and don’t really have the patience to work through people learning as part of my job every day.   There are times when I can teach and coach, but having that be my core job every day would not be rewarding to me.   Others love that role (it’s also a bit why I really don’t enjoy or have an interest in being a people manager—there are aspects of the role that appeal, but the overall focus is not for me).

As you build your business, think about your approach to employee development.  Could some form of “learning while doing” accelerate time to productivity, improve employee retention, and help your people discover roles that they love?   It may not look exactly like med school, in terms of scope or duration, but I believe it could have a big positive impact, particularly for tech providers.



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Category: career-planning  go-to-market  

Tags: career-development  

Hank Barnes
VP Distinguished Analyst
6+ years at Gartner
30+ years IT Industry

Hank Barnes explores the dynamics, challenges, and frustrations enterprises face when buying technology products and services. Using that customer-centric lens, he advises those responsible for marketing technology products and services, general managers responsible for product portfolios, and startup CEOs on next practices to drive success for their customers and their business. Read Full Bio

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