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Performance through Learning: DIY Training Programs

Developing competent lab managers through effective learning journeys

Kerri Mack, PhD

Kerri Mack, PhD, is the safety manager of the chemical, biological, and radiological high hazards division within the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory, which is part of the Ministry of...

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Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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Aristotle is credited with saying, “what we learn to do, we learn by doing.” For lab managers, knowledge must be applied into practice to ensure the safe, secure, and efficient operation of the lab; there are no shortcuts. 

The verb practice means to “perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly to acquire, improve, or maintain proficiency in it.” We could also call that “experience.” The key is to plan and build a curriculum that leads to a learning journey. 

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Labs come in all sizes and conduct a huge range of science. Lab managers represent a foundational role for the organization, tasked with overseeing science, safety, and quality. To enable these important lab managers to drive the desired outcomes, the complete role profile must be understood. Then the training curriculum needs to develop and support core competencies and drive the appropriate reflective practice behaviors. Building self-work and experiential learning translates the curriculum into a learning journey. 

Stage 1: Developing the role profile

It takes time to fully understand the details of different lab manager roles, and to profile that role to enable people to manage their labs well. It is beneficial to gather a team together that brings experience and a vision about a specific role to discuss the different dimensions. Common sense and the experience of people who have performed the role being analyzed are key. Include as many people into this high-level thinking as possible to ensure buy-in with the final product. Try to capture everyone’s thoughts whilst they worked through the role profile.

To enable these important lab managers to drive the desired outcomes, the complete role profile must be understood.

The key to building a role profile is to determine the skills, attitudes, and knowledge the lab manager needs to fulfil the role successfully. To avoid getting lost in the details at the beginning, it is important to document the “what” topics included in the role first; like safety management, for example. These “what” topics represent the headline areas of competence relating to the knowledge and skills that are commonly required to fulfil the role. Once a list of high-level topics emerges that conveys the role profile, then the team can explore the details of how one might manage these topics. 

The group also needs to decide if any of the knowledge, skills, or experience might be pre-requisite to starting this type of role. But an appropriate approach is to capture everything then sift out the pre-requisites later, or the team might get lost in these details. 

Depending on the size of the organization and the breadth of lab activity, this analysis could generate many different topic areas for the laboratory manager role profiles. For the benefit of clarity, topic areas can be separated into broad themes and benchmarked to ensure completeness. Having some commonality around the training themes makes it easier to recruit from outside, or exchange staff within the organization. 

Not every lab manager needs all the knowledge and skills at the outset, so the topic areas can be differentiated by the amount of skill expected as someone matures through the profession. We recommend a three-tier system—for example, practitioner, senior practitioner, and expert—but your organization may have its own system to apply. 

Stage 2: Developing the curriculum

Once a mature list of topic areas is developed, each should be reviewed with subject matter experts to determine the specific learning outcomes required to achieve the needed level of competence. 

A reasonable approach to identifying learning outcomes is to develop a measurable description of what’s expected for the learner to know, or be able to do, as a result of the learning activity. A useful starting point is to begin every sentence with an action verb from Bloom’s Taxonomy. It is helpful to identify verbs indicating knowledge, comprehension, or practice. This really helps translate all the learning outcomes into learning opportunities. 

For example, does the learner need to recall something, demonstrate comprehension of something, or show effective practice of judgement? These differences drive the distinction between knowledge or skills.

Developing knowledge can be done through a wide variety of ways, including reading a book, watching a TED Talk, or attending a lecture. A practitioner might practice through an assignment, a classroom exploration, or an examination of an incident. An expert might demonstrate evaluating human factors in several incident investigations or by redesigning work activities based on safety critical task analysis. When translating the curriculum of learning outcomes into the learning journey, it is important to be creative about the ways a learner might fulfill an objective.

Both the curriculum at large and the suggested delivery program need to be resilient enough to take someone from new appointment to expert. 

Stage 3: Developing the learning journey

A learning journey builds on a program of courses to include some self-driven learning and interactions with more experienced colleagues. Sometimes the journey can be fulfilled with a set of courses that meet the learning outcomes provided in the right sequence, but other times the objectives can be fulfilled in other, more innovative ways that reduce classroom time and require the learner to participate, especially at the knowledge end of the journey. 

Learning journeys can be built by including things like mentoring relationships, shared problem-solving, shared research, and other experiential learning elements.

Final tips

1.    Think broadly to develop the different role profiles needed by your lab managers. Get input into the process from people who are currently doing the jobs.

2.    Start with a logical and simple curriculum and build it iteratively to encourage buy-in through use and benefit experienced. This approach also shows the business that the curriculum can be agile to change.

3.    Expand the curriculum beyond formal courses to include self-driven learning and experiential learning alongside more experienced colleagues.

Please remember that it is the manager who decides if someone is competent in a specific topic. Ensure that the learning journey shows managers how learning can be acquired and helps them assure the competence of their staff. A simple competency form can be useful for documenting achieved learning outcomes whether through the suggested learning journey, or through other means.