“I expected to enjoy working with Michele, because her infectious passion for ideas was obvious the first time I met her, but I didn’t expect to learn so much from her…”
— Teresa Amabile
Michele: We’re currently focused on an interview study with a large pharmaceutical company to examine the impact of learning outside of one’s domain on learning and performance within that domain. We are talking with the alumni of an employee development program in this company that is dedicated to pushing people outside of their comfort zone. In this program, scientists apply to work in another country and with colleagues in another field of science to learn something they couldn’t learn at their home site. It is a fascinating setup and we are interested in the impact of the experience on them, their host site, and their home team.
Teresa: This is a really exciting project investigating Michele’s core research interest: Learning at work. She entered our doctoral program with a strong curiosity about how, and the conditions under which, people learn in the course of their work. Although there is a lot of theory about this, and some research examining how people learn during formal training periods, there is a surprising dearth of research on whether, when, and how people learn in the course of doing their jobs. A terrific opportunity to do some deep qualitative research on these research questions arose for Michele at a large, international pharmaceutical firm where she had some contacts.
Michele: We’re interested in how employees learn to learn from the challenges of their everyday work. How do organizations empower employees to create situations in which learning is a part of and contributes to performance? This work focuses on the individual level but considers the socio-environmental factors that contribute to individual learning at work.
Findings & implications
Michele: We are midstream in this research and the findings so far have been fascinating. This is a select group of people – you have to apply and be accepted into this program. However, these similarly motivated employees going through the same program report very different experiences, both during their trip and after they return. Our first goal is to understand what explains this variance. We are also forming hypotheses on how to make these types of learning experiences more impactful, such that employees not only learn what they went there to learn, but come back with a new perspective on their everyday work. Ideally, we would like to test these hypotheses in a lab setting but we are still very early in that process.
The collaborative process
Michele: Collaborating with Teresa is an everyday learning process for me. She has both broad and deep experience with studying the everyday lives of people at work. I cannot count the number of times she has suggested something very early on in the process that becomes a critical piece of the experimental design and analysis. That said, she lets me make my own mistakes - but is always there to support me in remedying them. I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I started working with Teresa. I have had wonderful mentors in the past but it is overwhelming to have such an accomplished scholar interact with me for the sole purpose of my own learning and research. Our collaboration is one of the highlights of my doctoral career.
Teresa: Working with Michele has been fantastic. Our research meetings often involve heavy-duty cognitive labor as we try to puzzle through questions of research design, methods, and data interpretation, but I always feel energized afterwards. I expected to enjoy working with Michele, because her infectious passion for ideas was obvious the first time I met her, but I didn’t expect to learn so much from her – about learning (which draws on a Master’s she earned at the Harvard Graduate School of Education a few years ago), and about industry (especially the pharma industry, where Michele worked before coming to HBS). She has a degree of insight into organizations, and a comfort in working with people in industry, that are unusual for a doctoral student.
Michele: This is just one of several projects we are collaborating on, and Teresa has played a critical role in each. She pushes me to think more deeply about each aspect of the research design, rather than simply giving me answers about what should and shouldn’t work. For someone like me, who studies individual learning, she serves as a living model of how to transform a student’s passion into new skills and understanding.
Teresa: I love the fact that, although we have collaborated some on getting access to the company, planning the interview protocol, and doing the first few interviews, Michele has driven this project every step of the way. This is really her research program, and I’m along for the ride!