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What’s the Code for Bananas? A Role-based Approach to Learning for Medical Affairs

Dec 5, 2017

Have you ever worked behind a cash register? It is probably one of the most terrifying roles in the workplace if you haven’t been trained appropriately. My first job was at a grocery store when I was 15 years old. I was responsible for pushing in the carts and stocking the shelves. The skills necessary for this role were easily explained within about 30 minutes by my manager on my first day. However, as time progressed I was asked by the manager to take a class on the cash register so I could help check people out when it got busy. I sat in the back-office of the store and read and slept my way through a 60 page manual on the point of sale system.  The following day my name was called over the loudspeaker and I was asked to hop on the end register. I was clearly set up for failure. This was back in the day when scanning technology was fairly new. The scanning screen worked only 30% of the time on this particular register. My first eager customer approached my check out lane. This is when I learned to HATE fruits and vegetables. There was a specific code for each food! No one had ever trained me on the codes. Additionally, I was 15 years old and I could barely recognize more than 8 fruits and vegetables. I was freaking out. My line kept getting longer and longer, customers were angry and I am just sitting there yelling to the other cashiers: “What’s the code for bananas??!!!”

Every day someone is experiencing these same emotions and trials when they join a company. We talk about being employee-centric, but what type of experience is the employee really having with your company if they are subjected to this type of training and experience early on in their career with your organization?

One of the critical factors in employee engagement is an effective onboarding program that equips the employee with the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed in their role. In order to do this, companies need to develop a personalized approach, including role-based curriculum and learning.

When companies want to develop specific curriculum for roles, it can be a very daunting task. Today’s organizations have so many roles, it can be difficult to decide where to begin. However, my core philosophy is that you ALWAYS start with the roles closest to the customer. In most cases, this will be the MSL team within medical affairs.  There is no possible way for MSLs to consistently meet your expectations if there isn’t a consistent learning and development program for the employees.

Role-Based Learning Approach

The first step to developing personalized role-based learning within an organization is to ensure the roles within the organization are extremely clear and well understood. A good role description will describe the duties of the role with simplicity and clarity. It should also clearly document the required skills and knowledge for the employee to be successful.

The second step is to develop curriculum to align with the documented role expectations. The curriculum should cover the necessary science, systems, processes, customers expectations, and product knowledge to set the employee up for success. It should also include timelines for when an employee needs to complete the learning as part of their onboarding and continuing education.

After the curriculum is developed, the training team can catalog their existing learning modules and begin to fill in the voids. The list of missing training may be extensive and overwhelming. Many companies have spent years building scientific training, but don’t have training in all the areas. The curriculum should be a living document and evaluated constantly to make sure it is up-to-date with the current expectations, systems, and processes.

The final step is to place the learning modules into a learning management system and launch the program. The system should be set up in a way that is extremely easy for the employee to understand the order of completion and their expectations within the learning process.

What could possibly go wrong?

Many companies start down this path with a great amount of excitement and enthusiasm until something goes wrong. Any large project will have its challenges and obstacles. However, there are a few key areas to be aware of before you begin this journey. These obstacles are all avoidable by a company with strong leadership and a solid vision.

  • Not enough team members in roles for the investment Companies should only consider this approach only when they have a large group of employees with similar roles and expectations. This is hard and complex work with significant investments around learning modules and systems. If you only have 3 MSLs on your team, it likely won’t be worth the investment to create complex e-learning.
  • Systems before learning content Don’t spend your time investing in a learning management system if you don’t have any learning content. You need a functional system, but your investment of resources and time should start with developing the curriculum and learning modules first.
  • Lack of alignment on roles Many organizations jump right into producing learning modules but have not spent the time aligning the organization on the role expectations.
  • Lack of patience This approach will take a long time to do well. If leaders expect something in 90 days, the project will fail. This doesn’t mean you cannot release components along the way, but the whole project will take a long time to execute effectively.
  • Lack of leadership Learning has to be important to senior leadership. The training team can produce the best learning in the world, but if leaders don’t have expectations of their team to complete the modules and follow the processes, it will be a failure.
  • Lack of process documentation It is amazing how many companies I talk to where the training team actually developed process standards and documentation for the company because it had never been done before. If this is the case in your organization, it can dramatically extend the timelines of the project.


Spend a few moments thinking about what it was like when you had your first terrifying moment in front of a customer and you didn’t have the appropriate training to help them. If you are in a position where you can change this for your company, you need to take action. You cannot talk about employee satisfaction if you don’t have some of the basics around preparing your team for success.

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