How to apply what you learn in class to an internship?

31 August 2016

Knowledge transfer from class to internship

Many students have difficulties to link what they learn in class with what they do in the professional setting of an internship, which is a pity, because if higher education was a game, this link between theory and practice would be its main aim. Understandably, when they start working for an organization, their main concern is to do a good job, and therefore, whenever they get an assignment, they jump at it and start working without necessarily taking some time to reflect on how being a business student will add differential value compared to someone from a different background who could do the same. Indeed, many times the job could be performed by someone without business training. On sales, for instance (which is, by the way, the first internship our students need to take), anyone with some social talent and proactiveness, can become a good sales person; but only someone who is familiar with Marketing theory and concepts, Organizational theory and Accounting (to mention only few) will have the perspective to link the sales process to the global functioning of the business and thus be able to identify synergies, perhaps conflicting factors, and solutions to problems that people, without that training, would not be able to see.

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Whenever the effort of transferring the theory to practice is not properly made, the overall result is impoverished. I remember the case of a second year student who was commended to collect and systematize the disperse client data an SME had. He did a brilliant work producing a nice Excel file, where information was integral, clear and well organized. The formatting was attractive and the use of functions and formulas automatized certain tasks. Unfortunately he missed the step further he could have undertaken after the realization that the clients included in the data base could be segmented in different ways, as they related to different business products mostly. As a result, upon his leaving, the data base was used by someone without Marketing knowledge to conduct a communication campaign rather ineffective, because the message addressed to the clients was not specific to what their needs were. This is what I mean when I refer to the added value a business student can bring: anyone with some excel knowledge, method and capacity of effort, could have produced the work the student did, but only someone with Marketing knowledge, was in a position to see beyond, identifying the potential this simple task had to increase sales for the company, and could have, with little added effort, categorize the different customers and may be linked them to the right product family they should be offered.

How can class knowledge be transferred to practice?

I have heard enough practitioners in Spain and France disparaging theory, not to realize that the usefulness of it in professional practice remains unclear. Anyhow while academic perspective has not been dropped from the curriculum, we may as well try to find the use of it, right? For me, the real power of theory in social sciences is the extent to which they help us understand a complex reality, identify relevant factors, tailor an idiosyncratic hypothesis of what is going on in the situation we are observing, and then act on it… supported on prior thinking and prior discoveries that prevent us from making mistakes that have already been discarded. Let me illustrate my point with an example:

It is different to say “I found that people were really upset with their manager and their performance is impaired” than thinking “intrinsic motivation has decreased in several employees as an increasing sense of losing control over their assignment due to excessive verbal punishment on errors”. It is not just that the wording is more complex, it is that the first explanation of the problem may lead to a solution (firing the manager) that may not be effective or optimal. Perhaps it’s about training the manager or structuring the organisation in a way that people can regain control over their tasks (e.g. being evaluated and rewarded on results, not on the process), etc. As I said before: anyone can come up with the first explanation, for the second one, only someone trained on human resources.

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Of course, things get a lot easier when what needs to be transferred is a technique or a method for doing something. Transfer from class to real life comes out very clearly when conducting a statistical analysis, a financial analysis or writing a sound business plan.

Summarizing the two ways mentioned up to here, we could say class learnings can be transferred in two ways: 1. to understand a business situation, and they can also be useful 2. applying a tool for which the student has been trained.

How to show that in an internship presentation?

This is very specific to TBS, but perhaps of interest at other education organizations. There are several ways to refer to transfer of learnings to a work situations. All of them request intentional, systematic prior reflection:

  1. You explicitly say how you are transferring your learnings. “In Strategy class, we learned that competitive advantage that is not sustained on differentiation, cost or segmentation is bound to fail, so I proposed my manager to make a clear choice for low cost”
  2. Your knowledge is implicit when you are presenting the company or what you were doing there. “Talking about the company, its finances are very healthy. Perhaps the only thing is that when calculating a Leverage ratio, we can see that its potential for growth is constrained by the conservative policies regarding long term debt”. Implicitly showing your knowledge includes also an intensive use of technical words (do not speak about the people we want to reach, when you can say our target) and business related common tools as organograms, flow charts, tables and graphs.
  3. Business learnings show when you make a critical appraisal of your working environment and provide some ideas on improvement if appropriate. If, for some reason, you did not have enough time to reflect while doing your internship and transfer was limited, you can still think and use theory, models and concepts to explain what happened. Say that you were the student in my initial example who prepared the Excel file with client information; it is still ok if you see post-hoc how that could have been done better to add extra value.

My recommendation to students is:

Use of all them. You will be giving us peace of mind if we can confirm that the education you received with us is serving its purpose. After all, the whole point of having this kind of assessments is to ensure that students have acquired the level of competence (i.e. knowledge + technical skills + interpersonal skills + attitude) to be accredited as an effective business professional to society. That is the game we are playing here.

Gabriel Zúñiga – Director of Studies, TBS Barcelona

 

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One thought on “How to apply what you learn in class to an internship?”

  1. Greetings! I totally agree with an author that intership may be very hard for students with good grades and vise versa. Because practical part is dramatically different from theoretical. I want to thank you for this valuable post. Please keep it good posting.

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