Learning by Doing with Labs

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Every summer, I spend a week camping with my kids’ Boy Scout troop.  This year, we had the opportunity to camp, hike and fish in the Colorado Rockies near Pike’s Peak. A by-product of a week away from constant email, phone calls and meetings is time to think. A few summers ago, one of these thoughts was how to apply first aid lessons to better project management.

This summer’s camp was alongside the South Platte River, one of the best fly fishing rivers in the country. Like golf, fly fishing is one of those hobbies that is pretty easy to get into for a beginner but is also very challenging for the more experienced. Along with catching a few trout myself, I also wanted to help some of my fellow adult scout leaders get the fly fishing experience.

There are two approaches for learning to fly fish:

  1. Study First - read a few books, watch a few videos, maybe take a class at a local store
  2. Just Do It - get some gear and hit the stream

There are merits to each approach.  I tend to use approach #1 more often because I enjoy the research aspect of it and it allows me to keep thinking “fish” when I’m on the plane. In this case however, my friends didn’t do any pre-work and picked up cheap fly rods at the mega mart on the way to camp.

When I first learned to fly fish, it was sort of an accident - I was at a conference and one of the leisure activities planned was a fishing trip.  I was the only one who wanted to go so I had the services of a top fishing guide for personal coaching.  This is the way to go - get all of the fun of trial and error without wasting too much time climbing the learning curve. So, I offer learning approach #3, Just Do It with a Guide.

Guided Learning in a Lab

At PwC, we have applied a similar Just Do It with a Guide approach to one of our technology innovation labs. We designed this lab to give new recruits an rapid, in-depth experience with new and emerging technologies to both develop an appreciation of what is possible and to give them more real experience to better understand technology designers and developers working with them side-by-side on projects.We set out to focus skill development in these specific areas:

One question I asked myself when we started it was if a team of inexperienced consultants could build anything really interesting or valuable in a short period of time (each lab session is 6-8 weeks long). I have been amazed at both what can been accomplished and what kind of positive experience the lab participants have had.

Two of the demos that lab has built are:

  • a social media analysis tool that summarizes recent Facebook, Twitter, blogging and YouTube traffic on a particular term and organizes it by sentiment and how the content is oriented in a customer’s consideration process
  • a search tool that uses visuals instead of words to drive exploration of a complex product catalog

The key to a rich and productive lab experience is the guide. We are lucky to have 2 excellent experienced consultants with a passion for technology guiding the lab participants through their journey.

An interesting thing about using a Lab as a training ground is that it may give the nudge needed to get your lab funded.

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