Business schools, lacking in clinical facilities, have chosen to outsource the practice of business to partners who provide their students internship. The internship is thought to provide the clinical experience required to show how generalized business concepts can be put into practice. The challenge of this approach is that there is often a lack of consistency between internship experiences. More importantly, many internships lack the qualities of a good clinical experience. These essential components are:
- Soft Skills
- A Community of Practice
Internships certainly score high on the authenticity scale. They are generally hosted at the sponsoring businesses location and overseen by an individual employed by the company. A well-designed internship would have the person serve in the role of professional mentor. and assign the student meaningful projects that enhance their education. The intern would be afforded the opportunity to become a legitimate peripheral participant who is assigned meaningful projects and is invited to participate in meetings so that they can observe those social and institution cues that are essential for success in a corporate environment.
It is the legitimacy of participation that often determines the success or failure of an internship. Is the intern given meaningful tasks to perform? Is their contribution acknowledged, appreciated, and ultimately incorporated in real work product? Are they given access to the reasons why a problem exists and why it is being solved one way relative to another? Have they been afforded the opportunity to gain an awareness of what constitutes success and how to navigate the intricacies of the organization and the involved personalities? Successful internships accomplish all of this and more. However, by outsourcing the process, business schools are disadvantaged when it comes time to assess the efficacy of a particular opportunity.
Many interns find themselves working either alone, alongside a sponsor or with a small group within a company. Since each of their coworkers has a set of responsibilities that are often not closely aligned with the internship, there is often limited opportunity to participate in a community of practice where it is through mutual help and understanding that skills are developed, and ideas are refined. Without the ability to work and communicate with others, many internships offer a limited opportunity for professional development.
Most importantly, given the limited duration of many internships, there is not an opportunity for many interns to move from the periphery to the center of a community of practice. Where the medical student begins their training by watching others make diagnose and treat patients from the periphery, they eventually reach the point where they are in the center and managing their own caseload of patients.
If it is indeed true that practice makes perfect, it is difficult to see how in the course of three months, sufficient training takes place to bridge the gap between the generalized business education that takes place in the core curriculum and the development of those skill, tools and experiences that are coveted by employers. To change the analogy, think of a person who would like to become an accomplished tennis player. They might start off by taking lessons and refining those skills by hitting balls against a backboard or practice partner. Over time, repetition would help to smooth out their strokes and give them the confidence to place particular shots within the boundaries of a tennis court.
However, being able to hit the ball hard or place a shot accurately does not necessarily make a great tennis player. Playing the game requires the young tennis player to go up against skilled opponents in tennis matches. Playing the ball is not the same as playing against an opponent. In so far as the goal is to win the game, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of one’s opponent and the ability to capitalize on those weaknesses is often the key to success. Playing matches helps the young tennis player to develop the situational awareness required to best put their skills into practice.