The Characteristics of Ways of Learning in the Pharmaceutical Sales Industry
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Employee learning provides significant competitive advantage for organizations. Understanding how employees learn in different work contexts can support continuing, effective, and frequent learning. Although most workplace learning is done informally, the characteristics of that learning are minimally reported and the criteria used to define learning as informal are inconsistent. Research into continuing professional development in knowledge-intense environments or distributed workforces is sparse. The pharmaceutical sales industry is a previously unexamined knowledge-intense environment with a geographically distributed workforce. This qualitative case study sought a better understanding of how pharmaceutical sales representatives learn for work by documenting and describing those ways of learning reported as most effective and most frequent. Twenty sales agents from 11 organizations participated in a Delphi collaboration to create a comprehensive list of 64 ways they learn for work. In-depth individual interviews with five agents provided deep detail about learning in this industry, including the ways of learning that the participating agents perceive to be most effective and most frequent. The Colley, Hodkinson and Malcom (2003) framework was interpreted, applied, and extended in order to identify attributes of formality and informality and other characteristics inherent in the ways of learning reported as most effective and most frequent. This study showed that agents learn in a wide variety of ways and that most of those ways are self-initiated, self-directed, minimally structured, and often involve intentional incidental learning: agents are constantly alert to capture learning while engaged in work activities. Learning during customer interactions on the job was reported as particularly effective and frequent. Other reported effective ways of learning varied with the agent but usually involved self-directed learning with mixed formal and informal attributes. It was determined that learning plays a special role in this industry: much of what is learned for work is not being applied directly to the job of sales promotion. Instead, agents use learning to develop themselves as resources for physicians in order to gain the customer-access required to promote their products. In this way, learning on the job is the job.