Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The long and winding road - good vibrations (Musings on preparing for career advancement)

This month, I'm pleased to have a guest blogger, one of my 'kids' (former students, MLS grads, all of whom I'm extremely proud of):
  • Lisa Denesiuk, MLT, ART (CSMLS), MLS (ASCP), SBB (ASCP), BSc (MLS)
Earlier this year Lisa moved to a new position with Dynalife Dx and became a Learning Management System and Website Content Specialist. 

Intrigued by her job title, I asked Lisa to write a guest blog on how that came about and what was involved. Despite being a busy health professional, she graciously agreed.

The blog's title comes from an old Beatles song (naturally) and a classic by the Beach Boys. 

Why should you read this blog?
To me, Lisa's career path epitomizes a Louis Pasteur quotation:

  • Chance favors the prepared mind.
  • If you retain nothing more from this blog, remember this.
Educators like to tell students that their undergraduate degrees can take them in many directions. To me, careers beyond the routine are possible only if graduates actively continue to learn both formally and informally, and that takes much effort. 

Continuing education (CE) and continuing professional development (CPD) require commitment to learn outside of work hours, invariably sacrificing time with family and friends or relaxation time. Often it also involves spending one's own money, since today's employers seldom offer financial support to take courses or attend conferences, even if staff present at them.

Going to work each day and giving 100% is not enough. To prepare for future job opportunities, health professionals need to give blood, sweat and tears after hours.

For those of you who want to advance, who want to do something different, yet still use your basic health profession education and training, below is one person's path to an interesting career.

Advice from me to you: Instead of reading the way that busy health professionals usually do (i.e., rapidly scanning and racing through e-mails and websites without content registering in your mind), I suggest you sit back, take a few deep breaths, and focus on slow reading. If you don’t have the time right now, return to the blog when you do.

Slow reading is analogous to slow cooking, an alternative to fast food and something I now practice daily. Reading much transfusion-related news to decide if it’s worth reporting, I’ve had to institute the practice of slow reading. Try it, you’ll like it!

As background, Lisa is one of two former students who were awarded the ACMLT Award of Distinction.

Because she began work in a transfusion service, I followed Lisa's career with interest, as I do all MLS grads, especially those who are employed in transfusion laboratories or blood centres.

As well, Lisa took a CE course I offered by distance education on scientific writing. The CE course was based on a book written as a supplement to MLSCI 320, Fundamentals of Writing for the Biomedical Sciences, later translated into Japanese, as Wakariyasui igakueigoronbun.

Of 100s of participants, Lisa achieved the highest grade. Since this was pre-Internet, the course was an old-fashioned, paper-based correspondence course.

Anyone who has evaluated written papers, essays, and the like, knows that grading them is sheer hell. Which is my way of saying that marking Lisa's assignments was pure pleasure, forever endearing her to me. 

What follows is Lisa's story from bench lab technologist to Learning Management System and Website Content Specialist. Regardless of your current professional role, her narrative has lessons for all.
GUEST BLOG  by Lisa Denesiuk

How did I get here?
It was a long and winding road (Pat will insert appropriate musical link - see later), which is ironic (ditto on an old Alanis Morissette song) because one of the reasons that I chose the medical laboratory profession was that I liked the straight line from finish this program to get this job.

Straight Path
I started out on that straight path, graduating from the University of Alberta Medical Laboratory Science program in 1987 and working (with a few minor detours) for 13 years on the bench in the transfusion service of a busy, inner city hospital.

Twists in the Road
My next job involved moving off the bench and off shift work. I assisted rural transfusion services with maintaining competency and updating procedures and implementing new processes (such as a redistribution program for near-outdate group O RBC). I was a consultant but under the auspices of my employer’s contracts rather than on my own.

Then the off-the-bench road developed more switchbacks.  Another round of healthcare restructuring meant that there was not enough transfusion medicine within my employer’s portfolio to support a full time transfusion specialist.

I had to choose between switching employers and switching career focus.

Fork in the Road
Choosing to stay with my employer, I moved into departments and jobs with difficult to explain titles like ‘Strategic Initiatives’ and ‘Business and Technology Analyst’. 

The beauty and the horror of the coordinator/ analyst/ specialist/ consultant jobs were that I was never quite sure what I would be doing next.  Obviously horrific for someone who likes straight lines, but really beautiful for someone who likes to learn new things.

On a personal scale, my career choices allowed me to develop some advanced software skills (I am still one of the go-to people in my company for advice on making Excel® charts with three axes, though I could never get the hang of pivot tables). I also learned and re-learnt a lot about the non-transfusion laboratory disciplines.

And most importantly, I had to maintain the knack for learning new things quickly (assuming I wanted to stay employed, pay off my mortgage, and continue to supply my cats with organic cat food, which of course is non-negotiable). Which leads to my latest job...

And where is ‘here’?
My new job title is Learning Management System and Website Content Specialist. The font on both the paper and electronic business cards keeps getting smaller and smaller.
The back story. . .
  • My employer bought a learning management system (LMS-software to track learning) and learning content software (LCMS- to build eLearning courses) about 2 years ago.
  • Originally, consultants built our first few courses based on information provided by supervisory and experienced staff members.
  • It took about 1 year to get everything ready for a launch to employees. Then. . .
  • About 2 months before the date set for the launch, the employee in charge of the LMS transferred to another department.
  •   At that time, the organization decided to bring the course building in-house. So the ‘team’ was reorganized into one ‘content specialist’ (i.e., laboratory geek) and one ‘developer’ (i.e., IT geek). I’m the lab geek.
Needless to say with both of the team members having < 2 months to learn the LMS themselves before explaining it to 1100 employees (> 500 in one-on-one sessions), our first few months on the job were hectic!

Why was I the ‘chosen one’?
  •   Served on the committee that investigated eLearning providers and suspect that the questions asked during this process demonstrated an understanding of life-long learning and a passion for the topic. (Likely the main reason the position was offered.)
  • Gained much informal teaching experience in my laboratory career, but current boss was probably unaware of most of it.
  • Discovered early that I loved to teach and succeeded at it. Almost from the moment my probationary period ended, I was a preceptor while on the bench.
  • While a TM consultant, I often gave review sessions to staff in the rural hospitals and presented at conferences.
  • Participated in continued professional development in various formats over the years, but again current boss probably didn’t know about that. 
A self-confessed CE junkie, I’ve added several letters behind my e-signature:
SBB blended program (2 weeks on-site within a full year course of distance education) from the University of Texas Medical Branch.
Took instructor-led courses, paper-based distance courses, electronically delivered courses, blended courses, courses for fun, courses for work, courses for professional development ... name a course type and I have probably taken at least one example.
Also volunteered a lot for professional organizations, which is an amazing source of informal education. Plus you get to know the most incredible fellow laboratorians.
Unexpected Opportunity Knocks
You never know what unexpected opportunities will develop from something that seems straight forward. I finished the UTMB course, passed the ASCP SBB exam and went back to my life.
Then a couple years later I was asked to write the ABO chapter for a new transfusion textbook, because my SBB instructor recommended me to the book authors. I wrote the chapter and then a couple of years later was asked by the book authors if I would like to become the fourth co-author on the textbook because they were stuck and needed some change to kick start the project.
And several years later we are on the final push to meet our deadline so the first edition can hit the shelves in June 2013. And for the last few months I have been in charge of developing the figures. All of a sudden I can do intricate stuff in Visio® because years ago I took an SBB course, not an obvious outcome.
What does a content specialist do?
My core function is as interpreter. . . I’m the go-between for the subject matter experts (SMEs) and the developer. To illustrate, my position includes:
  • Listening to what the SMEs want.  Love this acronym. Doesn’t it conjure a picture of a scholastic smurf-like creature? I often have to hone their focus to something manageable.
  •  Investigating the topic, then building a storyboard (think PowerPoint® with notes about animations, pictures, pop up boxes, rollovers, etc.) and an exam question bank.
  • Facilitating the review by SMEs and, after tweaking, handing the storyboard over to our developer (IT geek) to build the eLearning course.
  • Helping if the developer doesn’t understand some laboratory-specific process or jargon or what my storyboard notes mean.
  • Coordinating the course rollout to appropriate staff members.
Concrete example:
  • SME’s manager: ‘We want to reduce our data entry errors.’
  • Me to the quality department: ‘What are the 3 most common data entry errors we see?’
  • Me to the SME: ‘Can I sit in on your 2-day in-person training session for newly hired laboratory assistants?’
  • Me to the IT geek: ‘Here is the first of 3 storyboards about data entry - it is all about entering patient demographics correctly.’
  • IT geek to me: ‘Do you really want to say Order a DPHON on this slide or is this some bizarre typo?’....Reply:  ‘Yes, that is a comment that our laboratory information system recognizes and it translates to …and the laboratory assistants will know what that sentence means.‘
  • Me to the LMS via writing an ongoing rule: ‘Enroll all laboratory assistant IIs who work in patient care centres in the first data entry module.’
What do I love about my job?
  • Getting to teach again
  • Opportunities that electronic learning presents
  • Great potential to help our staff members, who are geographically scattered
  • Learning or re-learning many different topics
  • Working with new technology and coming up with creative solutions to obstacles
What I don’t like about my job?
Unfortunately, I’m
  • Sad when hearing that staff members see eLearning as an imposition rather than a benefit.
  • Frustrated when the priorities we work on change after every meeting and consequently for months nothing ever seems to get to the finished product stage.
Most frustrations relate to being in the midst of a cultural change. Half the management and executive team seem to see eLearning as the magic pill that will cure all ills and the other half are not convinced that time, energy and money invested in the system will result in a good return on investment. 

I’m sure the reality will fall somewhere in the middle, but in the meantime, we are caught between widely divergent, and often unrealistic, expectations.

My own learning journey
Besides the obvious learning of new software systems and relearning of laboratory topics, my employer is supporting my pursuit of a Certificate in Adult and Continuing Education (CACE).

What if you wanted to become a learning content specialist?
  • Structured programs about building eLearning (IT geek part) and about delivering adult education (lab geek part) are expanding. Consider taking a few courses.
  • A content specialist requires strong communication skills as the bedrock, and experience is the best top soil. (What I bring that the consultant could not was credibility with the SMEs. Being able to talk the lab talk goes a long way to smoothing over differences of opinion). 
  • The mulch in the metaphor is being able to learn both lab topics and new software quickly.
  •  My best advice is to be open to opportunities, which often cloak themselves as ‘more work projects.’
As noted, the blog's title derives from these songs
Comments are most welcome BUT, due to excessive spam,  please e-mail me personally or using the address in the newsletter notice. I’d love to hear how you prepare to advance and expand horizons beyond the typical career ladder. 

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