Want Higher Performing MSLs? Start by Fixing Your MSL Onboarding Process
How long does onboarding a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) take? A week? 3 months? A year? Longer? What does a good MSL onboarding process look like?
Since January 2017, Innovara has been assessing hundreds of MSLs around the globe, for free. We are comparing their level of experience, what they value on-the-job, and their learning priorities across common MSL functional competencies. Even though the study is ongoing, we couldn’t wait to share some early findings with you. This post is the first in our 2017 series, Innovara MSL Development Needs Insights Study©.
Insight 1: Years in the MSL job do not equate with performance.
Highly acclaimed studies by McDaniels, Quinones and others agree that anyone brand new on the job is not likely to be a high performer compared to those with more experience performing certain tasks. However, beyond those new to the job, experience in terms of total tenure does not correlate to performance.
So how new is a new MSL? This is a challenge for many companies to determine. The MSL often comes into the job having had many years of academic, clinical, and other work experience.
A study conducted by Innovara confirmed that most healthcare companies consider a “new” MSL one who has up to one year on the job. This year does not include prior experience as an MSL, and it is irrespective of prior academic, knowledge, or job experience. When asked how long it takes for the MSL to be “higher performing”, these same companies generally note that it takes between 2 to 3 years. What has or has not been happening in those first three years? What specific learning, skills, or tasks are driving value in their jobs? What are wasting time and effort? Most companies were not sure.
We asked the top pharmaceutical companies what they considered to be intermediate and higher level skills and tasks, by competency, that they expected from better performing MSLs or looked for when recruiting experienced MSLs. Next, we correlated both overall tenure on the job and experience with specific tasks that MSLs felt contributed to their performance (value) in their jobs. Consistent with above-mentioned performance research, Innovara found a low correlation between overall tenure and tasks that are most highly valued on the job. Rather, an MSL’s experiences in specific tasks reflecting specific skills that are most valued by the MSL in his/her job are likely to be better predictors of the MSL’s performance.
Research also shows that using engineered learning principals that design formal training to be more experiential, initial knowledge acquisition can be achieved within months, not years. These could include working on real job challenges and cases in a formal applied workshop, structured on-the-job learning, or specifically targeted self-development activities. More critical is to “use it or lose it”—companies need to ensure that acquired knowledge is immediately applied on the job, ideally within 30 days.
In our research, Innovara determined that most programs and processes for MSL onboarding focus most heavily on knowledge acquisition. This is a fundamental, yet all too common, mistake. Knowledge itself is not a competency—a competency is the demonstration of knowledge through skill that produces a desired outcome (such as a changed behavior by the MSL).
Let’s consider an analogy to a patient with diabetes. Once diagnosed, he/she should be educated on diabetes. Does that automatically manifest in behavior changes needed to improve diabetes control? Beyond understanding what causes diabetes, the patient needs to learn, adapt, and apply skills that will result in good self-management with practice. He/she will be guided throughout by (ideally) a certified diabetes educator and other professionals. Moreover, he/she needs reinforcement of these behaviors to keep the him/her motivated, skillful and engaged in managing his/her diabetes.
The same is true for MSL competency development. When designing MSL onboarding, companies should not ask, “What do MSLs need to know?” Instead, we should ask:
- Which learning goals, linked to formal training and other experiential learning on the job, will lead to the acquisition of skills and behaviors that drive highest value for the customer and patient, as well as company?
- How can these be engineered to accelerate MSL development and productivity?
When onboarding MSLs, it is not enough to simply break down desired skills into observable/describable tasks. The company must plan to foster the ability to apply, reinforce, and measure the value of these skills in diverse situations and with diverse customers. Instead of learning by trial and error, companies need to apply LEAN principles and engineered learning methods to optimize MSL performance, i.e. in 6 months, instead of 2 – 3 years. In this process, it is equally critical to evaluate knowledge and experiences or skills that don’t drive value. In lean terms, these would be defined as “waste” and should be eliminated.
Implications for MSL Onboarding
Up to now, most onboarding programs have been confined to those within one year of appointment, who have had no previous MSL experience. If it takes up to 3 years to becoming a higher performing MSL, what is happening in these years on the job that truly drives value? What is waste? It may also be worthwhile to ask, “Is MSL onboarding only for those relatively new to the role? Could someone who has been an MSL for 3 years still need onboarding?”
Innovara has observed two standard practices in onboarding processes. From the perspective of the MSLs in our survey, most companies use a combination of (1) throwing the new MSL into the job, and (2) focus on knowledge acquisition. The greatest gap: the need to link this knowledge to application of skills that drive value and impact. Small wonder that by the end of the first year on the job, MSLs may only know what knowledge and competencies are valued, and processes to follow. They will be lacking in understanding how specific skills need to be performed. They will not understand the diverse ways and situations that will drive value for doctors and other medical customers, patient and company. Innovara further observed the lack of field coaching intensity and quality during the onboarding phase.
To summarize, MSL onboarding is weighted heavily on lectures, readings, seminars or conferences, and to a lesser degree, online courses. Without immediate/sustained coaching and other planned experiential learning, this “information overload” adds little value to the MSL’s performance and results.
Toward A More Robust MSL Onboarding Experience
How should onboarding be designed to develop high-performing MSLs within the first year on the job, regardless of previous experience? Clearly, the MSL manager must own the responsibility to ensure this high-performance MSL goal. When Innovara assessed companies’ onboarding experiences and processes, the critical missing links in current onboarding processes were: 1) MSL manager’s own coaching skills, 2) commitment to spending a disproportionate amount of time with the MSL during the first 6-12 months on the job to coach, role model, and mentor, and 3) monitoring and measurement of their ability to accelerate their MSLs’ performance and demonstration of skills and results. In short, they must take responsibility for positively impacting their MSLs’ ability to apply these tasks successfully in the job, right from day one, in ways that will drive value for both customer and company.
So before developing your new MSLs, make sure the managers of MSLs are skilled, ready and willing to coach in the field. Measure their ability to accelerate onboarding processes and impact MSL performance. And along the way, don’t forget to get rid of the waste!
Need help to evaluate the skills and learning needs of your MSLs and their managers, to improve MSL onboarding processes, and to develop best practice MSL managers and teams? Drop us a line or call us at +1 (413) 387-6188.