6 ways IBM has changed internships for the better

Jul 28, 2021 | Work experience/internships

IBM has reaped the rewards from putting students at the heart of its internships. Programme managers Anna Withrington and Joel Thomas explain how.

Having managed over 1,100 students since 2016 on our intern scheme, we have been on a journey of understanding the student mindset so that we can put students at the centre of our programme design.

We believe that by including students in all aspects of our internships, we have become more agile, reflective and open to trying new things. We’ve learnt from what’s worked well, but also from what hasn’t worked so well, embracing former IBM CEO Thomas Watson’s idea that if you want to increase your success rate, you need to double your failure rate.

Our story is one of seeking to immerse interns into our programme as key influencers who take action to enrich the student experience.


1. Recruitment in short sprints

Our recruitment process was long and cumbersome, needing significant management effort and time to respond to high levels of interest, which had a negative effect on the candidate experience.

To counter this, we adopted agile processes. We now recruit in short sprints based on role type, keeping application windows short and encouraging those interested to pre-register online.

This has enabled us to better plan when manager input will be needed, resulting in applications being screened on average within 24 hours of submission and the majority attending an assessment within three weeks.


2. Assessment designed by early professionals

Prior to Covid-19, our assessment process included two group exercises but we were forced to reconsider and find a more practical way of assessing students.

Initially, greater emphasis was placed on interviews, however, we recognised the importance of seeing students work together.

It was tempting to embrace the wonderful technology available, however, what was more important, was that our virtual sessions were as low tech as possible to ensure maximum inclusivity.

The new group exercise is designed by our early professionals for our early professional candidates. Finally, to minimise anxiety, we host a ‘Test the Tech’ call a week before our assessment process. This session is run by an existing intern, which candidates appreciate, finding it easier to relate to someone of a similar demographic.


3. Listening to students

During our first induction activity we engage in collating ‘Hopes & Fears’ for the year ahead, before even introducing ourselves.

From hoping to secure a graduate role (or hoping to find a future spouse!), to managing imposter syndrome fears, this activity anonymously exposes student feelings. By acknowledging and discussing these early we reduce anxiety, building psychological safety and excitement for the year ahead.

During onboarding, the flow of information can be largely one-way – from managers to students. Whilst we continue to value formal feedback after onboarding and training events, we now also collect informal feedback ‘live’ through an interactive activity, enabling facilitators to course-correct and address students’ specific needs in an agile way.

We have sought to reduce the considerable effort managers expend supporting individual student queries through providing an open forum.

Every fortnight, students are invited to anonymously post questions to managers and vote to prioritise questions for response; this also gives managers valuable insight into the most pressing topics for students.


4. Continuous evaluation

Our students complete an assessed presentation at year-end. However, we noticed that these presentations induced a level of anxiety among our interns, particularly those reapplying for graduate roles at IBM, who felt their score could dictate whether their reapplication was successful.
We acknowledged the need to reset expectations with interns, focusing this presentation on celebrating their learning journeys. Performance is still assessed, but more focus is placed on the entire year, with the assessment process less concentrated at year-end.


5. Post-induction learning

It is unrealistic for us to expect new starters to retain lots of information. We are therefore choosing ‘embeducation’ over ‘education’, choosing to make students feel welcome, supported and aware of where to go if they need help.

We are increasing the amount of ‘post-induction’ learning, placing greater emphasis on delivering content when students are more settled.


6. Student-led events

Our managers used to run a lot of events for interns. Now, our students are empowered to lead key events with managers adopting ‘sponsor’ roles. This gives students freedom to take ownership within a framework of support.

For example, our annual Careers Academy event is managed by early professionals, ensuring the content is student focused.

Students embed technology to provide the right information at speed, such as a chatbot for answering event questions and a website containing playbacks.

As the Careers Academy was virtual this year instead of being hosted in London, it was far more inclusive, with 2,000 attendees across 30 sessions. Other student-initiated and student-led projects include research into the BAME student recruitment experience, the creation of new social communities and the design of an online student journal.


Our next challenge

Our two key drivers early this year were to add value to stakeholders, and most importantly students, whilst not increasing management time and to make students as ‘self-sufficient’ as possible.

We believe we’re getting there by reshaping the induction to make them feel good about their year and know where to look things up.

Our two drivers have led us to use the students themselves to improve the programme. They support each other by recommending training, organising events, working in communities and increasing their general engagement in their year as a placement student. We want to stop doing things for our interns and instead start doing more with them.

As we look ahead to a hybrid model of virtual and office working, we want to continue building the momentum that’s been established over the last year in terms of virtual collaboration and community engagement. We want to take the best from the virtual delivery model and bring best practice into our next chapter.

By getting students fully engaged in all aspects of our programme, we have become more agile, more reflective and more open to trying new things.

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