Mentoring in the Digital Age

By Margery Weinstein

Formal training and assessments are a good first level of training, but what about learning needs that are ongoing, and more subtle? For decades, companies have looked to mentoring programs to provide a second level of training. The mentor, an accomplished, usually older, employee guides the less-experienced employee in the aspects of the profession that are impossible to master from a classroom experience or textbook—how to negotiate effectively, signs that you need to alter course in business strategy, or how to win over a hesitant sales prospect, for example.

Today’s digital and online technology can give mentoring a boost by making it easier to communicate and offer just-in-time advice. Seven Training Top 125 companies share how they are using the latest technology solutions to facilitate mentoring.

“Virtually” the Same Principles

Communication is easier than ever, but the same age-old principles of mentoring still apply. “At PPD, a global contract research organization, we are used to working in a remote, virtual world. Mentoring has evolved to reflect that, and has become much more virtual. But while there may be less face-to-face interaction, the premise of providing learning and development through a relationship of mutual trust is still critical,” says Ravenna Edgar, director of Organizational Effectiveness at PPD. She says the company uses social platforms to facilitate relationships, and uses Microsoft Lync “to enable rapid/responsive information exchange,” along with Lync/Skype video meeting facilities.

PPD has created a social network, for instance, for members of its Global Leadership Network (GLN). “The GLN is an exclusive virtual community that is open to alumni of our high-potential leadership development and executive leadership programs. As part of this network, GLN members identify specific areas of expertise or competency that they are willing to share with others who may not have had the same experience or exposure,” says Edgar. “Through the GLN virtual site, they make it known that any GLN member can reach out to them for mentoring in those identified areas.”

The great advantage of technology in mentoring is it allows you to take the old principle of providing guidance and hone it further to answer the exact question the mentee has at the exact moment the need arises. At Mariner Finance, mentors and mentees can communicate in a more targeted way, thanks to technology. “Mariner Finance uses a blend of technologies that drive education/ knowledge, skills, and socialization of interactions across the program. Creation of specific mentor/mentee sites, functions, and tools create a ‘club’ feel,” say Assistant Vice President of Instructional Design and Programs Austin Meredith and Senior Vice President of Learning and Development Jeff Casey. “Using the Web tools, supplemented by items such as chat functions, video, and face-to-face, helps drive interactions not only between specific relationships, but within the entire club. This approach creates a family of mentors/mentees that expands the boundaries of the older-style mentor relationship, allowing both parties to seek guidance and expertise in a quick and specific way.”

At Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, technology is the bridge that connects mentor and mentee to apply time-proven mentoring techniques. “We use a blend of technology to meet the various learning situations inherent in mentoring. We use videoconferencing through WebEx and Jabber,” says Senior Consultant, Learning Solutions Patricia Confar. “We have connect communities available through our learning technology. Many of our conference rooms are equipped with video technology. Teleconferencing is widely used, as well.”

But with the advantages of technology come potential challenges, too, Confar notes. “Mentoring in the digital age allows us to be more inclusive and connect with experienced associates across our entire company,” she says, “but we also need the skills and patience to use the technology to its fullest potential. We have to be more sensitive to the visual and auditory cues we depend on during face-to-face communication that can seem muff led through technology.”

Assessing Mentoring Success

At Navient, technology now allows the company to take the established mentoring values and approach, and evaluate it using modern means to gauge success, says Education Manager Carey J. Foss. Within Navient’s Customer Resolution Services (CRS) department, there is a structured mentoring program that gives employees the ability to work with new hires to help develop the skills necessary to succeed in their roles. Foss says the traditional approach of having seasoned employees help new hires in training is measured electronically. “The success of our mentors is measured by recording a number of key performance indicators (KPIs). Tracking is done through reporting software and use of Microsoft Excel,” says Foss, who points out the company also uses technology that enables mentors to get a real-time feel for how well their mentees are learning their lessons. “Our mentors also use y-cords (cords that allow mentors to listen in on their mentees’ production calls) to shadow the employees for whom they are responsible and provide feedback. Feedback is provided via performance discussions, and also is saved in the employee’s development file.”

The ability of technology to give mentors a snapshot of mentees’ progress at the moment when the mentees are working through challenges is significant, says Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a national staffing and recruiting firm. “Now with digital, there is more access to real-time feedback, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be in the form of scheduled meetings,” says Gimbel. “With Skype and Facetime, mentoring for role-play situations can be anywhere, anytime.”

To ensure an accurate assessment of a mentoring program, Gimbel recommends a structured approach. “Creating goals prior to implementing the program and having a proper way of tracking success metrics are crucial for the program’s long-term success. Goals can range from helping employees become ingrained in the culture, to getting them up to speed faster so they can hit the ground running. There should be a point person to manage the program, and hold people accountable.”

Technology Itself as the Mentor

In some cases, technology itself—in the form of the just-in-time information available online—can be the mentor, says Loubna Noureddin, director of Learning & Development Services for Miami Children’s Health System. “Google is one example of a ‘just-in-time’ mentor. You seek a better understanding of a certain topic, and the resources it offers are used by millions,” Noureddin notes. “While my example offers a simplification of the mentoring role, in this day and age, a mentor offers just-in-time support and advice to a mentee with minimal limitations of time and space. Digital media offers thousands of open resources for mentoring, and highly effective organizations have learned to tap into social media to provide mentoring to new employees, high-potential employees, and leaders.”

Miami Children’s Health System, which uses the Taleo performance tool and Microsoft SharePoint to manage its mentoring program, takes a multifaceted approach. “We offer a fullscope career mentoring program that seeks to support employees in developing their career goals and aligning those goals to the organization’s goals and growth,” Noureddin says. “Every employee who shows interest in self-development and career growth can self-nominate or seek the support of a career coach to better create a three- to five-year career growth plan.”

NIIT is another company that is optimizing technology’s ability to provide just-in-time mentoring in new and more visual ways. “The ability to have questions answered instantaneously through texts and e-mails by your mentor or peers who specialize in a particular area gives you access to a world of knowledge,” says Regional Vice President of Human Resources Sandra Pruitt. “Using online chats, Google, and various learning tools, such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and YouTube, for research is a way of life now for all generations.”

Information sharing—the heart of mentoring— is more expansive than ever. “Teams are sharing information worldwide, from a variety of perspectives on a question or problem,” Pruitt says. “Technology has helped us become a global organization working in real time, solving real-time problems, and sharing a breadth of knowledge.”

QUICK TIPS

  • Keep in mind that though there may be less face-to-face interaction in digitally facilitated mentoring, the premise of providing learning and development through a relationship of mutual trust remains the same.
  • Enable just-in-time mentoring in which mentor and mentee can connect at the moment a question arises.
  • Use videoconferencing technology on computers and mobile devices to allow for virtual “face-to-face” interaction.
  • Create internal social networks for training groups, such as for leadership development participants.
  • Set goals to track the success of mentoring programs, such as helping employees become ingrained in the culture or getting them up to speed faster so they can hit the ground running.
  • Use technology to enable employees to seek, or get matched with, internal career coaches— mentors— who can help them achieve their development goals.

 

Reprinted from TRAINING MAGAZINE

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