Innovative mentoring techniques, which could bring fast learning gains for users, are being held back by an over-abundance of IT applications.
So says the UK’s first full-time professor of coaching and mentoring, Bob Garvey, of the coaching and mentoring unit at Sheffield Hallam University. Nevertheless, he is surprised that e-mentoring is not having the same impact in the workplace as in mainstream education.
“E-mentoring systems are not making their mark,” he says. “It is partly because of IT overload, but also because face-to-face coaching and mentoring seem to be well-established.”
Garvey believes it is time to challenge some of these preconceptions. “More experience of online working should have made e-coaching and e-mentoring easier,” he says. “I don’t think people are aware that there is software available to help deal with such issues online.”
Mentoring is seen, by some, as synonymous with coaching. Others view it as a close relation, one that is more focused on gradual transitions in thinking and knowledge rather than performance or self-confidence.
A technological approach
Some experts believe mentoring, because it can be a series of dialogues, is suited to technology. And the technology is out there. At specialist research and software consultancy Circle Squared, managing director Kevin Hunt has created e-mentoring and e-coaching products for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which was offering support to farmers and scattered communities. He has also developed e-mentoring pilots for a global company.
“They used web based e-mentoring software that enables great flexibility for the programme managers and the users. It can be accessed anywhere in the world at any time.”
Technology can also help in creating a fair and equal process. A registration process identifies and matches prospective mentors and clients electronically. The mentor completes an online self assessment to provide instant feedback and identify the areas that need further development. This is turn can be provided by online training modules.
Surprisingly, technology can be used to keep the relationship healthy and on track. “Because this is web-based technology it enables us to carry out continuous evaluation which provides useful data for the programme for the relationship and for research,” says Hunt.
Technology can also be used to promote quality. Hunt says the software can be used to discriminate and match mentors on skills, knowledge and expertise, rather than locality. “So we can find the best mentor within the programme or within the organisation, not the one who is closest geographically,” he says.
“This gives e-mentoring the edge because it provides all the benefits of conventional mentoring but with the added benefit of being asynchronous – in other words independent of time and space .”
Using e-mentoring also keeps identities secret, so if it doesn’t work, both parties can walk away from the agreement without embarrassment.
An e-mail router can be deployed to ensure personal e-mail addresses are not revealed. In other words, both mentor and client communicate via a shared address.
“Confidentiality is maintained and that is essential,” says Hunt. “Personal details are not disclosed so if the relationship is not working we can shut it off.”
Garvey believes that for e-mentoring to be successful it must be handled with care. “Care is needed to set it up and people need to be trained in how to use it. A degree of monitoring is required, but it can be a great tool for promoting inclusion.”
The inclusive qualities of e-methods should be a selling point. They can remove all social and geographical boundaries and borders or allow parties to work them to their advantage. At London-based consultancy E-Coaches, managing director Clare Howard saw distance and time differences as part of the mentoring process when she e-mentored a senior manager based in Australia.
“It worked well because we started a dialogue which came and went.” She says there were “natural pauses” in the e-mail conversations as mentor and client were in different time zones. This gave each party time to reflect on their questions and answers, which might not have happened in a face-to-face meeting.
As well as overcoming geographical boundaries, e-mentoring is also a socially inclusive tool, as organisation consultant Amanda Harrington points out. She is director of Harrington Young Associates, and is researching e-mentoring methods for a Phd.
“For example, it can help with educational situations, with the disadvantaged and disenfranchised,” she says. “And it sometimes works better than getting people to sit down together. Technology helps with issues of access and as such can be of benefit to people with a disability.”
So with such benefits, why then aren’t employers doing more to encourage e-mentoring? The answer could be cost.
“For an initial investment of 50 people it is not seen as economically viable,” says Hunt. “For a global company with around 500 people around the world, the cost would be below 1,000 per person.”
HR departments may baulk at that sort of spend if they still have the mindset that mentoring activities are for higher-ranking people only, but it is appropriate to other levels.
“There is huge potential for larger scale companies,” says Hunt. “People are not thinking about using last year’s graduates to mentor this year’s graduates, for example, but doing that could help them develop mature skills at an earlier level.”
Art therapist and NHS management consultant Kate Kennett (pictured) has been receiving e-mentoring since 2002 and has printed out and saved every conversation with her e-mentor.
“I’ve have found that the medium really lends itself to reflection,” she says.
“This is because the e-mail element lends itself to capturing discussions – which you can’t always do in a conversation. It helps with reflection.”
Kennett, who was mentored by coaching consultant and psychologist David Clutterbuck, finds the written exchanges useful because they act as a summary of the situation at that time, almost like diaries.
“My e-mentor was able to capture the problem and give me a menu of offerings,” she says.
The potency of the mentor’s “voice” is such that it has become almost an internal voice for Kennett.
E-mentoring at BT
Zulfi Hussein, diversity consultant and regional board member of BT, introduced e-mentoring to complement a diversity mentoring scheme at the telecoms giant.
“Mentoring relationships were set up across the UK,” says Hussein, who is based in Leeds. “I mentored a software engineer in Cardiff.”
After nine months the scheme was evaluated. Hidden benefits began to emerge, he says.
“We had not realised until then that e-mentoring gives people time to reflect. It also became apparent that it can be useful for people who are shy or lacking in confidence, because they do not have to deal with face-to-face contact.”
Hussein says that the e-mentoring had a specific benefit and helped with career progression. “My client was promoted to project manager within the mentoring time period,” he says.
Other mentors say they relish the chance to make a difference to someone’s personal and professional life.
Hussein says other benefits appreciated by delegates included gaining a better understanding of senior management decision-making, an insight into new opportunities across the business and a better understanding of different cultures and religions.
“My experience convinced me that e-mentoring is not an inferior substitute for traditional mentoring,” he says.
BT became so convinced of the scheme’s benefits that it extended it worldwide. “We matched the US and London, Rome and Bradford,” says Hussein. “E-mentoring helped us to cross cultures, genders, everything. It became a multinational exchange which enriched the experience of mentors and clients which would not otherwise be possible.
Each party must believe in the concept before they start. It requires focus, not half measures.
Both parties have to be aware of the language they use: how they phrase their questions and answers to each other. “It is a real art,” says consultant Amanda Harrington (pictured). “Not just a matter of sending e-mails.”
Use the e-mentoring process to the client’s advantage. It is an ideal way of keeping records of personal development.
Be aware of why you are choosing the medium. “If you have chosen it because you think it’s going to be a time saver, forget it. It will save travel time but not input and preparation,” says Harrington.
Be clear about confidentiality and ensure only mentor and client have access.