Thursday, July 17, 2008

Designing an Effective Online Mentoring Program

In every organization there is a wealth of knowledge that is never documented. Sometimes such knowledge could be very valuable from a competitive standpoint. The manager of a key account might know about nuances in her or his interaction with the client, that could be critical to the successful management of that account. All such knowledge stays and moves with the people who gain it.

What if the organization could harness the Internet to create a chain of mentors that can be pulled in to train a new recruit? Just as they say that it is smart not to burn bridges with a former employer, I believe it is also smart for an organization not to burn bridges with a former employee.

The way some of the top business schools in the nation maintain and sustain their alumni networks is noteworthy. They start with assigning an email account for each alumnus. It is a permission list they have created even before the students leave campus to enter the workforce. From that starting point the school actively nurtures the alumni networks for a variety of purposes, right from fund raising to career services.

I have not heard of business organizations do this as well, with the exception of a few such as McKinsey & Company. The Internet makes it easy to do. All it needs is a visionary management that understands that an ex-employee can be their ambassador. The ex-employee can be a mentor to their future employees. There are simple cost-effective ways to connect the ex-employees with the future-employees, no matter where they are located physically.

This was the topic of a paper that I had presented at the annual seminar of an international wing of SHRM in 2001. The paper, then seemed ahead of its time based on the audience-reaction. Now social networking has become a buzzword. Companies are looking into building the social networking capability into their Intranets. LinkedIn is coming up with this capability although it faces the challenge of being an outside vendor. Regardless, the sheer convenience of being able to connect with a former employee who is familiar with a particular business situation, will open the floodgates. It will tempt the current or potential employee to 'click' and make that connection, and get a quick update or guidance on how to handle the situation, or how it was handled way back when it occurred. These are interesting times indeed!

There are several unanswered questions, of course. Questions on worldly things such as privacy, liability, intellectual property, and competitive intelligence. Questions on non-worldly things such as unhindered sharing of knowledge, brotherhood, and helping one another out. (See some of the lessons learned in an experiment by McKinsey & Company)

If you wish to read the paper that I had presented, here it is - titled "Learning through Online Mentoring: Harnessing the Internet to Create and Retain Intangible Assets".