People Developing People: The Move to Mentoring

January 15, 2010
Article written by Agatha Gilmore and published in Chief Learning Officer Magazine

When times are tough, we often look to our friends and colleagues for support. That human connection and sharing of knowledge is an invaluable tool for navigating a crisis — and now, it’s an economical one, too.

According to Bersin & Associates’ Corporate Learning Factbook 2009, the U.S. corporate training industry shrank roughly 4 percent between 2007 and 2008 — “the greatest decline in more than 10 years,” the report stated. Yet perhaps more interesting, this decline was accompanied by a corresponding uptick in the interest in and use of mentoring solutions.

According to the Factbook report, “[some] online training hours were replaced by coaching, collaborative programs and other less-costly methods.” In fact, coaching is now incorporated into 30 percent of all training programs.

“When you’re talking about a decrease in training budgets, it’s not just the workshops themselves, but it’s the actual [number of] people that are responsible for it and able to implement it [that is decreasing],” explained Judy Corner, a subject-matter expert in mentoring at Insala, a provider of talent management software and solutions. “Even with an economic upturn, that’s probably one department where it’s not going to go back up. Your IT will go back up, so will other areas of the organization — product development or manufacturing. But chances are the training function will not go back up. How do you get that type of development out to people without increasing that head count? Mentoring is that. It’s a way for people to get development without having to go to a training class.”

While mentoring can’t fully replace traditional classroom-based training and e-learning programs, it can help reinforce them and provide much-needed one-on-one support.

“Like it or not, people still need people,” Corner said. “Employees are saying, ‘As soon as this economic upturn begins and I’m feeling comfortable, I’m out of here.’ What organizations are suddenly realizing is, ‘Uh oh, we’d better be careful, and we’d better let our employees know that we really do care about them and we really want our good people to stay.’ Mentoring a great way to do that.”

Another advantage of mentoring is the potential for highly customized, just-in-time learning.

“Oftentimes there isn’t a specific training class to be able to address whatever that person’s immediate need might be,” said Morgan O’Brien, Insala’s vice president of business development for North America. “For example, if I’m working for an organization that’s just expanding to creating and entering global markets, there may be someone I can tap into in my organization with a question or to help reflect on a specific issue, but the training department might not have any kind of formalized structured curriculum to assist with those kinds of situations.”

Although measuring the cost savings from using mentoring versus traditional training methods might be difficult, Corner said learning executives can point to the end result as proof.

“[It’s] the fact that people have gotten the development they needed without the expense of going through a training function — whether it’s a workshop or a course or whatever it might be,” she said.

That said, organizations must be very careful and deliberate when turning to mentoring to supplement training.

“The biggest pitfall is the fact that if you don’t make sure that you’ve got good mentors, bad habits can get passed on,” said Corner, who added that learning leaders should consider offering mentoring training for business managers and other would-be mentors. “The quality of your mentoring initiatives is highly dependent on the quality of your mentors.”

O’Brien added that another crucial factor to consider when implementing a mentoring program is setting the right expectations, both for mentors and mentees.

“Oftentimes mentees have a perception that their career is going to be skyrocketed by participating in this program.

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