Mentoring has been around since the beginning of time and has traditionally involved a transfer of knowledge from an experienced individual (the mentor) to someone with less experience (the mentee). For certain, most of us have been mentored at some point in our lives: through work, through school, through sports or through a professional association (such as HRMA’s PMP program).
In essence, mentoring involves the handy transfer of the wisdom of the ages. With the influx of Gen Y driven technologies though, the traditional format is being turned on its head. What is emerging is a flipside format with powerful benefits for all generations.
Reverse mentoring is a relatively recent phenomenon that can be attributed to the prevalence of technology in our culture and it involves a reversal of power; the mentee has now become the mentor. What makes reverse mentoring different from mentoring is that the mentor is usually younger than the mentee, who is more experienced overall, but lacking specific experience in the field in which the mentor is strong.
The rise of reverse mentoring closely parallels the exponential growth of workplace and social technologies along with a generational shift that has been building since the early 1980s. This is when the first members of Generation Y1 (millennials) were born. The millennial generation has always been considered to be technically savvy and the reason behind this can be linked to the development of the Internet, which occurred as this generation grew older.
The technologies that evolved alongside the millennials have led to an increase in peer communications, thanks in part to tools such as instant messaging (early 1980s), email (early 1970s), texting (circa 1990) and one can’t forget social media (Wikipedia 2001, Facebook 2004). Before we go further into the concept of reverse mentoring we must acknowledge the perceived “sense of entitlement” that has been attributed to members of this generation. These technologies have always been part of their environment and later evolved as important components of their professional toolkits. This may often play a role in the workplace and creates an ocean of opportunity for savvy HR professionals looking to optimize engagement and ROI.
When it comes to millennials and the workplace, there is often the feeling that they are being undervalued by their employer and this underscores their job expectations being unfulfilled. Reverse mentoring offers an opportunity for employers to change this attitude in the workplace by enabling this generation to impart their knowledge to co-workers and superiors. Reverse mentoring is a method of employee empowerment; by letting a junior member of your office impart knowledge to the more senior members, you are giving them the ability to fulfill their job satisfaction – and also have an impact on your organization.
Technology could play a much more significant role in the workplace, especially when it comes to Web 2.02. For example, few offices use any type of social media, some workplaces even ban its use; this is an area where employees from the millenial generation could help give insight through reverse mentoring.
Through the process of reverse mentoring, millenials are able to leverage the technological skills that they possess to drive innovation in the workplace. An example of this occurred at Best Buy when the firm tried to implement a company-wide wiki3 for their Geek Squad division. The company created an internal wiki for company-wide communication only to discover that there was very little usage from the store-level employees. It was discovered that the employees were interested in discussing work, only not by using the company’s wiki – instead, they preferred to communicate across a video game4. The employees were then approached to see what could be done to change the way the wiki worked and make it a more viable option for company wide communication. This is just one example of where reverse mentoring can play a key role in retooling your organization and making it more Web 2.0 friendly. The added benefit is that such ‘new thinking’ also makes your company more attractive to employees from the millennial generation.
However, there are problems with implementing reverse mentoring in the workplace and the most obvious is a reluctance to change. There may be backlash from the senior staff unwilling to receive mentoring from someone who is junior to them. However, it is important to remember that reverse mentoring is anything but a threat to the hierarchical organization. While the roles are reversed in situ during mentoring sessions, the results generated promise to support the overarching structure of the organizational entity as a whole.
Moreover, there are those in middle or senior management who do not see the benefit of adding more technological know-how to their plate, let alone accepting the tutoring from a could-be entry level employee. However, the opportunity to not only empower younger employees, but to possibly revitalize your business, trumps the challenge of toppling antiquated assumptions of mentoring.
With technology playing a greater role in every aspect of both our personal and professional worlds, now is the ideal time for most businesses to at least experiment with reverse mentoring; the costs are minimal and at a time when innovation and intellectual capital are being called upon more than ever before, there really is no other option than to seize the opportunity.
In conclusion, reverse mentoring is a realistic method of making your organization aware of the technological tools that are out there waiting to be used. It is an initiative that HR can push through their departments and help to implement. The benefits are empowering the millemnial generation that will soon – if it hasn’t already – become the bulk of your workforce. Until that time, reverse mentoring will be an invaluable tool at your disposal to ensure that your company is up to date when it comes to technology.
(PeopleTalk: Summer 2010)
“Generation Y -.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 09 Feb. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_Y>.
“Web 2.0 -.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 09 Feb. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_2.0>.
“Wiki -.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 09 Feb. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki>.
Tapscott, Don, and Anthony D. Williams. Wikinomics How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. New York: Portfolio Hardcover, 2008. Print.