Organizations, whether for profit or not, invest in infrastructure and people. Infrastructure requires a one-time investment and occasional refresh. People, on the other hand, continuously cycle through an organization. The experience they gain as they master their jobs represents assets of enormous value. When they leave, the assets vanish unless the organization implements a harvesting program. That’s when a mentorship program within a company proves its worth. Once mentored, new employees prove to be durable, long-term assets, unlikely to leave. We call this type of mentorship B2E (business-to-employee).

The same can be said about B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-customer) mentorship where organizations work with other businesses and customers. Through mentorship, businesses can inspire and lead within their industry. Through mentorship, businesses can reinforce relationships with existing customers and turn prospective customers into permanent ones. Through social network-based mentoring, businesses can utilize the social aspect and take unstructured data such as casual chats and email exchanges and structure the information to make it useful for learning.

There is no better time than now to implement mentorship programs. Why?

  1. The Baby Boomer generation is reaching retirement age. This means companies are losing valuable people assets that need to be harvested. Hence the need for what Lockheed-Martin calls “knowledge continuity” in their mentorship programs.
  2. The tools of the Internet and in particular social networking provide a perfect medium for implementation.

With the rise of social networks, it has never been easier to share knowledge. Mentoring through a social network fits the comfort zone of a younger demographic, the very people who seek the knowledge. Young people are social networking literate. They are engaged, involved and motivated through this medium. And social networks transcend geography, allowing mentor and mentee to connect from anywhere, any time.

There are two types of mentorship programs: informal and formal.

Informal Mentorship Programs

What constitutes an informal program? A good example is Horsesmouth, a public social network that states “Someone knows what you need. Someone needs what you know.” Horsesmouth covers a wide range of life, work and learning topics and involves individuals and businesses. Horsesmouth calls itself a “wisdomocracy” and states it has over 25,000 mentors in its network. All mentors fill in an application and require approval before posting. The onus to connect is on the mentee.

I like the term “wisdomocracy” because it reflects how mentorship differs from training programs. In a “wisdomocracy” the onus to learn is driven by the knowledge seeker. A “wisdomocracy” rewards learner initiative, and recognizes the value provided by mentor knowledge sharing. But using a Facebook, LinkedIn or a Ning to create “wisdomocracy” within a company is fraught with many challenges. These include the potential for a company to reveal valuable proprietary information through a public site that could compromise intellectual property, trade secrets and other business pursuits.

Formal Mentorship Programs

Formal mentorship programs are the kind in which companies and organizations with a specific cause invest. Some are deployed as enterprise network solutions. Many are web accessible. Some connect to public social networks but more and more reside behind-the-firewall in private social communities.

One such is the CanWIT eMentorship, a social network connecting women in technology. CanWIT stands for Canadian Women in Technology. The eMentorship initiative focuses on providing senior management IT women coaches for young women working in the industry.

CanWIT’s origins date back to 2003 when an initiative between the CATA Alliance, supporting IT innovation in Canada, and Springboard, providing venture capital for women-led businesses, led to its inception. Today, CanWIT is a national IT community network with chapters located from British Columbia to Atlantic Canada.

One of CanWIT’s new initiatives is BringitOn, a website aimed at attracting young women to follow career paths in technology. “Finding these young women easily accessible role models is one of the reasons we launched the CanWIT eMentorship site,” states Suzie Labonne, Vice President of Mentorship at CanWIT. “Another is addressing the need for women already in the industry to find other women in IT leadership positions to whom they can relate. In 2010 we experimented with an online pilot project focused on establishing mentor-mentee connections in the Greater Toronto Area. We were pleasantly surprised to be contacted by mentor candidates from right across Canada. We quickly learned that this type of program has no geographic boundaries and that virtual mentorship connections work.”

The product CanWIT chose to use is called workingrooms, from Toronto-based Enable Inc. Enable is a woman-owned company that specializes in private social networks. The site goes live on December 1, 2011.

“There are particular challenges for young women today in IT,” Labonne remarks. “Giving them guidance from other IT women who are experienced and successful provides them with a vision of what is achievable in IT as a career. Without mentorship many drop out of the business by their mid-30s.”

Through the CanWIT eMentorship web-based application women login and get matched to other women based on common characteristics found within their profiles. The characteristics can be mined by both field and key word search. Once matched, the women begin their mentor-mentee interaction using the many communication and online resource tools. The program also allows one-to-many mentor-mentee relationships. It features private email, chat, document posting and sharing, video and multimedia support, calendars and meeting rooms for group interaction.

“The beauty of using a social networking platform is that it is not just business. Women mentors can share both their business experience as senior IT executives, as well as their personal lives. They can bring perspective and balance to the mentees they coach,” Labonne concludes.

Enable is not alone in the business of providing mentor-mentee private social networks. Others in this space include: Triple Creek, offering Open Mentoring, a tool that matches mentors to mentees both one-to-one and one-to-many and provides career development, topical and situational rapid learning engagements; Chronus Mentor, delivering a web-based one-to-one and group mentoring and coaching solution; and Mentoring Complete, one of a suite of applications that focuses on sourcing mentors, coaching and mentorship program delivery.

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