Mentoring in Forward, Reverse and Sideways
By Samuel Greengard
A big problem in today's consumer-driven era of IT is that the laws of 20th century physics no longer apply. For years, CIOs and other executives mentored employees and helped them develop into savvy managers. Today, many organizations also focus on reverse mentoring and are tapping younger workers to help older workers gain skills in social media, mobility and other areas. This list includes Cisco Systems, Johnson & Johnson and General Electric, which pioneered the concept under former CEO Jack Welch.
Both concepts remain valid. The problem, as Gartner research VP Jack Santos points out, is that "mentoring carries with it a connotation of power—the person in a position of power is assisting the person not in the same position." Depending on where you sit in the corporate soup bowl, that can mean dealing with crusty old geezers or brash young know-it-alls.
A better approach, Santos argues, is to flip "the whole mentoring discussion on its head and simply talk about managing relationships and engagements. By putting social interactions on steroids (thru Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media), it becomes less about mentoring, and more about making sure that you (boss or subordinate) are properly managing your relationships, and that all interactions are a good give and take."
In many cases, social media offers a way to connect dots faster and more effectively. With well-designed systems, finding experts on an as needed and ad hoc basis is simple and straightforward.
It's tough to argue with this logic. In an era of radical and uncompromising change, an organization must find ways to tap into knowledge, expertise and greater effectiveness every which way possible. Yet, Santos also points out that it's foolish to think an organization can become truly egalitarian. Some structure and leadership is essential—and even in communities that strive to be egalitarian, a hierarchy emerges. His suggestion: think Big L and Little L as in leadership. "So in that sense, everyone in the organization is a leader," he explains.
The bottom line? Allow knowledge to flow in whatever direction it can go and you will wind up with a lot smarter and more innovative IT department and organization.