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Knowledge transfer mentoring—Part 1 Why your KM strategy should include mentoring

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When most people think about mentoring, what comes to mind is career advice and counseling. Those types of mentoring programs—which are relatively common in the corporate world—pair younger employees with more experienced colleagues who can help them find the right career paths, make decisions about their careers and development, and tackle conflicts or challenges they experience in the workplace.

Career-oriented mentoring plays a vital role in increasing engagement (especially among early-career millennials, who job hop twice as often as new graduates did 20 years ago), minimizing turnover and making younger workers feel nurtured and valued. But career support is only one of several reasons to develop a workplace mentoring program.

One powerful alternative application of mentoring is as a knowledge transfer technique. In member-based nonprofit APQC’s recent study on workplace mentoring practices, more than half the featured organizations reported using mentoring as a way to transfer discipline- or job-specific expertise from one employee to another. Often, that type of mentoring is positioned as an alternative to costly classroom training or knowledge capture initiatives. Some programs are designed to get new hires up to speed, whereas others emphasize more advanced skills and expertise in order to build bench strength for subject matter expert and leadership positions.

Knowledge transfer mentoring

When mentoring focuses on the transfer of discipline knowledge, it becomes a way to give employees the hard skills they need to succeed in their current roles and prepare them to assume more advanced responsibilities over time. Some firms also use this type of mentoring to ensure that long-tenured employees nearing retirement pass on the experience-based knowledge they have acquired over the course of their careers to the mid-career professionals who ultimately will take over for them.

Often, knowledge transfer mentoring is tied to knowledge management, learning and development, workforce planning or succession management initiatives. Some organizations feel that tacit knowledge, which resides in an expert’s head and surfaces in response to a situation or action, can be exchanged most effectively through one-on-one interactions between mentors and mentees who work side by side for a period of time. In those situations, mentorship—sometimes coupled with formal training—becomes a key component of the broader KM and organizational learning strategy.

Knowledge transfer mentoring is particularly common in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields where skills shortages compel organizations to accelerate the development of less experienced people to fill critical positions. In a recent APQC survey, 89 percent of respondents said their firms use mentoring or apprenticeship to help STEM employees develop their skills and competencies. Survey respondents also ranked mentoring as one of the best ways to build expertise within the workforce, with 59 percent of users rating it as effective or very effective (see chart).

What does a successful knowledge transfer mentorship look like, and how can those relationships facilitate meaningful knowledge exchange and learning? Here are examples from three organizations whose mentoring programs support the transfer of knowledge and expertise. Each has its own twist on traditional mentorship, but all three demonstrate the benefits that those relationships can provide.

Praxair

Praxair, a global industrial gases company, positions mentoring as a key component of its workforce development strategy. It offers a number of mentoring initiatives to accelerate the development of employees’ technical and engineering skills and to strengthen their soft skills in areas such as leadership, collaboration, innovation and communication.

One of Praxair’s flagship mentoring opportunities is part of a two-year leadership technical orientation program (LTOP) designed to expedite the development of new hires in the organization’s operations, sales and business development groups. In addition to exposing participants to an extensive technical training curriculum, the program pairs each new employee with a more experienced mentor who can provide hands-on support and guide the mentee through the learning process.

New graduates are selected for LTOP through Praxair’s employee recruiting process. During the first year of the program, participants receive technical training and work on a variety of individual and team projects designed to build their technical, leadership and teamwork skills. During their second year, the organization assigns participants a work location and a sponsor who helps them hone their technical skills on the job. At the same time, HR assigns each participant a mentor who supports hard and soft skills development and provides career path insights and guidance.

LTOP mentoring pairs begin their relationships by sharing their professional goals and identifying common interests or shared values that link them together. They then decide on specific development goals the mentee will pursue and expectations regarding how frequently they will meet, how accessible they will be to one another and the nature of the support the mentor will provide. Ideally, each LTOP mentoring pair meets either virtually or in person for two to four hours per month. Pairs use quarterly review meetings to track progress, verify professional growth and set new challenges.

According to Praxair representatives, the program has significantly reduced the time it takes for recent science and engineering degree graduates to become fully competent in high-profile, technically demanding, safety-intensive positions. The program also supports succession and knowledge management by helping the company deepen its pipeline of employees with the hard and soft skills required to replace technical leaders who are nearing retirement.

MD Anderson Cancer Center

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has a formal mentoring program that encompasses three different levels of mentoring:

  • organization-fit mentoring, which helps new employees acclimate to the organizational culture and build workplace relationships;
  • job-fit mentoring, which provides employees with a deeper understanding of job responsibilities so that they can become high performers; and
  • career-fit mentoring, in which employees interested in particular fields can seek out mentors to help them navigate correctly down those career paths.

While all three mentoring formats contribute to effective employee development, job-fit mentoring is also a key knowledge transfer technique. MD Anderson offers multiple mentoring opportunities at that level, which allow experienced employees to pass on both technical knowledge and leadership, communication and decision-making skills that are difficult to impart through documentation or classroom learning.

For example, MD Anderson’s nursing division offers a job-level mentoring opportunity called a “preceptorship.” A preceptor is an experienced nurse who helps less experienced nurses gain proficiency in job-related nursing skills. Preceptors often work side by side with their mentees so that they can demonstrate good practice and offer hands-on instruction in the context of daily duties.

Another job-level mentoring option is called Mentoring Connections, which involves sessions where an employee meets with four different advisers for 15 minutes each and explains a job-related problem that he/she needs help solving. The mentee talks to one adviser for 15 minutes and then rotates through the remaining advisers to obtain advice on how to approach the specific situation or problem. Mentoring Connections aims to help an employee solve both technical problems as well as interpersonal concerns, such as having an issue with a supervisor and needing guidance on how to approach the situation.

MD Anderson’s director of organization development reports that mentoring makes employees more productive while building the hard and soft skills they need to move up the ranks. And that claim is backed up by data: Since the organization revamped its mentoring program, it has significantly increased the percentage of positions it fills through internal promotions compared to external hiring. Although that change is not due solely to the mentoring program, the organization believes that mentoring-related development opportunities are a significant contributor.

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