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Knowledge transfer mentoring—Part 3
mentoring as a springboard for networking and collaboration

This article appears in the issue November/December 2016, [Volume 25, Issue 10]
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When positioning mentoring as part of a knowledge management strategy, most organizations focus on how skill- and role-specific mentoring enables leaders and experts to pass on experiential knowledge to younger, less experienced colleagues. As I described in the first two articles of this three-part series, structured knowledge transfer is a key aspect of mentoring’s value proposition and one of the biggest reasons why KM programs should incorporate mentoring into their suite of approaches. However, research by member-based nonprofit APQC suggests that formal mentoring also stimulates the kind of relationship building needed to fuel effective cross-boundary collaboration. Top organizations use mentoring as a catalyst to help employees develop their professional networks, usually far beyond the specific pairings supported by the program. That helps improve knowledge sharing across teams, functions and business units while allowing organizations to maximize the return on their mentoring investments.

Build rapport via group mentoring

Although any type of mentoring can help employees build professional relationships, group mentorship is an obvious way to link employees to an array of colleagues and perspectives. Rather than limiting mentoring to one mentor and one mentee, those fluid and flexible programs expose employees to a range of advisers and learners, thus multiplying the potential for meaningful connections.

Cardinal Health, for example, uses a group mentoring structure as part of its leadership development programs for high-potential employees at the vice president, director, manager and new professional (i.e., recent college graduate) levels. A group peer-mentoring program enables participants in those four leadership development programs to cross-pollinate. Through 35 peer groups of five participants each, new leaders are exposed to colleagues at various levels of the organization and encouraged to exchange ideas on applying leadership techniques to their own day-to-day jobs.

MD Anderson Cancer Center offers several group mentoring options that connect employees to mentors and colleagues. In one program, a subject matter expert called a “catalyst mentor” leads a group mentoring session with up to 20 employees. Those sessions usually focus on topics of interest or need at the organization, such as using emotional intelligence to increase job effectiveness. Another group mentoring option is called Mentoring Connections. In those sessions, employees meet with four different advisers for 15 minutes each and explain a job-related problem that they need help solving. Each mentee talks to an adviser for 15 minutes and then rotates through the remaining advisers to obtain advice on how to approach the specific situation or problem. In addition to helping mentees solve technical and interpersonal problems, Mentoring Connections introduces mentees to four experienced colleagues whom they can seek out for information or advice in the future.

Use one-on-one mentoring to help employees jumpstart their networks

Even when a mentoring program emphasizes one-on-one relationships versus group structures, mentoring naturally builds ties between employees from different generations, hierarchical levels and functional areas who might not otherwise meet in the course of their jobs. Program leaders recognize that if the mentors and mentees introduce each other to their immediate colleagues, the connections forged through mentoring can create a ripple effect that helps break down internal silos and improve lines of communication between previously disconnected groups. To capitalize on that, many organizations actively encourage mentors and mentees to use their mentorships as jumping-off points to foster diverse professional networks and gain access to new people, ideas and experiences.

The mentoring program at the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) is perhaps the best embodiment of that strategy. One of the program’s overarching goals is to act as a springboard for ongoing networking, not just for the specific pairings but among all mentors and mentees. ARDEC does not want mentees to just learn from mentors, and it doesn’t want mentors to experience only a single mentee. Instead, the organization promotes the idea that everyone in the program is equal and should be learning from one another.

When mentees join the program, they receive formal training on how to network effectively. That includes having mentees develop “elevator pitches,” which are two-minute introductory speeches they can use to describe themselves when they encounter potential networking partners. Mentees practice and perfect their elevator pitches during the round robin event where they interview potential mentors and select the ones with whom they most want to work. ARDEC believes the program has been particularly successful at teaching less experienced employees critical networking skills.

To further encourage cross-pollination and networking, ARDEC’s mentoring program occasionally offers creative incentives. For example, it organizes a raffle to give participants the opportunity to go to a local coffee shop with someone else in the program whom they have never talked to before and chat about things that they normally would not have the opportunity to discuss. Overall, ARDEC representatives cite the boundary-spanning professional relationships that participants form as one of the most powerful outcomes of the mentoring program.

Cardinal Health’s mentoring programs explicitly encourage participants to expand their professional networks beyond the individuals with whom they are directly paired. Over the course of a mentoring relationship, each mentor is tasked with connecting his/her mentee to at least three other new contacts who can help support the mentee’s development. That amplifies the impact of the mentoring program and helps spur collaboration and knowledge sharing among parts of the workforce who might not otherwise interact.

Praxair’s approach is less explicit, but the manager of its two-year leadership technical orientation program (LTOP) works with mentoring pairs to identify additional contacts who can help mentees by providing specific expertise.

In some cases, mentoring programs are designed with the express purpose of bringing together colleagues from divergent business areas. For example, a natural resource company featured in APQC’s research runs an Emerging Talent program that deliberately pairs mentees working in technical fields such as metallurgy, geology and engineering with mentors from different fields. The idea is to give mentees a big-picture view of the organization’s operations and how its technical functions interact to create business value. An additional benefit of the program is that it enables newer employees to initiate relationships with colleagues outside their technical fields, which may help them down the road as they develop their careers and collaborate with diverse areas of the business.

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