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Turning the Tables in Mentoring

The current generation of managers is still made up of digital immigrants – a term that covers all users in our digital world that did not grow up immersed in the media of the digital age, but had to acquire the right tools and techniques over the course of their working life.

When one considers the many challenges of the digital age and the fact that many companies have come to use social networks effectively for their commercial purposes, this was a steep learning curve. And it is true lifelong learning, because technological progress never rests and never stops. There is vast potential still lying dormant.

One great way of tapping into these resources is to draw on the abilities of new recruits, on the digital natives who have grown up with the internet and its offshoots and who know no inhibitions when the digital life is concerned. 

In the recent past, some major names in business have introduced new projects, designed to help their older members of staff to find their feet in the new media. The age of the Web 2.0 can make many things easier for people at the top, as long as they know and can use the new technological means. It pays off to get new recruits and senior staff to work together and let the digital experience of the young employee feed into the experience and capabilities of his or her older counterpart.

The primary purpose is to overcome ingrained fears and anxieties and the defences that many older people put up when they have to work with modern IT. It can be an exhilarating experience to learn the new language of that modern world – many technical terms are so new and unusual that they are indeed a foreign language that people have to learn first and that could pass by even a person at the top of the corporate ladder. 
Turning the usual teacher-student paradigm upside down is sometimes called “reverse mentoring”. The usual scenario is that a young employee is given an older mentor whose job is to support and guide him or her. Now, the tables are turned, and many managers will be surprised at how natural and easy-going life with the new media can be.
The advantages of this form of mentoring go both ways. It gives job-starters an opportunity to get a feel for how managers work from whom they are normally cut off by the natural gap that exists between them. Hierarchy now takes second place, because the older employee wants to learn from and use the knowledge of his or her younger counterpart. Young employees might have little experience with the everyday business, but both sides will benefit from the mentoring experience. A welcome side-effect is that the partnership can help overcome old prejudices.

Many projects of this nature also include the introduction of dedicated web forums or so-called “wikis”, in which knowledge about the company and its workings is stored and ready to be used at the touch of a button.

The idea of reverse mentoring is not completely new. It can trace its origins back to U.S. operations of General Electric in the 1990s. The occasion back then was also people’s unfamiliarity about the still new internet and the productive use that younger workers made of it. The new media landscape is still changing the learning architecture of leading companies and accelerating the spread of essential knowhow. This is essential in a time when the shelf life of knowledge and information is shrinking, with new contents displacing old knowledge at a constantly accelerating rate.

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