Mentors in the Electronic Age: The Old World and New

We live in an incredible age where space or distance has much less of an influence over us. Never before in human history has there been the ability to communicate and exchange ideas over such a large area so quickly.  We can inexpensively and almost instantly gain from the insights and experiences of hundreds if not thousands of people while never leaving our home or office.  In the past, it sometimes took generations for ideas to move from one part of a continent to another, it takes less than seconds today.  Instead of searching out an expert in a faraway land, we can simply send the person an email or text message. We live in an age when we can form new relationships, work with experts we never met, and discuss ideas with people that we would have never encountered.

One of the questions posed from the last post dealt with how mentoring has changed with the electronic age and how can social networks change the mentor-mentee relationship.  These are very interesting questions, especially since we are living the answers right now.  I think the root of the answer to both questions is captured in a Marshall McLuhan quote:

“The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village”

The electronic age has facilitated social networking which has enhanced three facets of the mentor-mentee relationship:

  • Increase the availability matches for mentors and mentees
  • Afford new communication and exchange options
  • Create new potential mentor-mentee models

Increase the availability matches for mentors and mentees

The social media revolution has truly caught on in a big way.  It is almost not possible to drive down a commercial street without seeing signs that announce “look for us on Facebook” or some other social media site. Most of us are have joined LinkedIn.com or one of the other virtual networking variants or use some type of social media software at work to communicate with our coworkers and team members.   The real power of the Internet in general and social networking in particular is that is really does turn the world into the “village” that McLuhan refers to in the above quote.  Now a mentor and mentee can be introduced across the globe and gain from similar as well as different experiences and expertise.   The constraint of meeting a mentor in your local community or through an organization or association you are a member in is significantly diminished.   Mentor and mentee combinations are now only limited by access to technology and language.  Initial experimentation in this area occurred with pairing children with adult mentors in the US.  Two great examples are I Could Be (http://www.icouldbe.org/) and Electronic Emissary (http://emissary.wm.edu/).

Afford new communication and exchange options

A successful relationship is built on trust, communication, and understanding.  Although it takes longer to develop each of these over the Internet, it is possible.  In working with several organizations, employees have raved about their mentors and importance of that relationship in their professional lives.  When I asked if the mentors might want to be involved in the interview process, I was told that we could use Skype or a similar method when the person woke up in a few hours in India, China, or England. Three forces have successfully propelled long range mentoring forward: online learning innovations, team coordination applications, and social networking.   The variety of collaborate tools available in each of these areas are being leveraged by mentors and mentees not just in the US, but worldwide.  While the traditional model of mentoring is to meet face to face or to have a conversation over the phone on a fixed date and time, now exchanges can be more real time and responsive to dynamic situations.  Just as education has evolved from being based on a fixed text and standard lectures, mentors now can play a more active role in assisting their mentees.  Two popular workplace applications that encourage these new methods of exchange are Cubetree and Yammer.

Create new potential mentor-mentee models

Although there are some mentor group models that have been employed in the past, one big future change will be an increase in boarder as well as more specialized mentor relationships.   Without the limitation of meeting face to face for fixed increments of time, a mentee can join groups and gain from the knowledge of many experts or mentors.  In addition, the delivery and proliferation of expertise will become more common allowing multiple mentees to benefit from the same mentor.   A great example of a precursor to this move is the LinkedIn.com groups that address member questions on a plethora of business topics.  Certain questions are consistently answered by the same experts and members have the right to follow the activities, writing, and comments of other members.

Although as humans we still crave that contact of sitting with a mentor, technology has significantly increased the comfort and utility of not being in the same location.  We have only touched the cusp of where technology will take us in the future and clearly the way we mentor will change like much else in our personal and professional lives.

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