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Posted by on Oct 14, 2014

Forget the Knowledge Management System: Mentoring as Knowledge Transfer

Knowledge-TransferAh, the perpetual threat of the Federal retirement wave. First, experts predicted it would come down on us like a “tsunami” in 2012.  Then it didn’t for reasons described by other experts (including myself). Now it’s expected to “skyrocket” in 2017. The good news is that the Federal Government has time to prepare for the brain-drain of boomer retirements. Sounds like a great reason for a large technology project resulting in a shiny new knowledge management system, right? The simple answer is NO.

Workers would rather get information from colleagues and often ignore databases, portals, and electronic repositories. So, does that mean we can rest easy and assume a haphazard process simply of individuals conversing with colleagues in the lunch room will preempt the problem? That’s also a negative.

To prevent “brain drain” before it occurs, agencies should create mentoring programs specifically for knowledge transfer from potential retirees to individuals likely to do their roles or tasks in the future.

These programs, however, must be distinct from traditional mentoring programs. Mentoring for knowledge transfer is essentially different from traditional mentoring in that there is a more emphasis on practical application with less emphasis on enculturation and building networks and the interpersonal relationship between mentor and mentee is far less critical.

As agencies build differentiated mentoring programs, it’s important to understand how knowledge transfer programs are the same as and different from traditional mentoring programs.

Let’s start with how they are the same. Both traditional and knowledge transfer mentoring programs require:

  1. Clear Objectives and Measurement: The more formal the program is, the more likely it is to meet program objectives. Both traditional and knowledge-transfer mentoring programs should have formal objectives at both the program and individual relationship and be measured as closely to real-time as possible. Moreover, both types of mentoring programs should have structured mentoring plans for each mentor/mentee relationship. Finally, both programs should be monitored to ensure the mentors and mentees are meeting program objectives.
  2. Visual Commitment of Leaders: Mentoring takes time out of the participants’ day. This time is only as important as the individual believes it is. The best way to ensure individuals believe mentoring is important is for leadership to demonstrate its importance. This means that leadership should be involved in sending communications about the program, reporting to the organization on the program’s success, and participating in the program itself.
  3. Training on How to be a Mentor and Mentee: According to a study by Clutterbuck Associates, “Without any training at all, less than one in three pairings will deliver significant results for either party. Training mentors alone raises the success rate to around 65%. Training and educating line managers about the program pushed the success rate above 90%, with both parties reporting substantial gains.” Regardless of whether your program is traditional or knowledge transfer, training both the mentor and the mentee is critical to getting a positive return on the agency’s investment.

And here’s how knowledge transfer programs differ from traditional mentoring programs:

  1. Focus on the Job, Not the Individual: Knowledge transfer mentoring should focus on practical application of job skills – both technical skills and the relationships you need to get the job done. Whereas as traditional mentoring can focus on developing the mentee as a whole person and across competencies, knowledge transfer is knowledge about something. It should focus on everything to get the job done, so “unwritten rules” and “tricks of the trade” still matter, but only in the context of the specified role. It’s not about how to get promoted or demonstrate executive presence, but it does include best practices, who to know, and tacit wisdom.
  2. Matching is More Yahoo! Answers and Less Match.com: Traditional mentoring programs require a certain degree of interpersonal synergy between the mentor and mentee. This requires a matching process that takes into consideration factors that matter to the individual mentee such as personality, gender, career goals, and work-life fit goals. Knowledge transfer mentoring matches, however, are done based on the need to transfer the knowledge itself.  Given knowledge transfer is generally a shorter-term relationship than traditional mentoring, personality matters less and work matters more. The person who needs the knowledge matches with the person who has it as the primary consideration, personality is rarely a factor beyond participation in the program itself (i.e., is the person even suitable as a mentor or mentee?).
  3. This is not a monogamous relationship: Unlike in traditional mentoring programs where there is a one-to-one relationship with a personal connection requiring trust and confidentiality, openness and transparency are more important in knowledge transfer and both mentors and mentee should be share what they learn with others. Moreover, mentors and mentees in programs such as phased retirement, may have many relationships simultaneously. Finally, the types of mentoring relationships and activities will vary more widely in knowledge transfer. Knowledge transfer mentoring should integrate group mentoring, panel discussions, and even discussion boards. Use of technology, however, should only be done in an environment where it is already the norm. Knowledge transfer mentoring initiatives should not be used as a springboard for a new system or tool. Focus on the objectives of the program only.

Neither traditional mentoring programs nor knowledge management systems can fully meet knowledge transfer needs. Organizations certainly need traditional mentoring and knowledge management systems, of course, but if they want to surf the retirement wave, knowledge management mentoring can be the differentiator between hanging ten and a wipe out.

How is your organization using mentoring for knowledge transfer? Which type of mentoring, traditional or knowledge transfer, would most benefit your organization?

1 Comment

  1. The point of view expressed in this article is one that I have used many times as an organizational development consultant. The focus was different as it was targeted at professionals at level that needed to work to learn, so learning needed to be built into what they did, not on knowledge transfer from one generation to another. There is only so much a knowledge management system (created one for PW in 1993) and learning (part of my role in consulting and learning) can do to build skills for experienced professionals and I would suggest inexperienced as well. One of my mentor project 2 years ago focused on soft skills for experienced hires and executives. We started by reviewing and understanding skill gaps identified through an external assessment. Next we reviewed options available to us to close the gaps with this groups of senior professionals , we set clear learning outcomes based on the data set, not on what we had available to us, and the program had to fit into the limited time available for working experienced professionals. Once we had buy-in from the executives who needed to champion the program, we launched a mentoring program that combined several key elements, 1) hand picked mentors that understood the industry and skills of the professional ,2) dashboard, timeline, and how we would know we successful, 4) match making & governance was set and we kicked off the program with the people who would be mentored and their active role throughout the process including setting up the calls with the mentor, identifying with the mentor the key deliverables, and establishing a project cadence with milestones, to ensure that the mentoring was not only happening but working, and to keep the group moving together toward the outcomes, and to share what they were learning. There were some tweaks that were required because a match did not work, or a mentor was not readily available, etc. but they were identified early and corrected, we started the march on regular cadence calls. I must admit I was a little surprised that these calls became powerful knowledge sharing moments where someone would share what they had learned through their mentoring that month, and in this process they codified their own learning and as they listened to other group members talk about their process and learning, you could feel the 1+1=3 happening. For me as the architect of the program, there were several things I learned. Keep the group at 30 people are less, focus on similar objectives and outcomes to magnify the learning, ensure that the “right mentor” is carefully chosen and committed to doing their part and expect that some won’t. This kind of mentoring is time consuming and reaps the greatest benefits for senior professionals that need to have some rough spots smoothed out. Finally, I think that the rigor of a cadence kept the focus and pressure on to accomplish the desired outcomes, but my big “ah ha” was how much more learning the group received by learning from each other and the coaching all of the other professionals had shared. The magnification of the learning cannot be underestimated in a situation like this and by the last cadence call we had full attendance on the cadence because the entire group was now a critical part of the process. It proved to be a way to lend even greater credibility to messages that were consistently sent by the mentors, and the added befit of seeing the messages 6, 8, 10 times through a different lense.

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