In recent months, there has been a spate of articles and webinars extolling the virtues of “speed mentoring”, “flash mentoring” or similar means of fast knowledge transfer (FKT). We have also seen the rise of “Mentoring Lite” from major dot-com providers, providing rapid matching between people with a problem and an expert. In an era of informational instant gratification, such connections are inevitable and often valuable – but they have little to do with mentoring. Worse, corporations considering encouraging mentoring can be fooled into assuming that linking people in this way is all they need to do – a simplistic solution that carries little cost or responsibility.
Here’s a recent example. Two people in different countries sign up for Linked In’s “mentoring” service and connect because one has a need in an area, in which the other has expertise. A while into the conversation, the one presenting the issue asks: “How do we manage the confidentiality here?” They have to make up the rules as they go. Other concerns relate to the quality of the information given by self-rated experts and the potential for mentors to manipulate naïve mentees.
We can define two main types of FKT. One relates to information — “What I need to know”. The second relates to situations – “What do I do when…?” The conversations in both cases are transactional and directive, not least because there is insufficient time to apply a mentoring or coaching style. Additionally, the “mentor” in this transaction may not have the skill of using their knowledge to formulate powerful questions, rather than give advice; and the “mentee” may not have the skills to present their issue in a way that elicits a learning conversation. The only difference between FKT and going to, for example, a lawyer or other professional expert, is that FKT tends to be free.
The advantages of FKT include:
- Speed of response – having multiple points of expertise to call upon reduces the time between identifying a problem and finding an answer
- Subject expertise is all that matters – you don’t have to have the skills of teaching to pass on some information
- A “one-night-stand” requires no more support than reasonably efficient dating software. FKT is basically Tinder for information exchange.
- You are not obliged to take any notice of the advice given. If you don’t like it, you link up with someone else!
By contrast, genuine mentoring is not a transaction, but a relationship that differs from FKT in multiple ways:
- It typically results in two-way learning
- It focuses not just on the problem but on the learning the mentee can take from it and apply in other circumstances. (It’s the classic difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to fish.)
- In addition to technical knowledge, it offers self-knowledge.
- It often provides the mentee with a role model.
- It leads to much deeper levels of change in ways of thinking, behaviour and, in many cases, personal transformation.
- The mentor accompanies the mentee through the process of important transitions in their life, work or career. (FKT just intervenes at a few key points.) It’s one thing to take on board what you should do to address an issue; quite another to follow through to achieving change.)
- It creates a high level of honesty (both self-honesty and towards each other) as a result of the trust that builds between mentor and mentee over time.
- It gets behind the presented issue. By helping the mentee understand their internal context (their values, aspirations, strengths, weaknesses and so on) and linking these to deeper understanding of their external context (what’s going on around them), mentoring almost always results in a redefinition of goals. By its nature, FKT has broadly to work with the assumptions brought to the conversation, rather than challenge them.
- It addresses issues (business or personal) from a longer-term, strategic perspective, as well as a short-term, tactical perspective.
- It builds the habit of reflection on experience – something in serious decline in working environments that emphasise doing more rather than thinking more.
- It can form a key part of a corporate strategy for achieving objectives such as increased diversity in the C suite and elsewhere in management, for making significant culture shifts, or for improving employee engagement. Moreover, the impact of mentoring on the business is relatively easy to measure; with FKT, the only credible measures are the volume of traffic and usefulness of the transaction. That’s not much help in looking at overall return on investment – the correlation between improvements in individual performance and team or organizational performance is generally poor.
- Over time, it helps the mentee build a support network of additional relationships of trust, through introductions from the mentor. (It isn’t easy to turn a one-off transaction into such a relationship.)
The way forward
FKT and mentoring each have their strengths. But each can also be undermined when people engage in one, expecting the other; or when an organisation assumes erroneously that it can do mentoring on the cheap and that people will naturally fall into an effective development alliance. A responsible and effective approach harnesses the strengths of both by clarifying expectations and the purpose of the interaction. So:
- Are you looking for one or two pieces to complete a jigsaw, where you already have most of the pieces in place? Then FKT is likely to give all you need, for relatively little effort.
- Are you looking for help along a longer-term journey of self-discovery, self-development and career fulfilment? Then mentoring can provide what you need.
Within organisations, emerging good practice involves offering both FKT and mentoring, along with a mechanism for each to lead to the other. An initial FKT transaction may be the start of a mentoring relationship, but to make it work well and avoid abuse, both parties need education in their respective roles as mentor and mentee, and ongoing support in growing into those roles. An FKT conversation may also be the trigger, to encourage someone to seek a mentor – but then they need a simple, accessible route to finding someone suitable. (Mentoring relationships without training deliver significant value less than a third of the time.) Equally, mentoring identifies all sorts of gaps in knowledge, which can be filled through FKT, either via the mentor’s personal network of contacts or through a formal network of volunteer advisors.
The bottom line
What’s needed now is a more intelligent, perceptive approach to integrating FKT and mentoring, while preserving the benefits of both. The danger of not achieving this is that the gains resulting from mentoring’s increasing role as the most powerful method of professional and personal development, are devalued as people come to expect a quick fix, rather than stimulation to think.
© David Clutterbuck, 2017