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As workplace learning has advanced, have we lost something?

We’ve seen huge changes in workplace learning in the past couple of decades. Many of these have been positive, such as new technologies to make training content widely available and more personalised, make learning more engaging, and facilitate social learning. On a structural level, the recognition of the effectiveness of the 70:20:10 learning model has changed how many practitioners view how learning should be structured and delivered. What once needed to be delivered by a human trainer, or via coaching or mentoring, can often now be automated.

And yet there’s an increasing recognition that it’s not all good news. In all the progress, with all the resulting time and cost savings, we’ve lost something that was once a core part of our day-to-day development – the continual and gradual handing down of on-the-job experience from more experienced colleagues, largely informal, through regular help with (challenging) workplace situations – informal coaching and mentoring.

Over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in this area, thinking back to how I built skills, formed behaviours, absorbed culture and learnt different techniques for dealing with on-the-job situations. As I’ve researched the area, it’s become clear that the advantages I enjoyed as a younger employee, being supported informally by more experienced colleagues, might not always be available in today’s leaner, more efficient and optimised, faster-paced world. Drawing on my own and other’s research, this article explores why this informal but essential transfer of ‘organisational memory’ is so crucial, why we’re losing it, and how we can still achieve the benefits using modern AI-powered solutions.


–         I’m defining workplace coaching and mentoring as the continuous, often informal, transference of skills, knowledge, behaviours and culture from more experienced to less experienced staff

–         Such coaching and mentoring has important benefits for individuals and organisations in terms of productivity, staff retention, supporting career progression, embedding culture and maintaining organisational memory

–         Changes to work patterns, technology, cost structures and demographics mean we’re not going to have workplace coaching and mentoring at the same levels as we used to, at least not in the same form

–         We can still get the benefits, but in a different way – see the final section.

What is workplace coaching and mentoring?

Ask a group of people what a coach or mentor is and you’re likely to get a variety of answers. Even the academics don’t always agree – as I’ve researched this topic, I’ve seen many different and sometimes conflicting definitions. Some academics define a mentor in the same way others define a coach, for example, and vice versa. Speaking to industry contacts, I’ve heard yet more definitions, from someone who gives a new employee a ‘tea and toilets’ walkaround, to a long-term job tutor in an apprentice-master relationship.

For the purposes of this article, so that we have clear terminology, I’ll firstly draw a line between a mentor and a coach:

–         A coach is someone who helps you with your broad, life or career-shaping issues and decisions, usually helping you to find the answers yourself by using facilitative techniques.

–         I’ll use David Clutterbuck’s definition ‘A mentor is a more experienced individual willing to share their knowledge with someone less experienced in a relationship of mutual trust’. Extending this with definitions from Allen and others, by sharing experience the mentor helps the less experienced individual achieve competence and confidence, both behaviourally and technically.

A mentor might use coaching techniques, of course, but will mix this with practical advice and direction, often about a particular ‘right now’ situation. This contrasts with a coach, whose support is usually much more ‘big picture’. In practice of course, we usually need a combination.

I want to draw a further distinction to really firm up what I’m talking about in this article. The developmental concept I’m exploring is ‘workplace coaching and mentoring’ – that doesn’t necessarily mean any one individual who is formally assigned as an employee’s coach or mentor. Rather, it’s more likely to be encompassed in a collection of more senior colleagues (maybe some peers too) who proffer practical advice and support, and/or respond to requests for such, having and being known to have the experience, ability and willingness to help. It’s a general ‘thing’ that exists within the fabric and culture of an organisation, as much as it’s down to the traits of an individual. I’m sure you can recall organisations you’ve been in where the culture exists, and where it doesn’t.

Now, it’s important to state at this point that I’m not describing or advocating some kind of fluffy nirvana, where everyone runs around helping each other all the time. Nobody has time for that, we all need to learn by ourselves sometimes, and learning by our mistakes has clear value. But in the view of a number of academics and industry practitioners, we’re losing too much of the on-the-job experience-sharing, and the unique benefits this provides. We’ll explore the benefits and why we’re losing them below. My argument is, we’re not going to get the same things back in the same way, that ship has sailed, but there’s a different answer.

Workplace coaching and mentoring benefits, and the risks of not having it

There are numerous studies and meta-studies (studies of studies) demonstrating, via empirical analysis, the benefits of workplace coaching and mentoring. These vary in the level of the effect, but all the studies I found agreed that workplace coaching and mentoring benefits the organisation as well as the coachee/mentee, in areas including:

·        Job performance

·        Competence

·        Confidence

·        Self-esteem (by the mentee)

·        Job satisfaction

·        Reduced turnover

·        Reduced stress

·        Providing role models

·        Personal learning (by the mentee)

·        Knowledge sharing and retention (by the organisation)

Terri A. Scandura, a management professor and dean of the graduate school at the University of Miami, says various academic studies since the 1980s have demonstrated the many benefits of mentoring. “Clearly, employees who have mentors earn more money, are better socialized into the organization and are more productive”.[1]

Interestingly, in a meta-study, Christina Underhill found that “Informal mentoring produced a larger and more significant effect on career outcomes than formal mentoring” [2]

As a contrast, there are disbenefits if the right (practical) experience is not around to guide us. Bandura expresses this well “Learning would be laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them on what to do. Fortunately, most human behaviour is learned observationally through modelling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action” [3]

The above might be slightly extreme for effect, we don’t just blunder blindly through our work day learning solely by mistakes. We receive training, and we conduct self-learning in order to acquire skills. However, the literature also helps illustrate why we sometimes need the benefit of experience to help us apply ‘raw’ knowledge in practical situations. Knowledge learnt through training is ‘de-contextualised’ according to Aileen Kennedy from the University of Strathclyde.[4] Of course, a skilled trainer will add context to bring concepts to life, but trainers aren’t on hand during day-to-day work in the way that a workplace mentor can be.

When it comes to self-learning, the literature highlights another important issue, often overlooked in the (understandable) rush to reduce costs and widen access to learning – the lack of ‘reflective dialogue with another’. In the words of Brockbank and McGill, who write widely on learning: ‘Individualistic learning isolates learners and leaves them to their own view of the world…[with] assumptions, beliefs, perceptions and ways of construing and acting on experience [that] tend to remain untouched by internal dialogues, but may be challenged by reflective dialogue with another’.

This ‘reflective dialogue with another’ is key, not least because it can ‘cause us to reconsider how we do things and how we can do things differently to achieve better results’.[5]. This is especially effective when we work through a specific situation and understand the best way to deal with it. Situation specificity is important. The ‘70%’ of 70:20:10 is our on-the-job experiential learning, which happens ‘in the moment’, when we’re dealing with work situations. It’s one of the reasons why workplace mentoring can be so powerful, we can get help in real-time with a situation we’re in right now. As good as training, even with modern systems, it’s hard for can’t do that.

In their Harvard Business Review article entitled Why Mentoring Matters in a Hypercompetitive World, Thomas DeLong, John Gabarro and Robert Lees give several examples of how workplace mentoring is highly effective at transferring knowledge and skills from experienced employees to younger and less experienced staff, and how workplace mentoring allows close monitoring that employees are ‘getting it right’. The same article highlights examples of how a decline in workplace mentoring has led to weaker on-the-job performance, lower quality and productivity, and higher staff turnover.

In our own research, we surveyed front-line staff and first-line managers, mostly millennials, as we explored the factors affecting their productivity, how they acquired skills and related areas. The overriding request when asked what would make the most difference to their performance, was help working through work situations – in other words, workplace mentoring.

So what’s the problem? The 5 reasons why workers can’t get the workplace coaching and mentoring they need

Several factors seem to be combining to reduce the prevalence of workplace mentoring. I’ve not found a single research paper that covers everything, so I’ve synthesised from a number of sources, and combined research findings with views from industry practitioners.

Here are my top 5 reasons why workers can’t get the workplace mentors they need:

1.      Delivery Cost (financial and time)

Workplace mentoring, in the way it’s been traditionally delivered, is expensive. Formal mentoring programmes are certainly cost-prohibitive in most workplaces, and informal programmes require time from experienced colleagues that they might not have, or might not be willing to spare.

2.      Coaching and Mentoring availability

Managers are spread more thinly, organisations are leaner, workforces are often distributed, support functions are drawn into shared service centres, we work more from home, people stay in their jobs less. All these reasons and others mean often there’s just nobody more experienced around. As far back as 2010, Toyota saw quality and performance issues partly because the company had ‘thinned its ranks of expert mentors’. A Washington Post article at the time quoted Susan Helper, professor of economics at Case Western University in Cleveland, “So much of what made the company work well was that each manager was personally trained by a mentor who himself had long experience with the company”.[6]

3.      Demographics

Experienced hands from the Baby Boomer generation are retiring out of the workforce, taking the organisational memory with them. Some industries even have snappy terms for this – for example in the oil and gas sector it’s called ‘The Big Crew Change’. Measures such as cost-reduction programmes that entice experienced workers to take voluntary redundancy (very common in several sectors right now) exacerbate the situation.

4.      Recognition that workplace coaching and mentoring is a ‘thing’

Although I’ve picked up increasing references in academic journals, and a bit in the business press, I’ve not heard that much from industry about workforce coaching and mentoring as a topic, let alone any issues around it. On the other hand, whenever I discuss the subject with my industry contacts, they agree with my views and tell me stories about inspirational senior colleagues from their career. The lack of recognition could be because…

5.      Other solutions seem more attractive

There have been many innovations in learning in the past couple of decades. Many of these have been technology related. It’s now easier, faster and (to an extent) cheaper than ever to provide widespread access to learning content, and in some cases facilitate social learning (though experts still need to be available and willing to give their time). The attractions for organisations are clear, in terms of reduced deployment and administration costs, easier administration, greater learner access and (theoretically) allowing face-to-face training to be focused on the most important areas. With all the other four reasons affecting workplace mentoring that I listed above, it’s easy to see why organisations focus on the areas they can address with relative simplicity. However, I’d argue that alternative solutions fit into the 10% and maybe the 20% of the 70:20:10 model – I’d put workplace mentoring firmly into the 70% experiential on-the-job learning.

What can we do about the workplace coaching and mentoring gap? There is a cost-effective answer

Firstly, let’s be clear. We can’t go back to ‘how it was’. The world has moved on, the workplace has changed and it’s only going to change more. But we don’t want to lose workplace mentoring as a ‘thing’, and as a result lose what makes our organisations effective, different and special.

However, with increased AI capabilities and latest technologies, there is another way. As we researched this area, and looked at ‘the workplace mentoring gap’, we thought there must be a clever digital solution to help employees or managers actually do their tasks in the right way, in the same way that a human mentor would.

When we didn’t find anything to do this, we set out on a journey to create it. The result is iLeader (www.ileader.app), the first ever system that helps you ‘get it right every time’ for any business, management or leadership process.

With iLeader, we’ve created a ‘mentor in your pocket’ to help staff do what a human mentor would – to actually help people do a particular work task in the best way. iLeader is a highly efficient and simple way to give staff the confidence and confidence to do their jobs well, and because staff use iLeader regularly to do their tasks, they have the continual reinforcement and embedding of knowledge, culture and behaviours along the way. At the same, we can give second-line managers and HR an easy way to see which staff are ‘doing the right things in the right way at the right time’ with at-a-glance dashboards, and roll-up that information for governance purposes.

Our research-based approach, looking at it from a business point of view, has really paid off. Customers are really seeing how iLeader fills a badly needed gap, and how it’s different. We’re still on a learning journey, and our customers are the best way for us to understand what they want iLeader (www.ileader.appto do. We’d love to talk to you to understand your needs.

To find out more, feel free to contact me directly at scottd@oxfordhrtech.com .

#Leadership #Management #Productivity #Learning #Talent

[1] Workplace Loyalties Change, but the Value of Mentoring Doesn’t, Wharton Business School Knowledge@ Wharton post, May 2007

[2] Journal of Vocational Behavior, The effectiveness of mentoring programs in corporate settings: A meta-analytical review of the literature, Christina M.Underhill

[3] Re-quoted from Singapore Journal of Business Economics and Management Studies Vol 4 No 9, 2015 – Effects of Mentoring on Employees’ Performance

[4] Models of Continuing Professional Development: a Framework for Analysis, Aileen Kennedy, University fo Strathclyde, Journal of In-Service Education, Vol 31, No 2, 2005

[5] Facilitating Reflective Learning Through Mentoring and Coaching, Brockbank and McGill, Kogan Page, 2006

[6] Re-quoted from Strategic Futures Blog, February 2010

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