We need more mentoring in IT

Introduction

In an earlier post on strengths and weaknesses, I briefly talked about a general lack of mentoring in IT. Having given this some further thought, I thought I’d tease out some more salient points on the topic.

I like the following definition of mentoring so will be basing my post on this:

Mentoring is to support and encourage people to manage their own learning in order that they may maximise their potential, develop their skills, improve their performance and become the person they want to be– Eric Parsloe, The Oxford School of Coaching & Mentoring

What is the problem?

The diagram below (FYI, produced in PowerPoint thanks to this great little video) broadly represents the distribution of knowledge in our wonderful field of technology.

Bell curve

Note the following observations:

  1. Nobody knows nothing
  2. Nobody knows everything
  3. There is a certain level of knowledge at which the numbers drop off steeply
  4. There is a clear grouping near the middle
  5. The graph also provides a reasonable model of the speed at which people acquire knowledge. The y-axis represents that speed

The first two points are worthy of further discussion:

Point 1 essentially means that everybody has something to teach somebody else.

Point 2 is the same as point 1 but flipped on its head. Everybody can learn something from somebody else.

Yet the theme of this post is that there is a lack of widespread mentoring going on in IT. By that, I simply mean that it is far from being the norm and would benefit from serious improvement.

How to address the issue

If you work somewhere that encourages people to mentor others (which is lovely!), it is likely that the people who sit towards the right of the graph above are mentoring people who fall further to the left. If you are less fortunate, you might find that it is longer serving people mentoring people who are less time-served, which isn’t always useful. Of course, who gets to mentor who might simply be decided by the length of one’s beard, which is wrong for a whole number of reasons, a key one being that some of the most knowledgeable people I’ve worked with are unsurprisingly incapable of growing a beard.

However, one can combine points 1 and 2 above under the following statement:

Anybody with knowledge should be able to mentor somebody without that knowledge– Vegaskid

As well as strengthening people and teams across your business, with all the benefits that brings (happier staff, increased productivity, personal and business growth, innovation, collaboration, etc.), a common business risk is also mitigated i.e. the risk of a ‘key master’ walking out of your company with unique knowledge that nobody else knows. I’ve seen this happen in a number of companies and it puts unnecessary strain on those who stay and can stunt growth, both at the individual and company level, whilst the gaps are filled.

Building on the foundation

So, having read this far, are you ready to have a think about what you are knowledgeable about and offer to transfer some of that wisdom to somebody else? Or even just to offer support at any level? It needn’t be in a more formal format if that isn’t your style. It could be as simple as emailing snippets of information, or posting to your Intranet. Or writing a blog post to a wider audience. Or simply walking over to somebody’s desk and having a chat about what they are working on.

Businesses should enable and encourage this behaviour and make it part of their culture. Reward people who do it, at the very least by acknowledging it and giving them the time to do it. That is often all that is required.

Beyond our own companies, I would love to see an industry wide movement to help foster a mentoring mindset. A combination of bottom up and top down approaches could really help across the board.

Summary

In this post, I’ve deliberately steered well clear of the reasons why people don’t mentor up to this point because in my experience, it usually has something to do with either the culture of the business or individuals having a fear of losing some level of perceived control or worth by sharing knowledge with others.

I think the best way to address starts somewhere in the middle i.e. businesses enabling and encouraging their people to share knowledge whenever they can. The rest is up to you.

Till the next time.