Mentoring is one of the most effective ways of passing down tacit know-how from an expert to an aspiring expert. This practice dates back throughout human history, and is just as relevant today.
Mentoring is about practice under the guidance of an expert. Unlike classroom learning, the apprentice or mentee is given practical tasks, under the supervision and guidance of his mentor.
Liebowitz (2009) refers to formal mentoring programs as a well-established way to retain and transfer knowledge. He highlights an example from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where the mentoring program runs for a year, and includes assignments, meetings, formal mentor training, assessment, etc.
Mentoring can be implemented both formally (as above) and informally. Informal mentor relationships could involve assigning a guide to a new employee, or simply encouraging him to seek out a mentor. For the most part however, organizations are beginning to look at formal relationships designed to train the newcomer as quickly and effectively as possible.
The characteristics of an ideal mentor are (based on the work of Clutterbuck 2001 and Heathfield 2011):
- Personal expertise
- Familiarity with the organization: its procedures, culture, etc.
- Desire to teach/guide
- Ability to motivate
- Ability to allow for personal development of the mentee: Must accept different approaches and offer his own advice as an alternative not a mandate.
- Commitment: time, resources, persistence, etc.
- Skilled communicator
- Ability to remain professional: includes the ability to realize when the mentoring relationship has run its course and/or when it is no longer functioning
- Self-aware and self-critical
- Ability to foster trust
Mentoring is a key process for knowledge management. Apart from transferring tacit knowledge and retaining expertise within the organization, it can also help the mentee to become a recognized and accepted member of the community, by passing on corporate vision and values and improving his grasp of corporate networking (Clutterbuck 2001). Companies should therefore consider implementing formal mentoring relationships and mentor training as an investment in the future knowledge stock of the organization.