Mentoring is nothing new: there will always be a need for people with knowledge, expertise, and experience (mentors) to train others who are just starting out on their career. These days, millennials, also known as Generation Y, are getting a lot of attention; they will soon dominate the workplace and are allegedly reinventing the world. But can existing mentoring models keep up with this generation’s needs?
Keeping up with digitalization in all areas of life, both private and professional, presents a challenge to all generations: things are constantly in a state of flux, so we always need to keep our eyes open for changes in the tools we use, the deliverables we produce, the processes we have to adhere to, and the deadlines that have to be met.
With so many changes and moving targets, it’s often hard to step back from everyday tasks and consider individual ways to grow with these changes, be it through formal learning, through on-the-job experiences, or through regular exchange of knowledge and ideas with others. And that’s where mentoring comes in: Mentoring is essentially about teaching, guidance, and learning, all important aspects of personal and professional development, and, with the right approaches, can help all generations keep up with digital transformation.
Mentoring is essentially about teaching, guidance, and learning.
“Generation X” meets “Generation Y”
I belong to Generation X, the generation of both “slackers” and “entrepreneurs”(!). I started my first real job two decades ago and have about 15 years’ experience working in technical communication. My experience and the expertise that I have gathered over the years coupled with my training skills and my, let’s say, mindset (I want to learn and help others to learn) make me predestined to be a mentor.
Mentoring mindset: “I want to learn and help others to learn”
My mentees are millennials, that is, they belong to Generation Y, the generation known for asking “Why?” and the first real generation of digital natives (if there is such a thing!). Having finished their master’s degrees within the past one or two years, they are now embarking on a career in technical communication with great enthusiasm and a level of maturity and self-awareness that I’m sure I never had when I was their age!
The subject of mentoring is important to us all. The age structure of our technical communications team has undergone some changes over the past year (colleagues have retired, new team members have been hired), so we’ve used these changes as an opportunity to look at the ways in which we work together in our new team setup, share knowledge, and learn. However, the main reason why we now focus more on mentoring is because we all want to develop and improve the skills and expertise that we need now as well as those that we will need in the future.
Change is as an opportunity to improve teamwork, knowledge sharing, and learning.
What have you learnt today?
At the tekom annual conference, November 8-10, 2016 in Stuttgart, Germany, I gave a presentation with one of my millennial mentees, Mareike Embach, on the topic of mentoring. The fact alone that we submitted a proposal for a conference presentation together gave our mentee-mentor relationship a real boost; it made us analyze and reflect on how we work together and how we learn to an extent that we perhaps might not have otherwise done.
Mareike and I talked about mentoring in the context of the 70:20:10 learning model, which many companies base their learning culture on. Within this model, learning through mentoring represents a small (timewise) yet significant part of the overall learning process.
70% experiential learning – learning while doing
Learning on-the job can be highly productive, even when you’re just starting out. However, it’s important that tasks are broken down into clearly defined chunks with a beginning and an end. At the same time, it’s good when mentors give mentees a big picture overview, that is, explain why each task needs to be completed and what the ultimate goal is.
Small tasks, but a big picture overview.
20% peer (social) learning – learning through others
Interaction with other people (as opposed to just machines!) is a great way to learn. One form of social learning is of course mentoring as is communication with other team members and peers as well as cross-team and cross-discipline knowledge transfer. Even social networking using collaboration tools can be a good way to learn from other experts and colleagues with whom you might not otherwise come into contact!
Collaboration tools also promote social networking.
10% formal learning – learning through instruction
Classroom training with an instructor has yet to be superseded by e-learning and virtual training. Especially at the beginning of their careers, young professionals need a comprehensive and (relatively) compact overview of the tools and processes necessary for their jobs. Sometimes, it might be wise to wait a few months into the job before attending formal training courses, but generally speaking, the sooner the better.
Learning in the classroom is still not outdated.
Virtual training, either with or without an instructor, can also be a good way to develop; but it helps if a more experienced colleague provides tips on the most relevant courses because there are literally millions of online course offerings!
We had hoped to attract a relatively mixed audience of mentors, potential mentors, and budding young technical communicators who are studying in Germany, which is why we decided to give the talk in German. We didn’t get the mix we had hoped for (the members of the audience were predominately middle-aged managers), which was a bit of shame, especially as one of the aims of our presentation was to help build bridges between different generations. However, after the conference, a blog post we wrote about the presentation sparked a lot of positive interest within our company, in particular, within the SAP Global Early Talent community.
Build bridges between different generations
If you understand German, a recording of the talk is available and the presentation is available as a website. The online version of the presentation contains more material than we could cover in our 45-minute slot so if you’re interested in the topics we focused on and the tips that we didn’t have time to go into, be sure to click through everything! We also submitted a paper for the conference proceedings, which you can read here: Mentoring für Millennials: Von EDV und DTP zu CMS und IoT [ PDF] (German only).
Guidance from more experienced colleagues or colleagues with a slightly different perspective is crucial to the learning process. The abundance of information out there and the complexity of the tools, the processes, and frequently also organizational aspects are extremely overwhelming. It’s not always easy to navigate the digital rapids of information!
It’s not always easy to navigate the digital rapids of information!
But of course, it’s up to each individual to apply what they learn. Mentors and mentees alike need to learn to adapt to change and see change as an opportunity and not a threat. Different generations can support and learn from each other, which also benefits companies with regard to employee performance and talent retention. Furthermore, if organizational structures allow for mentoring, successful mentoring programs can make companies more attractive employers. In this way, solid mentoring relationships create win-win situations.