Online mentoring

Why your mentoring program needs to go online

On the face of it mentoring would seem a quintessentially human activity. It inherently centres on a close, personal relationship between two individuals and it is the quality of that relationship that ultimately determines success or failure. What possible justification could there be for adding technology to the mix?

Given the title of this article it won’t surprise you to hear that things look a little different once you step back from the mentoring itself and start to consider all the activities that necessarily surround a successful mentoring program.

A couple of the most common causes of mentoring program failure are (a) underestimating the time and effort required to design and implement the program, and (b) under-resourcing of program administration. In our experience the single best way to mitigate these risks is to implement an online mentoring platform.

What exactly is an online mentoring platform?

Online mentoring platforms are a variant of “social collaboration” software. Social collaboration software, broadly speaking, is software that brings together all the ease-of-use and ease-of-deployment advantages of the Internet into a user-friendly, web browser-based platform designed to make it easy for people to share knowledge and generally help each other out.

What you get from going hi-tech

Online mentoring platforms take many different forms but a typical platform will deliver the following benefits:

  • Automation of administrative tasks – everything gets easier if you can do it centrally, be that sending timely reminder notes, distributing information, following up on surveys or monitoring participant activity levels
  • Effective monitoring of progress that enables program administrators to quickly identify problems (for instance a mentor/mentee pair who have missed their last couple of meetings, or participants failing to progress past program milestones on schedule) and step in to assist if appropriate
  • Efficient collection of data that can validate program progress and impact
  • A central “home” for participants, a place where mentors and mentees can go to:
    • find out what to do next,
    • interact electronically (email, messaging, Skype etc.) and coordinate physical meetings with their mentor/mentee, program peers or program administrators,
    • access support materials,
    • have their questions answered (whether by a program administrator or by their peers) and
    • monitor their own progress.
  • Geographical flexibility – a platform accessible from any web browser anywhere in the world makes it relatively easy to manage mentoring programs that cross regional and national boundaries
  • Scalability – on a well-designed platform the per-participant administration load will typically drop as the number of participants grows (the reverse is typically true for manually administered programs)
  • Cloud-based deployment – that is, the platform will typically be hosted somewhere on the Internet so you can “rent” as much capacity as your program needs with immediate availability.

The cost question

Of course the single biggest issue for many will often boil down to cost – an online platform may be objectively “better” but the point is moot if you can’t get budget for it. The details of the cost/benefit equation will vary of course but as a general rule the savings in administration time will vastly outweigh the implementation and maintenance costs of an online platform.

The commonly-quoted metric is that every 20 mentor/mentee pairs will require one day per week of administrator time to support. Add this all up over any reasonably large, multi-year program and the dollars quickly become substantial. Even a modest reduction in this load will mean an online platform will more than pay for itself.

That’s without even considering the intangible benefits of significantly mitigating many of the common risks to program success.

So what’s the best platform?

It depends. Mentoring programs vary enormously – the needs of a no-budget community-based program are not the same as those of a multi-national corporate leadership succession program. Needless to say we’ve done a lot of research on this question though and here’s what we’ve concluded so far.

  • At the “lean” end of the scale you can get quite a few of the benefits of online from free or near-free platforms like Yammer. In our experience this approach can work if you really know what you are doing but many of the apparent cost savings of avoiding a specialist platform can turn out to be illusory.
  • For programs that at least have some kind of infrastructure budget a good option could be Mentorloop. This is a very new platform designed from the outset to be simple and easy to use and to manage. Mentorloop doesn’t yet have all the features or configurability of the top-end platforms but sometimes that’s more a strength than a weakness.
  • The “best” platform on the market at present is, in our opinion, Chronus Mentor. The flexibility and configurability of this platform is mind-blowing. If you want a platform that can be tailored to do exactly what you want Chronus Mentor is the right choice. This does require you to invest some serious thought up front though to really get full value out of the product.

Bottom line

We’ve run many successful manually-managed mentoring programs. They can work and work well. We will happily assist future clients to set up and run manually-managed programs if that is what they want. Our strong recommendation though will always be to go online. There will be a higher chance of program success, however you measure it, and there will almost certainly be a lower overall program cost.

Project Office
Focus: As the manager of AltusQ's Project Office Barry is mostly a "back room guy" making things happen but he also works with clients on questions of technology, story telling and social media.

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