Anny Chou is a recent graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She interned with the Christensen Institute this spring to conduct research on corporate mentoring and talent management solutions.

This post is part of the #WhoYouKnow blog series on the overlap of social capital, EdTech, and innovation.

WhoYouKnowToday, companies are investing upwards of $164 billion per year on employee learning and development, including mentoring programs. In “Maximizing Your Social Capital,” Chicago Booth Professor Ronald S. Burt discusses the importance of employees, especially women, having a “strategic partner” to make introductions and to advocate for key project assignments. Using network analysis, he found strong network structures to be associated with early promotions, high compensation, and superior job performance evaluations. Mentoring programs provide a powerful infrastructure to build employees’ access to social capital within their organizations and across their fields.

As part of our research on social capital in education, over the past few months we have interviewed over a dozen business executives, social entrepreneurs, and nonprofit leaders who are building mentorship management platforms for corporations. These companies are attempting to enhance or entirely reinvent workplace mentoring and talent management in ways that could help inform innovative mentorship efforts in K–12 and higher education.

Online mentorship platforms can connect professionals across organizational, cultural, and language boundaries. Take Everwise, for example, a company that functions like an eHarmony for matching professionals with the right career mentor. When CEO Mike Bergelson started the company, he and his team asked themselves, “why does mentorship need to exist within the walls of an organization?” They quickly learned that some of the most powerful connections defied these boundaries. One advantage is the exposure to a diversity of information, opinions, and practices. Furthermore, given the choice, most employees would actually opt for mentors outside of the company for fear of retribution. Today, Everwise works with clients like SalesForce, Walmart, and eBay to connect rising stars, women, and minority leaders to seasoned professionals outside of their respective organizations.

In general, technology-enabled mentoring platforms can facilitate both coordination and scale. Most of the emerging platforms on the market use machine-learning algorithms that take inputs and LinkedIn data to connect an individual to like-minded peers, alums, entrepreneurs, and the right mentors. Technology also allows individuals to set up an engagement plan and a roadmap to achieve their goals, as well as houses a collection of resources such as training modules, videos, and articles. In addition to streamlining employees’ mentorship experiences, mentoring platforms can also collect a broad range of data, such as time spent on platform and goal completion, that can help an organization better understand its employees and the overall organizational climate.

What does activity like this in the corporate sector have to do with education? Schools should be alert to the premium employers are putting on expanding their employees’ access to mentoring and the innovations they are using to scale these efforts. Such programs could prove particularly transformational for low-income students who lack access to formal and informal mentoring. As Mary Fernandez, president of MentorNet, a mentoring network for STEM students, said in an interview, “informal mentoring is prevalent and easy to create, assuming you have a robust social network. For poor students, their parents and extended family themselves don’t necessarily have the social networks that permit them to make introductions that support their children’s educational or professional goals.” In other words, a school’s mentorship program can be an equalizer—helping students develop a formal relationship with a mentor, tap into that mentor’s network, and multiply their network exponentially.

To get there, schools should take note of a number of strategies emerging in corporate mentoring and talent management.

First, technology has freed employers from restraints of place by allowing employees to connect based on similarities rather than proximity, anywhere and anytime. Similarly, schools can use technology to reach beyond their immediate communities to tap into a wealth of experts who are skilled and interested in mentoring. Platforms can also algorithmically match students with mentors who share similar interests, culture, and backgrounds. MentorCloud, for example, creates special interests networks for alumni associations, entrepreneurs, and accelerators. Social mentoring is an informal mentoring format in an online environment. MentorCloud encourages members to connect on an ad hoc basis across global chapters based on specific learning goals and needs.

Second, the crux of mentoring is the emotional bond that forms between individuals; that relationship needs nurturing and dedication. With this in mind, Insala, another provider of corporate mentoring solutions, helps its client companies first establish mentoring norms and a formal mentorship process. It doesn’t allow a client to jump into the technology until the organization understands the role technology plays in the relationship. To a similar end, Everwise adds a third-party relationship manager, who functions as part career coach and part advocate, to the mentorship equation. From the moment a mentee signs up, a relationship manager periodically checks in with the pair to ensure that the mentee is maximizing her experience with her mentor and progressing toward her career goals.

Lastly, organizations implement mentorship programs with specific goals and expectations in mind, oftentimes tied to larger HR initiatives. Depending on the program focus, culture, and demographics of participants, an organization may choose from a variety of models that best meet its needs. If an organization’s goal is to expose its employees to diverse perspectives, resources, and information, then a social mentoring platform might be the ideal choice. Other organizations may be looking to set goals and build discrete skills among their employees, in which case deep one-on-one mentoring may be a better fit. For example, River Software, supports employee efforts to master a skill area that is tied to a job responsibility by helping mentors advise mentees on their current skill level and suggest a level toward which to strive. Mentors, through the platform engine, also recommend learning exercises and activities for mentees to engage in.

With adoption of the right talent platform and model, organizations could improve employee productivity by increasing output upwards of nine percent. For many companies, mentorship is no longer just a nice-to-have, but a part of the strategic fabric of talent management. Schools should take note of the new market technology-enabled mentorship models to rethink how students might likewise access meaningful relationships to reach their goals.


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