The Benefits of Virtual Mentors

The Benefits of Virtual Mentors

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Having a mentor has always helped with professional development and career advancement, but in today’s complex workplace, one mentor alone often won’t do. To spark innovation and ideation, employees often require information from a number of areas in real time. That’s why there is a need for us to have multiple mentors with expertise in various domains. The good news is the rapid expansion of social media inside and outside companies has made it possible for aspiring leaders to hone their craft from the very best experts in many domains via the internet or knowledge management (KM) systems. They can become your virtual mentors.

That is the finding of a study we conducted (financially supported by The SHRM Foundation) at HCL Technologies (HCL), a leading IT and software-development outsourcing company based in India. HCL has over 103,000 employees, who are distributed globally across the firm’s own delivery centers and client sites. HCL encourages employees to use various KM and social collaboration systems to help each other and share their expertise.

Today, all of us can follow and interact with experts via Twitter, blogs, and Q&A sites such as Quora and GitHub. In addition, organizations are investing time and money on social media tools. Knowledge-sharing networks are not brand new, of course. Communities of practice and BPs virtual networks have been around since the late 1990s. But given the proliferation of social media tools, we wondered about their impact. Is there a payoff for individuals? Do organizations benefit from supporting these tools?

To answer these questions, we surveyed 1,200 HCL employees and analyzed their social networks and demographic data. Here’s what we found.

The KM and collaboration systems allowed employees to create a profile and list keywords associated with their expertise. In this way, the KM and social collaboration systems enabled employees to identify key members willing to readily share their expertise and to easily build relationships through their own queries and contributions. Whenever employees had a query, they would then use this database to connect with the relevant expert and facilitate a free exchange of relevant knowledge in near-real time.

HCL initially solicited experts to participate in the program. Additional experts emerged as a result of ratings by employees using the system.

The systems were widely used. Whenever employees in their quest for innovation hit a roadblock, they would immediately turn to the KM and social-collaboration systems and post their queries. Given the large size of HCL’s organization and its global footprint, chances were that an expert would answer a question immediately.

The KM and collaboration systems recognized the experts by listing them on a leaderboard where the ranking was determined by users’ ratings of the quality of the experts’ responses. This, in turn, helped them gain widespread recognition for their expertise. Interestingly, the perceptions of someone’s expertise were shaped by their activity on the systems, not by their formal role or job description.

Results from our study and their own internal analysis convinced senior HCL managers that the KM and collaboration systems improved individual productivity. As a result, they expanded the onboarding process for new employees to include a session on how to use the KM and collaboration systems.

Employees used the networks to broaden their skill sets and learn about upcoming opportunities. Here is an instance: An employee whose team was not using agile-development techniques heard of their value from one of his virtual mentors and decided to learn more about it. Discovering that expertise in it would put him in the running for some of the most exciting projects in the company, he decided to follow the mentor’s advice and joined an internal community. Participation allowed him to learn the basics of agile and stay on top of the latest developments and project news. Most importantly, the community allowed him to forge valuable connections and learn about project opportunities that would help him deepen his knowledge and gain recognition for his growing expertise.

Employees felt more loyal to the organization. Many HCL employees were deployed at client sites and sometimes weren’t sure whether they worked for the firm or the client. The KM and collaboration systems made them feel more connected to the HCL community and more willing to stay with the  firm — a big plus given its industry’s high turnover rates.

We found that employees who were connected to others via the KM and collaboration systems felt more highly engaged and productive than those who were not so well connected to mentors and were not active participants in the knowledge communities nurtured by the systems.

Innovation increased. An employee’s network of followers and mentors allowed him or her float nascent ideas and get immediate feedback. We found that employees with many connections to other employees were perceived as being more innovative.

Employees active on the systems were more aware of the external environment. One apparent reason: Most experts scanned the outside sources of information and then curated and shared the information across the firm using the KM and collaboration systems.

The findings of our study are clear: Investments in social media tools can help companies build the skills, productivity, engagement, and loyalty of their workforces.

If you are a knowledge worker, you should use social media tools inside and outside your organization to build your expertise and reputation. When you come across authorities on topics that could help you advance your career, track them for a while, and then follow those who seem the most valuable. Ask interesting questions and reach out to them in forums to begin to build a relationship. But be a good Netizen and remember to reciprocate: Answer others’ questions in a timely and helpful manner. In the age of virtual mentors, your behavior will be highly rewarded.

 

[Harvard Business Review]

May 2, 2016 / by / in , , , , , , , ,

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