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Mentoring is just-in-time help, insight into issues, and the sharing of expertise, values, skills, and perspectives. Mentors function as a catalyst—an agent that provokes a reaction that might not otherwise have taken place or speeds up a reaction that might have taken place in the future.
Despite nearly three decades of research into the benefits and characteristics of mentorship, many of the very basic tenets remain steadfast: mentoring is collaboration – a caring, sharing, and encouraging relationship with a focus on the enhancement of the protégé's or mentee's growth and skill development. For mentees, the value of forging a close, ongoing, and evolving relationship with a mentor in their field can be tangible, such as increased compensation and greater career opportunities, or more abstract, such as building confidence through awareness about the vernacular and traditions of the profession. For mentors, the process provides the opportunity to recognize and promote the abilities of individuals with less exposure within the supporting organization. This can result in diversifying talent and perspectives—fostering a fertile environment for fresh approaches needed for academic or business success.
Recent changes in society warrant a more nuanced discussion about the role of mentorship in the 21st century workplace. In many ways, the need for an articulated and purposeful mentorship program has never been more pronounced. The economic downturn has shaken the stability of single professions and the rapid evolution of technology has led to a constant need to adapt inside the workplace. Increasingly, a single position will change significantly over time, prompting employees to adopt new skills or seek guidance from other professionals.
Today's technologies and the proliferation of a vibrant "Web 2.0" culture have also blurred the boundaries of the traditional mentor/mentee relationship. While mentees might have once sought the guidance of a single mentor in their field, new digital social networks have given rise to a growing sense of "communities" of practices, where a single professional might seek guidance and support from a network of colleagues. The new digital culture, rooted in building and sharing content with the collective, has allowed single individuals to cultivate their own identities as experts in the field by tweeting advice and resources to a community of followers, building networks around shared expertise, or blogging to a cohort of followers. In turn, these web personalities offer colleagues a place to find information, a name to solicit for advice, or a model to emulate in their own career.
The 21st century mentor, therefore, might never meet face-to-face with a mentee or even recognize their impact on a community. Rather than a 1:1 relationship, individuals might seek guidance from a community of peers or build a cohort of support within their profession. These new developments suggest a need to widen both our definition of mentoring and our willingness to seek out, articulate, and explore the role of the participatory web in building professional communities of practice and support.
Triple Creek Associates, Inc., has published a great summary of mentoring benefits on their website.