Organizational mentoring has gone online, following the path of many other processes over the last couple of decades.  But is that a good thing?  After all, with mentoring being a personal development process, does online mentoring run the risk of automating a practice that shouldn’t be?

The simple answer is no. When done right, online mentoring makes it easier for organizations to help their employees connect with one another, facilitate the collaboration within the relationships, monitor the progress being made, and measure the success of those connections.  Mentoring is still a very personal process, focusing on the specific learning needs of those engaged. The technology is simply an enabler that allows organizations to scale the practice of mentoring, resulting in a larger impact and ROI to both the individuals who participate and the organization.

As with any technology, organizations can use different approaches in terms of leveraging a software platform for mentoring.  Which begs the question: What are the essential elements of a mentoring platform?

Let’s examine five components that should make up a mentoring platform:

1. Participant Profiles: Don’t Overlook the “Basic” Profile

When mentees and mentors sign on to a mentoring platform, it is important for them to have user profiles in the system that contain basic demographic information, such as their job title, department, location, contact information, and work history.  This profile information should be captured up front to provide value in other parts of the mentoring process, including searching for/matching up with a partner, understanding the backgrounds of other collaborators and giving administrators the ability to easily filter reports to understand impacts across different parts of the organization.

Many times, profiling is viewed as a “boring” requirement of software systems because users are often in the mindset of “getting on with the business” of why they are engaging said system.  They’re asked to provide basic demographic information that the organization already knows about them. This is a legitimate criticism and issue.

To combat users not completing the profiling process, mentoring platforms should integrate with systems of record so information can be pushed from the master record into the mentoring system.  This allows fields to be pre-populated for users with the relevant information.  The point of emphasis can then shift to users focusing on selecting those competencies/skills that they are capable of mentoring others in, or what they want to learn, which is critical to the matching algorithm.

To make this happen, a mentoring platform should allow the organization a high-degree of configurability around the user profile, both in terms of the type of information that is captured (e.g., demographic, skill/competency information) and the way the information is captured/pre-populated.

2. Program Parameters: Programs Are, in Fact, Unique

Most organizations that implement mentoring will do so to meet the development needs of their employees at multiple points in the employee lifecycle.  This means that over time, they will integrate mentoring into the fabric of more than one developmental program (e.g., leadership development, onboarding, high potential development), and each program is likely to have unique needs.

A good mentoring provider will allow for flexibility and configurability on a program-by-program basis. At a minimum, organizations should be able to configure:

  • Audience Controls: Who is allowed to participate in each program?  What roles can they play?  Within a given program, is an individual permitted to be a mentor, mentee, or both?  Might the same individual need to be a mentee in one program (e.g., in a new manager group) and a mentor in another (e.g., as a “buddy” in a one-on-one relationship with a new employee)? The platform needs this flexibility.
  • Types of Relationships: Some program administrators will limit the types of relationships in which people can engage. For example, a high potential program administrator may want to emphasize or even limit participation to one-on-one mentoring, whereas the administrator of a new manager training program may want only group/cohort-based mentoring. The choice should be made by the people running the program.
  • Matching: How will participants be matched up with one another? Will it be self-directed? Administrator matched?  A combination of these? In the case of a succession planning program, the organization may want control over the matches. Whereas in a diversity and inclusion program, the organization may want to promote the value of mentees choosing their own mentors from the pool of available experts.
  • Communication/Announcements: These features allow program managers to easily communicate with participants.  For example, to announce an upcoming webinar for new hires participating in the onboarding program, or share a reminder to complete relationship evaluations. The platform should have mechanisms for easily reaching out to specific audiences with targeted announcements.
  • Content: Some program administrators may need mentoring software that can curate and link to suggested content (e.g., job aids, e-learning modules, videos) that supports the participants in the various programs. For example, the administrator of the high potential program may have a specific goal worksheet that each mentoring pair should leverage within their relationship. The system should allow for the easy promotion and use of this tool among the mentoring pairs.

3. Matching Capabilities: The Magic Behind the Scenes

A well-organized mentoring platform allows an organization to implement different matching mechanisms based on programmatic needs. These should include self-directed, administrator, and facilitator matching.

These matches aren’t done through guesswork. For a mentoring platform to provide value to an organization, it needs to have an effective matching algorithm that can leverage the user profile information, suggesting recommendations to the people making matches. That algorithm needs to be configured by program, given that the criteria for matching can differ significantly from program to program.

For example, within a new manager program, the organization may want to weight the algorithm to prioritize available mentors who have expertise in the competency/skill areas that the mentee is looking to develop, and who are also from the same business function and office location, allowing for some in-person job shadowing as part of the development process. Contrast that with a diversity and inclusion program that may want to weight the algorithm to prioritize recommending mentors who are different (e.g., different department, geography, ethnicity, gender) before recommending those who are more similar to the mentee.

4. Collaboration Tools: Mentoring is More than the Match

After getting people connected, whether in one-on-one or group relationships, participants need to be supported by the system post-match. That is why it is critical that a mentoring platform provides tools that allow participants to collaborate with one another.

Mentees and mentors should be able to post messages, ask and answer questions, share documents and links, schedule events, and suggest or assign learning activities to support the developmental conversations taking place. All which should be captured in an easy-to-reference history so that users can revisit their collaborations over time, creating an ongoing learning resource.

5. Monitoring and Reports: That Which Gets Measured Gets Done

Accountability is critical to the success of mentoring. While accountability in some development interventions is easy to measure (e.g., class attendance and exam scores), monitoring progress in mentoring relationships can be a bit more complicated because the program administrator usually lacks direct line of sight to the collaboration taking place.

Thus, mentoring platforms should provide integrated tools that allow administrators to both monitor progress being made over the course of the relationship and evaluate it upon its completion.  Administrators should have the flexibility to identify the level of accountability and related measures that are required (and may be unique) for each of those programs, and then be able to capture and access the data that aligns with those respective measures.  

A well-functioning mentoring software platform should prove to be both an efficiency and effectiveness tool, making life easier on all stakeholder groups (i.e., program champions, administrators, and the program participants themselves). However, a word of caution: don’t misinterpret the achievable gains in efficiency and effectiveness to mean that the system will “run itself.”  Steer away from any vendor who suggests or promises a system that will run itself, as they are likely either telling you what you want to hear or lack the expertise to understand how mentoring works in organizations.

It can be a bit overwhelming when considering the essential components of a mentoring platform.  Software of any type should exist to make life easier for its users. Mentoring software exists because there is a need for it in the market, and the mature providers have figured out how to account for each of the critical factors, making life easier for program participants and administrators.