Mentoring in a virtual environment


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This paper discusses the pros and cons of mentoring in a virtual environment. It explores informal and formal mentor programs to develop a plan for use in a virtual workplace to overcome barriers to effective mentorships.It also examines the applicability of this program in the military for long term career development post military service.

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Mentoring in a virtual environment

  1. 1. Running Head: BUILDING EFFECTIVE MENTORING PROGRAMS IN A CORPORATE ENVIRONMENT Building effective mentoring programs in a virtual environment Lisa Parrott Argosy University/Seattle Campus August, 2013
  2. 2. Running Head: BUILDING EFFECTIVE MENTORING PROGRAMS IN A CORPORATE ENVIRONMENT Mentoring is the process of sharing information from a more experiencedemployee to a new or less skilled employeewith the goal of career advancement (Hezlett & Gibson, 2005).Traditionally, these efforts were tied to location proximity and mentor availability. The growinginnovations in technology enabling corporate globalization have increased the need for mentor relationships to form in nontraditional methods. As organizations begin to incorporate virtual work environments at a rapid rate, it has created a new set of possibilities and challenges for development and communication within the mentor relationship. Creating an effective mentor program in a virtual environment must address a process for buildinga trusting and meaningful relationshipwhile overcoming the barriers of time, distance and the possible loss of nonverbal communication. For deployed and displaced service members, a virtual mentor environment is ideal to aid in career development during transition from active duty military service. Mentoring is not a new concept in career development, as mentors have existed throughout history (Bierema &Hill, 2005).The typical relationship is often between an older co- worker and a younger individual who wants to grow their career.Hilbun and Akin (2007) defined mentoring as, “a traditional method of passing knowledge and skills on from an established professional to a junior or new member of the field or discipline” (p. 28). This exchange of information is important for overall growth and opportunities for the protégé and mentor. Researchshows the presence of mentoring has become influential for development across a number of areas, such as personal and academicwhile being critical for career success (Bozionelos, Bozionelos, Kostopoulos & Polychroniou, 2011;Hezlett & Gibson, 2005). The mentoring process often happens between two individuals within the same organization (Higgins & Kram, 2001). The availability to connect mentors and protégés has
  3. 3. Running Head: BUILDING EFFECTIVE MENTORING PROGRAMS IN A CORPORATE ENVIRONMENT historically focused on location and convenience. Companies would connect employees based on their proximity, not necessarily because they are the ideal fit for the protégé or mentor. The advent of technology has changed the needto create this relationship from a local available pool of employees to a global one (Higgins & Kram, 2001). The transformation from a traditional work environment to a virtual workplace has impacted the way in whichyoung employees engage in meaningful mentor relationships. Akkirman and Harrison (2005) defined the virtual environment as one that “encompasses a number of different working styles, such as telecenters, teleworking, hot-desking, hotelling, and virtual offices” (p. 398). This type of an environment has resulted in the isolation of employees and often a lack of face-to-face interaction. The virtual workplace does not reduce the requirement for mentoring, although it does present the need for a new model. Where a traditional mentorship happened face-to-face allowing for nonverbal cues and instant responses, the virtual workplace has created the necessity for new methods of communication, including emails, texts, phone and video calling (Akkirman & Harris, 2005, p. 404; Gieskes, 2010). Theemerging career development relationship in a virtual environment has been deemed e-mentoring (Simmonds & Zammit Lupi, 2010; Bierema & Hill, 2005, p. 557). Simmonds and Zammit Lupi (2010) defined this term as “a vehicle for providing a guided mentoring relationship over large distances, largely through e- mail, but also by using technology, including the voice over internet protocol (VOIP)” (p. 300). Bierema and Hill (2005) identified a number of benefits found through e-mentoring, including the flexible nature of communication, improved quality in messages, lower costs and higher participation opportunity for populations who would not normally have access (p. 559). It provides an egalitarian environment, allowing underprivileged populations to take part by
  4. 4. Running Head: BUILDING EFFECTIVE MENTORING PROGRAMS IN A CORPORATE ENVIRONMENT reducing barriers for relationship building (Gieskes, 2010). The introduction of e-mentoring has allowed mentors and protégés to engage in a mentor relationship regardless of distance. It has shown to be more time efficient, as participants do not have to travel for meetings, and can respond to messages at their leisure (Gieskes, 2010). E-mentoring has also allowed protégés to maximize learning, as they can engage with multiple mentors across different subjects (Hilbun & Akin, 2007). Regardless of the environment, there are two types of relationships that can form between a mentor and protégé. Smith, Howard and Harrington (2005) defined informal mentorship as “spontaneous and unstructured relationships with minimal organizational involvement” (p. 32). These develop through mutual identification, when a mentor recognizes someone similar to himself or herself, and the protégé identifies them as a role model (Ragins, Cotton & Miller, 2000, p. 1179). This natural type of connection forms a strong initial mentorship bond, often developed through face-to-face interaction. Research has found informal mentor relationships to be rated more satisfactory because they are generated through altruistic means (Ragins et al., 2000; Simmonds & Zammit Lupi, 2010, p. 305). The other type of relationship is a formal mentor program.Kim and Egan (2011) defined this as a programwhere “organizations intentionally couple new or less experienced employees or students (protégés or mentees) with managers or advanced students with moderate to high levels of experience (mentors)” (p. 90).These relationships aredeliberately paired through a third party, limiting the amount of mentor and protégé involvement (Hezlett & Gibson, 2005; Smith et al., 2005). Although formal programs are not as effective, they are useful because mentoring has shown to improve career success for both the mentor and protégé (Bozionelos, et al., 2011). Kayworth and Leidner (2001/2002) found the need for mentors in a virtual environment to
  5. 5. Running Head: BUILDING EFFECTIVE MENTORING PROGRAMS IN A CORPORATE ENVIRONMENT continue encouraging individuals to perform (p. 27).To ensure all employees have the ability to be a protégé or mentor and seek career development, it is critical for virtual organizations to consider formal programs. The isolation of virtual environments makes it difficult for employees to locate an informal mentor. Providing the capability to assign mentors and protégés together mustbe included when developing a virtual mentor program,although the mandatory assignment of a mentor can be less effective (Ragins et al., 2000; Simmonds & Zammit Lupi, 2010).Whether it is formal or informal, the key in building a mentorship program is ensuringthe relationship between the mentor and protégé is of high quality; otherwise the presence of a mentor is not conducive to career growth (Ragins et al., 2000, p. 1190). Bierema and Hill (2005) identified three functionsnecessary to ensure success from any mentoring program. The best environment provides a sense of mutual interest, trust, respect, comfort and confidentiality between all parties. Next, both individuals need to set expectations for the relationship and ensure they are committed to the results. Finally, the mentorship must be prioritized (Bierema & Hill, 2005, p. 558). It is essential to create a plan to overcome the barriers of e-mentoring for these functions to thrive in a virtual environment. Trust is a major barrier for any mentorship, and is even more of a problem in a virtual environment (Bierema & Hill, 2005, p. 563; Simmonds & Zammit Lupi, 2010, p. 313). In order to build trust, the mentor and protégé must engage in numerous meaningful interactions (Akkirman & Harris, 2005, p. 298). Effective communication is essential for this process, often requiring the receiver to be aware of nonverbal cues. The lack of nonverbal cues can affect the ability to understand the true meaning of messages from the other party (Pauleen, 2003). This is
  6. 6. Running Head: BUILDING EFFECTIVE MENTORING PROGRAMS IN A CORPORATE ENVIRONMENT a serious barrier in the virtual environment, as these are not transmitted through written forms like text and emails. Because face-to-face interactions are not possible to build a high level of trust virtually, the method of communication being used for e-mentoring becomes extremely important (Akkirman & Harris, 2005). Technology has provided the virtual environment with numerous opportunities for overcoming the lack of nonverbal cues, through video calling and virtual worlds (Gieskes, 2010).In order to maintain the trust once it has developed, Olson and Olson (2012) found the need for both parties to engage in consistent communication. The method of interactions may vary among environments, so mentors and protégés must be comfortable using different communication approaches in order to connect. Lack of training on technology platforms, poor communication skills and a high cost for a technical system can deter the success of e-mentoring (Bierema & Hill, 2005, p. 561). Even with a system that is well understood by the user, the lack of nonverbal communication can make it difficult to understand the meaning behind a message, allowing the reader to misconstrue the idea. “Working through a text-based or an audio channel does not provide the visual cues used to judge people's true feelings” (Pauleen, 2003, p. 156).For this reason, platforms like Skype, Facetime and Google Hangouts provide the virtual mentor and protégé a way of interacting that offers insight into nonverbal communication as well (Gieskes, 2010). Without having established expectations for the frequency of interactions, the lack of a physical presence can be adiscouraging barrier. Being separated by time zones can also impact the quality of the relationship if expectations are not established at the beginning for responsiveness to messages (Guzmán, Ramos, Seco, &Esteban, 2010). “The e-mail message or bulletin board posting can be more easily ignored than someone standing in the doorway.
  7. 7. Running Head: BUILDING EFFECTIVE MENTORING PROGRAMS IN A CORPORATE ENVIRONMENT Finding techniques and incentives for continuing the mentor-protégé dialogue are important” (Bierema & Hill, 2005, p. 563). In a face-to-face situation the mentor or protégé has the ability to stop by and check on the status of the mentor relationship, whereas in a virtual setting it is much easier for one party to fail to respond to the other. Establishing expectations for response times and meeting regularity at the start of the relationship can overcome this barrier in a virtual environment. Although these barriers are more pronounced in a virtual mentorship, there are exampleswhere e-mentoring overcomes a traditional barrier. The anonymity of the internet and virtual communication provides opportunities between the mentor and protégé to discuss sensitive issues (Knouse, 2001, p. 164). In a trusted relationship the impersonal nature of online communication has been shown to improve the quality of interactions (Simmonds & Zammit Lupi, 2010, p. 305). In addition, face-to-face mentoring can be restrictive, as protégés are limited to mentors within their local area, which may hinder the potential for career growth (Hilbun & Akin, 2007). The busy nature of corporate roles in today’s age also presents a scheduling challenge for coordinating regular meetings, whereas the virtual environment allows for messages to be transmitted instantaneously. Developing a mentor program in a virtual environment Mentor programs have shown to benefit the individual participants as well as the organization (Hezlett & Gibson, 2005). This benefit extends to the growing virtual workplace and with it the need to establish a mentorship program for employee career development. For e- mentoring to work, the company must be willing to ensure success for all employees. Akkirman and Harris (2005) argued this should include providing technology capability and support to the mentor and protégé (p. 403). The organization can also assist by facilitating an interactive virtual
  8. 8. Running Head: BUILDING EFFECTIVE MENTORING PROGRAMS IN A CORPORATE ENVIRONMENT environment for employees to remain connected. Although research has shown higher effectiveness in an informal mentor program(Ragins et al., 2000; Simmonds & Zammit Lupi, 2010, p. 305), they are harder to foster in a virtual environment. For this reason, merging elements of formal mentorships with the successful factors from informal programs is suggested. Avirtual formal mentorship program incorporating informal elements must also address the barriers associated with a virtual workplace to be effective. The first step in building a virtual formal mentorship involvesobtaining buy in from participants, as this will ensure the relationship becomes a priority. It is vital to educate all parties involved about the process to forming the mentor relationship, the structure required to build trust, barriers to damaging that trust, and the effectiveness of career success resulting from mentorship (Bierema & Hill, 2005). In order to overcome the barriers around communication and frequency of interactions, employees should also be trained on the expectations of the program, including regular communication, dedication to personal growth, and goal setting (Akkirman & Harris, 2005). Individuals showing little interest in pursuing a formal mentor relationship should be asked to provide confirmation of an informal mentorship in order to meet the organizational expectations for career development. By not making the virtual formal mentor program mandatory for all participants but requiring some form of mentorship, this flexibility will lead to a more effective outcome. The second step involves creating a process for protégés and mentors to be formally introduced. This is a necessary function of the formal program for the virtual environment to ensure individuals have access to mentors. However, for a bond to formit is essential for the relationship to involve mutual interest between the mentor and protégé, an aspect that must be incorporated in the pairing activity (Bell & Treleaven, 2011). “The failure or success of formal
  9. 9. Running Head: BUILDING EFFECTIVE MENTORING PROGRAMS IN A CORPORATE ENVIRONMENT mentor relationships maybe a direct consequence of matching administrator, mentor and protégés expectations” (Smith et al., 2005, p. 47). To guarantee a relationshipforms between the mentor and protégé, the matching aspect of the program must identify a personal connection. This will quickly help to build a bond, leading to trust. Unless this can be achieved, the relationship will not flourish (Bierema & Hill, 2005; Simmonds & Zammit Lupi, 2010). Determining how to match people to create a successful relationship between the mentor and protégé is one of the challenges of formal programs. A key step involves protégé and mentor influence on the pairing process (Smith et al., 2005). To aid in the development the organization needs to get involved by educating employees on the purpose of a mentor relationship.It may be necessary to provide organizational coaching support at an individual level to prepare the protégé for working with a mentor (Bell & Treleaven, 2010).Simmonds and Zammit Lupi (2010) presented a model for connecting formal mentors and protégés in a mutually beneficial manner, creating an environment to build a trusting relationship. The model suggested by Simmonds and Zammit Lupi(2010) involved matching mentors to protégés across six categories, with an opportunity for the protégé to weight the criteria according to their preference. These groups are: “desired organisational development competencies, professional skills, personal qualities/skills, personal values, interests/hobbies and socio-economic background” (Simmonds & Zammit Lupi 2010, p. 306). Matching individuals together based on their interest will enhance their bond from the start, and is not the only area of concern to consider when building a matching capability. Ragins et al. (2000) mentionedthe need to guarantee the mentors are from different departments for higher satisfaction of both participants (p. 1191). Mentors and protégés from the
  10. 10. Running Head: BUILDING EFFECTIVE MENTORING PROGRAMS IN A CORPORATE ENVIRONMENT same department can have a level of conflict and unease damaging trust and effectiveness of the relationship. To prevent this from happening, Simmonds and Zammit Lupi (2010) suggested the protégé have an opportunity to interview the mentor candidates before making their selection. This process should be done through a virtual platform, as the relationship will continue in such a manner (Simmonds & Zammit Lupi 2010, p. 306). Using a virtual platform to perform the interviewwill ensure both parties are comfortable communicatingthis way, overcoming the nonverbal communication barrier (Pauleen, 2003). Once the mentor and protégé have been introduced, the third step in the program will ask both parties to set expectations to be met in the first few months with regards to communication methods, frequency and responsiveness.It is incumbent upon the protégé to initiate these conversations and drive their intended goal of the relationship (Simmonds & Zammit Lupi, 2010). During this step the quality of the relationship is also established. Bierema and Hill (2005) found the best mentor relationship to be one involving chemistry, trust and mutual respect (p. 558). If the mentor or protégé does not feel the relationship will be mutually beneficial either member can request to end the relationship and be matched with another participant with no consequences (Simmonds, 2010, p. 312). This step enables participants to ensure the barriers to establishing an effective mentorship have been overcome; otherwise either party can start over with a new mentor or protégé. The final phase of the mentorship program involves an ongoing and regular mentorship, expected to last at least six month to a year (Kim & Egan, 2011; Ragins, 2000, p. 1179). At the year point, the protégé should be given the opportunity to determine if they need to change mentors to foster career growth. One benefit of a virtual environment is that of multiple mentor and protégé relationships, each one addressing a specific need for the career development of the
  11. 11. Running Head: BUILDING EFFECTIVE MENTORING PROGRAMS IN A CORPORATE ENVIRONMENT protégé (Gieskes, 2010). Regardless of the amount of mentorships, is essential to confirm the relationship is a positive one for career growth, and both participants should have the flexibility and freedom to end the relationship if necessary. Mentoring relative to career development after military experience The military currently uses a mentor program to guide the careers of service members. Each service branch has created a position for a career planner to aid incareer development through coaching and mentoring(Knouse, 2001, p. 163). Active duty personnel are familiar with formal and informal mentor relationships, although they are generally focused solely on developing their military career, and not life after transition. Successful military leaders reported having numerous mentor relationships within their chain of command, failing to identify external mentorships(Smith et al., 2005, p. 37). The limited focus on career development after service has proven to impede the success for transitioning service members as unemployment numbers for 18-24 year olds exceeded 30% in 2011 (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). In addition to the challenges service member face obtaining successful careers after the military, the values of a quality mentor differ between the military and business culture. Service members report sensitivity as a trait that is least important as compared to their corporate counterparts (Smith et al., 2005, p. 44). Aside from cultural differences, service members do not begin to takeownership of their career development until they start the transition process, often within six months of leaving the service. At this point they struggle to identify the careers they want to move into in the corporate environment. “When moving from a stable career within a paternalistic organisation to an uncertain job market they were unsure what they had to offer an employer, how to approach job search or how to market their skills and experience” (Clarke, 2007, p. 196).
  12. 12. Running Head: BUILDING EFFECTIVE MENTORING PROGRAMS IN A CORPORATE ENVIRONMENT Transitioning from a rigid culture with established rules, explicit expectationsand a steady paycheck into one of uncertainty is extremely difficult for many active duty personnel.On average the military individual has limited to no business experience and many leave the military with a physical or mental disability increasing the challenges to obtaining successful employment (MacLean, 2010). This can result in frustration, anger and a victimized approach to Veterans employment. These negatives stereotypes could be overcome through mentor programs while on active duty, specifically targeting mentors from outside the military prior to transition in orderto aid in career development post service. One of the barriers to service members receiving corporate mentorship is their limited interaction with potential mentors outside of the military. Service members often have robust global networks, but these are primarily limited to individuals from within their military experience. Higgins and Kram (2001) suggested this presents a low-range network, which may also be low-density due to the nature of the military environment and frequent relocations. The lack of a well-developed network prevents service members from connecting and engaging with potential informal mentors who can lead them to career success. Corporate mentors often help their protégés through sponsorship, which could aid service members during the transition process (Bierema & Hill 2005, p. 558). Transitioning military personnel with limited informal mentor support in the corporate environment often fail to navigate the nuances of career advancement. Drebing et al. (2012) found Veterans struggling to obtain consistent employment post transition were unwilling to seek help, remaining unemployed or underemployed for more than four years. To avoid this downward spiral of unemployment, service members preparing for transition must begin working with mentors outside the military as early as possible.This presents a challenge for
  13. 13. Running Head: BUILDING EFFECTIVE MENTORING PROGRAMS IN A CORPORATE ENVIRONMENT service members, as they do not have a network established to find business mentors and are often physically separated by distance from potential mentors. While on active duty, most military personnel are living somewhere other than where they wish to reside after service, creating a barrier to locating and forming crucial mentor connections (Knouse, 2001). The nature of military life involves deployments and dislocation, very similar to that of an expatriate. Mezias and Scandura (2005) highlighted the additional stress and uncertainty caused by international assignments, and suggested expatriates obtain mentor relationships to assist with adjustment when returning to their home country. This can provide added value to a company looking to capitalize on the experience gained from working overseas by service members. Therefore it would be beneficial for organizations to offer mentoring support to deployed and dislocated service members, which can be done in a virtual mentorship program. Corporate mentorship while on active duty must be done in a virtual environment as many service members are stationed around the world, and are often deployed within a year of leaving the service (Knouse, 2001). For this reason, e-mentoring is an optimal platform to support transitioning service members. The four step virtual formal mentoring program would provide the ideal e-mentoring scenario for the military. Participants in the mentorship program would require initial training on the differences between the military and business cultures as well as the importance of mentor programs on career development in a corporate environment. It should be explained to protégés how mentoring has been found to be instrumental for corporate career satisfaction, commitment, and mobility to ensure their active participation (Bierema & Hill, 2005, p. 557; Ragins et al., 2000, p. 1177). Mentoring is critical for expatriate acculturation as well, and a virtual mentor program would provide an added value for service members returning from overseas assignments (Mezias & Scandura, 2005).
  14. 14. Running Head: BUILDING EFFECTIVE MENTORING PROGRAMS IN A CORPORATE ENVIRONMENT The current perception towards mentoring in the military focuses on internal results, failing to address the need for career development post service (Knouse, 2001; Smith et al., 2005). There is a lack of recent and relevant research on the attitudes and beliefs of transitioning service members around mentorship, although in the corporate realm it has found to be instrumental for career success (Bozionelos et al., 2011). Research must determine the level of involvement between service membersand an informal mentor outside the military. It must also address the ability to locate an informal mentor to aid in the transition processand service member attitudes on mentoring effectiveness for career development. It is expected that findings will show a lack of informal corporate mentors to aid in future career successcompared to the presence of formal or informal mentors within the military service. Attitudes towards mentorship within the military are expected to be favorable whereas it will be unfamiliar and possibly reduced towards the corporate environment. For this reason research on transitioning service members will include questions identifying the barriers to engaging in corporate and virtual mentorship. The researcher anticipates a correlation between positive attitudes and engagement of corporate mentors to higher success in effective career transition. It is anticipated that these results will shed light on the association between the perceptions of mentorship outside of the military environment compared to the success of transition as defined by the rate of unemployment for transitioning service members.
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