Inside Supply Management Magazine

Mentoring Is a Familiar Methodfor Transferring Knowledge

June 06, 2016

Mentoring programs are common among organizations across the globe. But the idea of mentoring as a method to transfer knowledge to others is nothing new, says Kathy Kram, R.C. Shipley Professor Emerita at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

In the '80s and '90s, formal mentoring programs became very popular, says Kram, who has been working with organizations in all industries for about 30 years on formal and informal mentoring. She is the co-author with Wendy Murphy, Ph.D. of 2014 book, Strategic Relationships at Work: Creating Your Circle of Mentors, Sponsors and Peers for Success in Business and Life, McGraw-Hill Education.

“When we started doing research on them, we saw how limited they are in their effectiveness,” Kram says. “We've learned a lot about maximizes that heavy investment in time and energy, and both setting up one-to-one mentoring relationships and providing the education and support for them to be effective.”

There are two types of mentoring: informal and formal.

“Informal mentoring is what happens organically or naturally in an organization where people find each other and enjoy each other and benefit from their relationship,” Kram says. “Informal mentoring tends to work very well because it's voluntary and based on a mutual chemistry among two people. That's been around for centuries. I would say it goes back to Greek mythology.”

Formal mentoring, however, began in the late 1970s and early '80s in response to affirmative action as a way to make naturally-occurring mentoring more available to women and members of minority groups, she says. “It was observed that naturally-occurring mentoring tends to happen more often between people who are like each other than people who are different from each other,” she says.

“The impetus was to give women a better playing field and then it was expanded to minority group members,” she says. “And then there was the realization that it was good for high potential employees of all kinds. Formal mentoring usually has a target audience. There's an effort to match experienced mentors with younger, junior protégés and then to provide some kind of education to prepare individuals to build effective relationships.”

Supply chain companies today offer a variety of mentoring programs, including formal and informal ones. They generally are face-to-face, online only or a combination of the two, Kram says.

Because employees can be geographically dispersed, organizations may want to experiment to see what kind of programs work best for them, she says. Programs often work best when there is a face-to-face component at the beginning to establish rapport, she says, adding that it’s possible for relationships to evolve on the phone or through Skype. “When nothing is done face-to-face, it's less likely the program is going to be effective,” she says.

Another popular variation is a mentoring circle — a group of employees who come together on a regular basis and support each other in their own learning and development, Kram says. "Sometimes those mentoring circles are supported with education and training, so that the experiences in those groups can be effective, and sometimes those mentoring circles include senior mentors as well; they're not just peers,” she said. Mentoring circles also have other names, such as peer mentoring, peer coaching and mentoring groups.

For more on supply management mentoring, see the May issue of Inside Supply Management® magazine.