Mentoring, networking and innovation: a prescription for the 21st century

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Mentoring, networking and innovation: a prescription for the 21st century, is a co-authored guest post by Alan Berkson and Fred McClimans

Make good choices about mentoring, networking and innovation opportunities. Photo of sign at Newton-Lee Elementary School in Ashburn, Virginia by Fred McClimans.

History is filled with examples of linkages between networking, mentoring and innovation, but over the centuries the “knowledge acquisition ecosystem” has changed considerably. There was a time when this process was slow and rooted in tacit knowledge, but as the needs and wants of society progressed and evolved, the process became more refined—moving faster—and rooted in the exchange of explicit knowledge.

Regrettably, as society and technology continue to explode at a pace that stretches Moore’s law, it translates to the current knowledge acquisition ecosystem being broken; in fact, we may be at risk of losing a generational exchange of knowledge and innovation.

Following is a fast-paced tour through related history, plus a prescription for 21st century mentoring, networking and innovation.

In days of yore

Centuries ago, the path to gainful employment often required apprenticeships. If you wanted to learn a trade you had no other option: you needed to find somebody who was already doing it.

Through practice and much coaching—especially if it involved tacit knowledge—you could eventually master a particular craft or art. This was a one-to-one relationship that benefited both the master and the student. Students learned a trade that would serve them for life, and masters acquired young, cheap talent to keep their businesses alive. If you wanted to learn a trade, you had to find a person who was willing to teach you how to do it. And, if you were lucky, the master provided you with paid employment at the end of your apprenticeship.

In this type of direct one-on-one learning process, a master could only have a limited number of apprentices at any one time. This not only limited the ability of the master to educate the masses in their skill, but it also limited the ability of the young student to ask questions or bring new ideas to a wide audience.

While the collaborative sharing of knowledge occurred, the resulting by-product—innovation—was a slow process measured in decades, not years or months.

The age of mass

Enter the Industrial Revolution, characterized by the advent of mass production techniques. To feed the growth of industries that required a large quantity of similarly skilled production workers, education structures were modified to “mass produce” explicit knowledge workers who understood “Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic.” As a result of the Industrial Revolution and its changing educational requirements, the primary need for most types of apprenticeship programs was undermined or devalued.

During this period, the master/student apprenticeship process evolved into—particularly at the management level—a mentorship process. The master/student relationship remained intact, but it became less about passing along tacit knowledge and fundamental skills and more about the refinement and guiding of the student’s career path.

Throughout this revolutionary period, the one constant in the apprenticeship and mentorship processes was that both the master and the student benefited from the relationship. It was a two-way street that helped advance both experience and new ideas.

In essence, it helped foster innovation.

The next “next”

In the 21st century, we’ve shifted into a post-industrial, information-based economy that once again has resulted in a requirement for both educational change and a shift in the type of workforce required. Unfortunately, some things have changed (not necessarily for the better) along the way; namely:

  • the master/student mentorship process quickly is becoming a casualty of the global availability of information; and
  • there is a shift in the way society learns and how we reinforce our decisions.

The “hyper-connected” generation

Technology, pervasive communication and the global availability of “any information everywhere” have had a negative impact on the state of mentorships.

Twenty years ago we had a culture where peers still relied upon personal face-to-face (or voice-to-voice) real-time communications. As we “graduated up” from high-school to university or college, we were introduced to a new level of peers and potential teachers/mentors. As we left our institutions of higher education and moved into the work-force, each new job opportunity brought with it a “new” level of contacts.

This change in contacts and peers wasn’t necessarily by choice. It was a by-product of the way we communicated and the limitations that geography placed upon our network of “on-demand” peers.

Today’s generation (some may call it Gen Y or Millennials—we’ll use the phrase “hyper-connected” here) faces an interesting conundrum:

As they move from high-school into the work-force, the hyper-connected still encounter the same “new contact” opportunities as their predecessors. The complication is they also bring with them a collection of trusted peers, with whom they remain connected through pervasive communications.

As a “trusted” group, and taking into account peer pressure, it is no surprise they rely heavily on this group of peers when it comes to making lifestyle or career decisions. Rather than seek out the advice of those with experience in their new-found field of employment, the hyper-connected often are likely to seek the counsel of their long-term friends.

This may fill the need the hyper-connected have to gain confirmation or acceptance of their plans, but it diverts their attention from the value that an outside advisor or mentor can bring to the equation.

The Need to Mentor

Why do we mentor others? Like parenting, it’s motivated by both selfish and selfless aspirations.

We want to:

  1. Bestow on others our own knowledge.
  2. Give them the opportunity both to work with us and for us.
  3. Pass along our collective experience to those who we trust to continue our legacy.

At the same time, we recognize they may become our peers or even our competition—something that both forces us to raise our game to the next level and challenges us to find innovative solutions to win the game.

Where does this innovation come from? The innovation comes from the exchange of ideas with those we mentor.

Why networking is key to leveraging mentoring

It’s often been said that it is not what you know but who you know. Today, more than ever, people recognize the value of diversity of opinion. We also recognize that a person need not have just one mentor and that mentorship needs—and mentors—may change over time; ultimately, helping to form a group of trusted advisors.

How do you accommodate this?

Mentoring is part of a larger ecosystem of networking. It requires you to reach out of your comfort zone to find those who are “where you want to be.” Unfortunately, too many people are afraid to—or don’t feel the need to—truly network and reach out to establish these long-term beneficial relations.

Simply reaching out online to ask an experienced person a question, or asking for a limited piece of advice, isn’t true networking. It often results in answers that lack context.

What many of today’s younger generation fail to realize is that networking isn’t about:

  • following people
  • commenting on a blog; or
  • asking a question from a person with whom you haven’t built a relationship of trust.

While the old axiom “you may find that the most successful people make the most effective mentors” still applies, it has taken on a new meaning in the digital era. It isn’t about how many people you follow or how many people follow you, but how many personal relationships you cultivate through your online community.

Tomorrow’s workforce

As we migrate from a world driven by process to one focused on innovation and problem-solving, we see the benefits of both data-driven components and experiential/tacit knowledge—something that is ideally suited to the:

Internship   >   Mentorship   >   Employment Model

As we create new professions (community managers didn’t exist a decade ago), we find that traditional education falls short in preparing candidates with the requisite skills and mindset to be successful.

Today’s questions are now:

  1. “How do we bridge that gap?”
  2. “How do we cross that functional/educational divide?”

The answers are that we—collectively—need to reach out proactively to schools and to students in the early stages of their careers. We need the hyper-connected to:

  • think analytically; and
  • evaluate events and circumstances and make the most effective and positive decisions they can.

And we need to:

  • push them towards internship programs that foster and grow this critical skill set; and
  • ultimately, lead them to mentorship programs that offer opportunities and provide for the mutual exchange of knowledge and ideas that lead to innovation.

Things that make you go “Hmmm…”

We invite you to ponder this mental checklist:

  1. Are you reaching out to your local college or university community (or your summer student base) and offering internships that make a difference?
  2. Are you willing to both educate and learn from your interns?
  3. Do you realize the value (both for your organization and children) of helping the next generation of leaders benefit from your experience (careful—this requires a time commitment…)?
  4. And are you willing to openly give to those that you mentor, allowing them the opportunity to learn from you, work for you and perhaps even compete against you?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, you are one step ahead of your competition.

* * *

Editor’s note: the above guest post is due to Alan Berkson introducing a question on Google+ about young people and networking and Fred McClimans weighing in. The editors of PR Conversations agreed it would make for an interesting and relevant joint guest blog post. We thank Alan and Fred for their ready agreement and resulting thoughtful and innovative collaboration.

Alan Berkson is a principal at the Intelligist Group in New York, USA, where he focuses on helping businesses move past blockages, leverage unidentified or underused assets, and identify opportunities for growth. He provides provocative commentary and theories on a variety of business strategy topics on his blog, The Intelligent Catalyst. Connect with him on Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.

Fred McClimans is the managing director of the McClimans Group in Washington, DC, USA, where he focuses on helping businesses improve their strategic business influence and find creative ways to drive their market from a proactive perspective. Read his blog at fredmcclimans.com. Connect with him on Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.

Together, Alan and Fred are working on 2020F, a global community being built to identity, track and trend disruptive events that have the potential to influence long-term change in both related and tangential markets, including developing actionable solutions to both minimize the risk and maximize the opportunity of current and future disruptive events.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Are we living in a period of innovation that outpaces Moores Law? And there was me thinking we were in the middle of recession going backwards. This is another example of PRs being out of touch with reality and all too trendy too. A little bit of IT and digital and we’ve got over-excited…

    I’d love us to be living in a period of innovation (but look how R&D budgets are being slashed…look at how there is virtually no innovation…except in China). The mantra in the West right now is all about sustainable development …that means it is not about what we can do, but rather about what we cannot do… yeah, right. Fast-paced it ain’t…

  2. Fair point. I also accept their ideas on mentoring are sound and well argued (good on them). But we are not in a period of innovation or one of rapid progress – unfortunately. R&D budgets are being slashed left right and centre. It was the off-the-peg outdated phrases (misleading spin that does not resonate) in the piece that I was objecting to.

    Actually, from 1926 onwards during the great depression innovation continued apace; we need to do likewise. We need to see this problem clearly is what I’m communicating… and innovation is risky… so, yes, we need more risk, not less (China gets that point for sure and it has guts)… but pretending the US or Europe is a dynamic fast-paced innovating risk-taking hub right now is to be deluded.

    • Paul – Thanks for your comments and feedback. I think there is a bit of confusion here. Our statement about Moore’s law referred to the technology-fueled explosion of social media and societal behavior:

      “Regrettably, as society and technology continue to explode at a pace that stretches Moore’s law…”

      with the purpose of pointing out that innovation has been disrupted and is at continued risk:

      “…the current knowledge acquisition ecosystem being broken; in fact, we may be at risk of losing a generational exchange of knowledge and innovation.”

      We believe that this needs to change, and that mentoring (and internships) can play a part in us recovering our ability to innovate.

      On a side note, this is not a PR-specific post and neither of us currently works in the PR sector.

      Thanks again for your comments – Fred & Alan

  3. Kudos to Alan and Fred for incorporating this joint guest post into Tuesday’s #influencechat (i.e., the framing post, which is trackbacked here).

    I quite like the fact that this concept began life on Google+, moved to this blog (as well as our various feeds), then morphed into a Twitter chat discussion. There is some 21st century ingenuity regarding communications! And what was particularly great was that we had some hyper-connected ones participating quite fully in this Twitter chat, so we got to hear their point of view on mentors (Do you have a link to the transcript that we could post here?)

    My question for the two of you: generally speaking, if the hyper-connected continue to mainly network with and mentor one another (i.e., a peer review clique), how long do you think before this lack of mentoring/coaching (from more senior skilled/knowledgeable people in or outside of the the workplace) is going to impact businesses in general, particularly when it comes to innovation?

    • Judy – Based on what we’ve seen so far, we would say that both business and innovation are already suffering as a result of this hyper-connected/lack-of-mentorship issue.

      We see it in businesses that have lost a step, and in innovation which has become increasingly consolidated and/or isolated.

      There is a also an impact on overall employment. Trust is a major factor in buying decisions, and employment is not different. In contrast to some of the damage that an “off” social profile can create, mentorship helps direct qualified candidates to appropriate job opportunities and helps candidates be prepared for the interview (sales) process.

      This isn’t to say that great businesses and innovation don’t exist, only that we’ve already seen a shift/impact in the way they have manifested themselves for a while now. – Fred & Alan

      • I think there is something intangible in cross-generational mentoring that may be getting lost. Many cultures thrive because of such relationships which pass down knowledge, ways of being and so forth. At the same time, older generations benefit from being recognised and having fruitful connections with younger people.

        From a PR perspective, it seems a worry that we are supposedly engaged in both culture and relationships as part of our role within organizations but the next generation maybe isn’t participating in this vital part of ongoing social development.

        The beauty of a mentoring relationship is that is predicated on communal rather than exchange relationships. Thus innovation and other outcomes of mentoring originate in the course of genuine reflection and connection between those at different parts of their life path.

        • Heather,
          The traditional channels of communication are being disrupted. Inter-generational communication is no exception,. Even the definition of community is evolving. The curmudgeon in me is struggling to decide if we are truly losing something or if we are in the midst of a transformation in the transmission of cultural and knowledge. But I keep coming back to the core of what you’re saying, that mentoring has a strong value proposition. What is that old saying? “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

          -Alan

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