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Introducing IBM's Mentoring Portfolio

A well-designed and diverse portfolio of mentoring programs and activities can provide a powerful and strategic tool for organizations that must face the rapidly changing demands of attracting, developing, and retaining talent within their global workforce.
This chapter is from the book

Chapter Contents

  • Mentoring Transformations
  • IBM’s Challenge
  • IBM’s Response
  • Creating a Mentoring Portfolio
  • Contribution of Intelligent Mentoring
  • References

The past two decades have witnessed an explosion of interest across a variety of organizations, disciplines, demographic segments, and professions in the topic of mentoring.1 One recent annual benchmark by a leading management consulting firm noted that companies are increasingly using mentoring as a key technique for attracting and retaining high-potential employees, new hires, as well as senior executives.2 There is also clear evidence that interest in mentoring is not only pervasive in the United States, but also extends around the world within many global organizations.3 Ironically, as our interest in mentoring continues to grow, our ability to understand how to unlock the power of mentoring relationships has not kept pace with this expanding curiosity. Issues such as the benefits of formal versus informal mentoring, how to structure formal mentoring programs to increase effectiveness, and what tools and techniques can be used to measure the impact of mentoring efforts, are just a few of the critical questions that persist.4 While most agree that mentoring is important, there is still a crucial need to understand how to unlock the power of this valuable tool.

Throughout the pages of this book, we argue that a well-designed and diverse portfolio of mentoring programs and activities can provide a powerful and strategic tool for organizations that must face the rapidly changing demands of attracting, developing, and retaining talent within their global workforce. The examples of mentoring throughout IBM are used to illustrate how one organization can leverage new and existing skills/expertise as well as foster knowledge sharing across traditional boundaries such as function, geography, demographic group, and culture. We describe how IBM uses a broad portfolio of both formal and informal mentoring efforts to support three core components of its global business strategy:

  • Building organizational intelligence, which allows IBM to bridge skill, leadership, and knowledge gaps while creating a climate where collaboration leads to innovation
  • Connecting across people, which focuses on providing support and development across all employee segments
  • Sustaining business impact, which involves integrating mentoring within the overall strategic goals and objectives of the organization

As illustrated in Figure 1-1, these three components are part of IBM’s global strategy, and each helps to frame the selection and design of mentoring tools used within its portfolio approach. The need to develop this global business model was articulated by IBM CEO, Samuel Palmisano, stating that, “In a world where the means of production and distribution are increasingly available to anyone, the only way to differentiate yourself is to have better skills, to have a better idea, to come up with a more innovative solution, to know more than the next guy, and to apply it more effectively.”5

Figure 1-1

Figure 1-1 IBM’s strategic business model.

The catalyst for this book was born out of the experience of IBM in using mentoring to address critical issues such as how it competes within the global “war for talent” and meets the demand for innovation within the dynamic technology industry. Benchmark and trend analyses provided evidence that IBM, like a number of other firms, was facing an aging workforce, a pipeline shortage, and the growing need to retain and transfer cutting-edge knowledge. In addition, internal analyses revealed that shifts in the IT industry would demand people who not only had deep technical knowledge and professional skills, but also the ability to collaborate in increasingly diverse and virtual environments. In attempting to address the needs of talented employees who are seen as the knowledge capital for IBM, the realities of shrinking training budgets, limitations of traditional classroom training, and the need for accessible and flexible learning systems presented some real challenges for the industry giant. These were all factors that led IBM to invest in and to revitalize mentoring as a strategic tool to attract, develop, retain, and energize employees throughout its global business enterprise.

We share and reflect on best practices developed within the global portfolio of IBM’s mentoring initiatives. In the following chapters, we explore some of the emerging research on and innovative applications of mentoring as well as how the very nature of mentoring is being transformed by these efforts. To provide concrete illustrations of the power of mentoring, we present several best practices from IBM’s mentoring portfolio to illustrate some simple but creative ways IBM uses these practices to address issues related to mentoring as well as key lessons learned. While the development and innovative use of formal and informal mentoring within IBM is an ongoing and continuous process, our discovery is that the activities highlighted in this book have strengthened and energized attention to mentoring throughout the IBM community worldwide. Our goal is to extend this energy and expand the dialog to other organizations. While there are ongoing discussions and communication about how to make mentoring effective and how to cultivate a stronger mentoring culture within IBM, sharing its portfolio approach may provide a catalyst for other innovative uses of mentoring that can not only transform organizations but can also transform the way we think about and utilize mentoring as a valuable and strategic management tool.

Mentoring Transformations

Traditional approaches to mentoring were developed during a period of time where the expectation for stable, long-term, full-time employment within a single organization was still the norm for people throughout their careers.6 On the individual’s side, the need for flexibility, mobility, and life-long learning are some of the dominant themes that have altered expectations about careers and employees’ relationships to the firm.7 On the organization’s side, the use of restructuring, cross-function integration, and demands of the global supply chain have created new organizational structures, processes, and requirements.8 Both of these dynamic trends have led to what researchers call a change in the “psychological contract,” or the expectations that employees and employers have concerning mutual relationships and obligations within the business enterprise.9 Others argue that the changing nature of individuals’ careers and organizational demands requires a fundamental shift toward a new type of employability that is market-driven rather than employer- or employee-driven.10

Thus, changes in the employer-employee relationship coupled with the demands of market-driven employability mean that resources and support that are needed within organizations are more complex. In addition, a market-driving employment relationship requires that individuals take a more active role in managing their careers than was true decades ago.11 Recognizing the importance of these dynamics, a great deal of research has focused on the increasing need for employees and employers to change their approach to mentoring from traditional forms such as senior-to-junior informal relationships or one-on-one formal relationships (for example, supervisors) provided by the organization, to thinking about mentoring as a diverse network of career and personal support.12 The traditional definition of a mentor as a more senior individual who uses his or her influence and experience to help with the advancement of a single protégé or mentee is still relevant. However, the transformation of mentoring as experienced by IBM and captured by scholars examining other organizations is now expanding the types of relationships beyond this traditional senior-junior relationship to include a broad portfolio of mentoring forms such as peer mentoring, virtual mentoring, group mentoring, and reverse mentoring.13

To fully appreciate the need for such an expansive and complex view of mentoring, we must first understand the various challenges facing organizations like IBM. These challenges not only set the context for the mentoring portfolio developed by IBM, but they also provide the blueprint for similar issues being faced by other global companies. The responses to these concerns can then point us toward the best fit between specific global challenges and unique mentoring solutions.

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