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IBM’s Response

In the early stages of this effort, IBM conducted a series of benchmarks and internal research (interviews, surveys, focus groups, and so on). Analyses of these data revealed a number of shortcomings regarding employee recruitment and development at IBM. One of the key factors that emerged was a need and desire to revitalize and expand mentoring throughout IBM. Employees and managers perceived mentoring as an opportunity targeted more toward executives and high-potential employees rather than something that was accessible across broad and diverse segments of the organization. Research results indicated there was confusion about how development techniques such as mentoring could help employees grow their skills and careers, and that information about key resources such as mentoring was not available from one easy-to-access central location. Across IBM, individual business units developed a number of homegrown programs such as “mentoring matching” tools that added to the information confusion. Further, the human resources department found that employees were challenged to find the time to engage in mentoring relationships in the company’s complex and demanding business environment.

Mentoring was also not generally viewed as critical to transferring knowledge or fostering innovation. Rather, it was seen as just a “morale-booster,” and not a vital tool that helps to drive core business-related outcomes. Further, there was a lack of clarity about the roles of mentors and mentees, as well as the different types of mentoring relationships that could be valuable, including peer-to-peer mentoring, group mentoring, junior-to-senior (or “reverse”) mentoring, and mentoring relationships in virtual environments (or e-mentoring).

While there was an interest in mentoring and career development within IBM, the solution that needed to be identified and then implemented was far more complex. One of the key challenges IBM faced was how to create a mentoring initiative that would meet the needs of more than 356,000 employees working with clients across 170 different countries. The mentoring effort had to meet the diverse needs of employees across generational and other diversity dimensions. In addition, the program had to take into account evolving work arrangements where close to 49% of IBM’s employees worked outside of a traditional office environment. This array of challenges meant that the answer to IBM’s mentoring questions could not be found in a one-size-fits-all type of mentoring program with a traditional design. For example, four distinct generations coexist in the IBM global workforce. Each has a different style, preference, and approach to acquiring and disseminating crucial knowledge. To blend within and across generations in the learning process and address the different styles, IBM’s approach to mentoring had to be flexible, sensitive to different learning styles, and take into account diversity across generation, culture, and other important dimensions (for example, race, age, and gender).

After an extensive internal and external analysis, IBM began revitalizing mentoring through a corporatewide initiative. To meet the challenges and opportunities its internal and external audit identified, a new mentoring program took shape as an innovative, multipronged approach. However, the first step was to raise the visibility of mentoring as a potential tool for meeting some of the challenges and opportunities within IBM. The early stages of the mentoring revitalization efforts directly targeted some of the key feedback gained within the internal benchmark and included:

  • Developing a single Web site as a “trusted source” for all corporate mentoring information
  • Creating a series of streamlined and easy-to-access mentoring resources, such as mentoring podcasts, success stories, mentoring guides, and mentoring best practices that focus on the mentor and mentee relationship, and how to make it work
  • Leveraging search capabilities of the corporate “telephone” directory to find a mentor for any level of expertise, career advisement, or social networking
  • Establishing international and cross-geography mentoring programs whereby employees from other countries and cultures could learn from one another
  • Forming group speed mentoring cafes, whereby an experienced mentor meets with numerous mentees in a group setting for topical mentor moments
  • Changing the Individual Development Planning tool so that mentoring relationships can be recorded and included as part of the annual employee development plan
  • Providing managers guidance on ways to include mentoring as a form of recognition in the performance evaluation process
  • Building a “Dear Mentor” chat capability, where employees can electronically ask questions of a team of mentoring experts
  • Designing an extensive Mentoring Promotional Campaign across the enterprise
  • Securing executive backing through creating executive champions who act as advocates for the mentoring program

This initial array of IBM mentoring initiatives was used to launch its multilevel deployment approach. In a top-down phase, the human resources department, together with an executive leadership team, provided the charge and mandate for mentoring through a series of promotional activities across the business units. Executives were involved in speaking engagements at global organization meetings, panel discussions, webcasts and podcasts, and mentoring jam sessions. Parallel to engaging executives, a bottom-up phase was simultaneously launched through many grassroots efforts to touch numerous employees in a short period of time. This included engagement of diverse employee networks such as the Global Women’s Council, which includes several thousand women who developed a resource guide for mentoring; the Asian Diversity Network Groups, which conducted a webcast focusing on mentoring; and the Global Black Executive Network team that helped to develop an electronic book that outlines important mentoring and career development resources available throughout IBM. These efforts involved peer, group, expert, and reverse mentoring activities throughout the organization. In addition, the revitalization initiative engaged a mentoring team that included “volunteers” from within the business to help drive the development and deployment of various grassroots activities. While organizations usually address only one or two types of mentoring, the IBM approach generated a diverse portfolio of mentoring activities, thus yielding an innovative strategy not widely seen in literature or in practice.

The approach that has emerged from IBM represents an innovative use of mentoring for several reasons. First, the use and revitalization of mentoring has taken place as a “grassroots” effort, that is, within various department and segments of the organization. At the same time, the leadership of the organization has been fully committed to the use of mentoring as a strategic tool. The synergy created by this dual approach was critical for signaling the importance of mentoring throughout IBM and for building support among the sponsors and participants of the revitalization effort.

Second, IBM has taken the unique approach of creating a strategic mentoring portfolio or series of formal and informal efforts to infuse mentoring within the culture of the organization. This portfolio approach means that there is not one type of mentoring program or structure that can be the solution for any challenge or opportunity facing the organization. Instead, managers, business units, and HR professionals select from a wide variety of mentoring tools and techniques to find the mentoring solution, rather than simply implementing a traditional mentoring program. Third, the use of mentoring was placed within the overall strategic objectives of the organization. As illustrated by Figure 1-2, core features of IBM’s mentoring portfolio are linked to the key components of its global business strategy. In this way, mentoring is not seen as a special or extra activity. Rather, mentoring is seen as a central and integrated aspect of how business is accomplished and executed throughout IBM worldwide.

Figure 1-2

Figure 1-2 IBM’s mentoring portfolio.

IBM’s methodology reflects a strategic approach to mentoring that moves away from the traditional single role or person as “mentor” paired with one or more junior “protégés” and toward an understanding of the various benefits that a diverse portfolio of mentoring tools and techniques can offer. Building a mentoring portfolio means that the right mentoring solution can be applied to meet the specific needs or opportunities of the organization, employees, and other key stakeholders. IBM’s portfolio approach also links its diverse array of formal and informal mentoring programs to key strategic objectives of the firm, as depicted in Figure 1-2. The synergy created by matching mentoring solutions to strategic objectives of the firm is both essential and innovative. Thus, throughout the chapters of this book, we highlight various examples of IBM’s approach to mentoring and discuss how it supports critical components of the company’s global business strategy. While each example has been developed out of a series of trial-and-error efforts for IBM, they all represent a unique approach to mentoring that can help any organization attract, retain, and develop its most important asset—people.

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