M ichael Witt was product stewardship specialist at Dow Chemical Co. and had informally connected with mentors over the years in hopes of learning more about how his company operates. But he couldn’t find the right individual or structure he needed to broaden his scope until he clicked around on his computer last year and found a mentor via the firm’s Web-matching software system.
Similar to a Google search or an online dating service, Witt input the qualities he wanted in a mentor and out came a list of names with the closest match at the top. The top mentor candidate surprised Witt. It was Dow CIO David Kepler, someone he had never met. "I hadn’t even been to the executive offices," Witt says. But the match turned out to be perfect. Since February 2003, the two have been meeting every six to eight weeks to discuss career development, and today Witt is part of a team that oversees product development for two of the firm’s units--and he believes he’s on track to lead a Dow function someday.
The use of technology in mentor matching is a natural progression for U.S. businesses that are hungry to implement or expand such programs but want to do it at the lowest cost possible during lean times. "Everyone has seen the demographics--the majority of companies will lose half their senior management teams by 2010," says Albert Vicere, professor of strategic leadership at Smeal College of Business Administration at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. "As a result, companies are asking, ‘Do we have the talent to deal with all this transition at the top?’ "
Many studies on corporate leadership put mentoring high on the list of how companies can shape potential managers. It’s also key to retaining top talent, Vicere adds.
Companies that have implemented formal programs are finding their employees are increasingly using e-mail and the Internet to connect with their mentors and mentees, so why not hand over the mentor matching process to computers? "The technology is there, and people are beginning to accept it. I refer to it as the e-dimension to mentoring," says Florence Stone, author of The Mentoring Advantage. Because the industry is still in its infancy, it’s hard to say how big it is. Few, if any, analysts who follow management software products have looked at Web-based mentoring offerings specifically. But Tony White, senior analyst for the Boston-based Yankee Group, says the segment is growing and he suspects, based on anecdotal information, "more and more companies are adopting it."
Dow was one of the early adopters of Web-based matching and uses it primarily to broaden the mentoring process. In 1997, the chemical firm went through some changes that made online mentoring essential, says Frank Morgan, global director of executive development and leadership for the Midland, Michigan-based firm. "We did away with all our field sales offices and at the same time we became a truly global organization. We now have offices in 167 countries, 45,000 workers. If we were going to do mentoring, we really needed to do it online."
The match game
The system appears to be working. The previous mentoring system permitted employees to go on the company’s intranet and use a tool to find mentoring that would help them fulfill certain job competencies. The only problem was that at the end of the process, a screen popped up that said, "Go find a mentor."
"Not very helpful unless you knew one," Morgan says.
In 2000, Dow Chemical selected Triple Creek Associates Inc. in Greenwood Village, Colorado, because of its "smart matching system" and paid $90,000 for installation and $30,000 in annual fees, compared with the $100,000 annually the firm was paying for the old system. Morgan estimates it would have cost him about $500,000 to install and maintain a similar Web matching system in-house.
Dow Chemical currently has 1,500 mentoring pairs throughout the company and estimates that 2,500-plus employees have used it over the four years.
"One of the big hurdles with mentoring is the matching," Morgan says. "This thing takes the sting and worry out of it and makes it so much easier to find a mentor on a global basis. How in heaven’s name can a person match someone who works in Midland in R&D with someone in Germany in the commercial end? Now they can find each other."
Dow CIO Kepler agrees. The system allows employees who may have never considered forming a mentoring relationship the opportunity to look beyond their comfort zone. And, he adds, another plus is its structure, which puts the onus on the mentee to choose a mentor and track the relationship’s progress by updating the system on a regular basis. "That forces them to think about what they want out of the relationship," he notes.
Triple Creek typically hosts the program, and the software can be customized to fit a specific company’s needs, says Tom McGee, vice president of special projects for the firm. Typically, he said, the client company recruits the mentors, and when a sufficient database is accumulated, mentees are then recruited. (He recommends that it be done on a voluntary basis.) "Part of the consulting we provide is to help with the recruiting," he adds. The information that the staff sees can be on a Web page on Triple Creek’s site or on a corporate intranet.
McGee says the firm has about 30 clients, the majority of which are Fortune 500 firms. For firms with 5,000 to 50,000 employees, annual costs for Triple Creek’s service range from $40,000 to $200,000.
A broken system
After struggling with its old mentor matching process for many months, Wyndham International Inc. "declared a breakdown of the system" in September of 2003, says Steve Schuller, Wyndham’s vice president of training and employee communications. The program was dismantled the following February. It was hard to admit defeat, he says, but the old program was riddled with problems, the biggest of which was how labor-intensive it had become, taking half of one manager’s time to administer.
"We took a traditional approach to it, having people fill out applications and using a manual paper process of matching mentor to mentee. Even so, the matches were subject to error." Still others who found the right match often claimed they forgot to attend periodic meetings. And there was a high concentration of pairs based in the Dallas corporate office, where it was easy to interview individuals and monitor the process, he says. The goal of the program had been to reach throughout the 22,000-employee global company.
Despite the problems, Wyndham officials knew mentoring was still a critical tool in building leaders, so they decided to resurrect it in April 2004. This time, however, technology and algorithms--not sweat and intuition--would be the centerpiece of the system.
Instead of having a person on staff make the matches, the hotel chain also enlisted the help of Triple Creek. In the business setting, the mentor and mentee are looking for just the right platonic career-enhancing relationship. The mentor wants to impart his or her wisdom and skills to the person who can most benefit; the protégé wants someone to guide them based on their background, career ambitions and skills. "It takes the guesswork out of the process," Schuller says.
The firm will save 25 percent annually compared with the old system, which cost about $50,000 a year. The annual savings will come after this year, when the firm paid out about $45,000 for the turnkey system from Triple Creek.
And while the hotel chain expects that successful mentoring will reduce turnover, the firm won’t start monitoring the return on investment until the program hits the one-year mark. To date, Wyndham’s mentoring program has about 331 employees using the system, compared with about 100 with the old paper program. By year’s end, Schuller estimates, the program will have about 500 participants.
The initial reaction from employees has been positive. Once a ranking has been generated, the Wyndham mentee selects the mentor who sounds like the best fit, has seven days to contact the mentor and then meets with the person to decide if the match is right. The two then sign a contract committing to a certain amount of time every week or month, and the system sends both parties e-mail meeting reminders.
Since all the information is tracked online, Wyndham managers can run reports as needed to assess the progress. Darcie Brossart, a spokeswoman for the hotel chain, says reports are run each Friday and the metrics are presented to senior leaders who have expressed an interest in tracking progress.
Going it alone
Companies don’t have to use a third-party provider to implement such a system. Take pharmaceutical company Abbott Laboratories, which launched a homegrown Web-based matching program Sept. 24 for less than $20,000. The firm looked at third-party providers but decided to create it internally in order to connect seamlessly with the company’s own internal human resource systems. Managers can now monitor the program’s performance, tying it to existing employee information such as gender, race, years of service and performance ratings, says Michelle Thomas, director of work/life and diversity for the firm, which is based in Abbott Park, Illinois. Without Web-based matching, she says, the mentoring program had fewer than 1,000 participants each year out of a total workforce of 55,000. She estimates the number will be in the thousands by year’s end.
Employees prompted the move to Web matching. "At first we had the mentoring coordinator do the match, but employees told us they wanted to do it themselves," she says. But, "you still need a mentoring coordinator to make sure everything is going well."
Mentoring experts say you can’t just pass the mentoring torch to machines.
"Software is not the be-all and end-all," says Marilynne Miles Gray, vice president at Corporate Mentoring Solutions Inc., a provider of Web-based mentoring products and services in Saanichton, British Columbia. "People out there think they can turn the software on and don’t need to manage and coordinate the program, but we say, ‘No, no, no’ to that."
And no matter how sophisticated the software, weeding out managers who are not meant to be mentors might prove to be the biggest challenge of all. Option One Mortgage Corp., a division of H&R Block, started a Web-based pilot project in September, after employee surveys identified a need for mentoring, says Ian Kristic, director of organizational development for the residential mortgage company, which is based in Irvine, California.
"The program doesn’t train leaders how to be mentors," he says.
The Web-based system cost the firm about $28,000 to install, and the program now has about 100 participants. And while the system provides potential mentors with a self-assessment tool that goes over what it takes to be a mentor, Kristic says it’s ultimately a subjective process. "We have to hope they are good mentors," he says.
Workforce Management, December 2004, pp. 63-65 -- Subscribe Now!