Taking mentorship online

Webcams, webinars and web-based matching help build relationships across the country
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/14/2011

There are many remote areas in Canada and that can be a challenge when it comes to recruitment and retention of particular occupations. So Sue Stewart, a pediatric physical therapist at Sunny Hill Health Centre in Vancouver, decided to launch a pilot project a few years ago as part of her master’s program.

“The problem for therapists out here in British Columbia, and it’s the same really across Canada, is that new grads are often being hired in rural places and they have no experience,” she says. “I was looking at the whole idea of recruiting people to the North and retaining them. One of the ways of doing that was this notion of electronic mentoring.”

The six-month pilot involved two new grads, both physiotherapists, who moved to small towns in B.C. Each was provided with a laptop and a webcam and they “met” once a week with Stewart, for about 40 minutes to one hour. The three also connected online once a month to present particular cases.

“They really liked those conversations, they loved having this other person online who was in the same position as them,” says Stewart.

The conversations were done through videoconferencing and iChat, which is “drop-dead easy” and secure, compared to Skype, says Stewart. “I just didn’t want technology glitches to be a barrier.”

The videoconferencing was especially helpful as one of the women was not a strong typist, so it was easier and faster to converse, says Stewart. It also made for more effective mentoring since questions came more easily.

“The face-to-face was very helpful in being able to draw them out and make them feel comfortable,” she says.

The women could also show video clips of a patient’s ailment for better diagnosis.

“It’s hard in text, again, to be able to quantify some of physical things they might ask about,” says Stewart.

While hundreds of kilometres apart, it was interesting to see relationships develop.

“The technology just sort of went into the background,” says Stewart.

And the ementoring proved very effective.

“They’re both still in their jobs, they felt their confidence improved, their reflective thinking improved, their critical reasoning improved,” she says.

Stewart has since developed four online training modules and hopes to have a pool of mentors who can be hired out for a period of time.

Ementoring, where mentors and mentees connect online, is in the early stages, with many employers still testing the waters. But the biggest advantage is the ability to surpass geographic boundaries and reach a greater number of people.

Women in IT embrace technology

One such pilot project is being done by Canadian Women in Technology (CanWIT), a division of CATAAlliance, which provides mentoring, networking, professional development and advocacy. Faced with high turnover levels among women in IT, the organization knows the value of mentoring to keep people on the job.

So in April 2010, it partnered with CIOCAN, a community of IT leaders. About 20 CIOs agreed to be mentors for one year in an online or phone relationship, says Joanne Stanley, CATA vice-president and founder and executive director of CanWIT in Ottawa. These are willing but busy people, she says.

“They travel a lot, they don’t have much time, so you have to set up a framework which works with their schedules,” she says. “These are all people who work in the tech sector, so that kind of relationship made sense to us.”

The interested parties filled out extensive questionnaires and were matched up manually. They then met face-to-face in Toronto to establish their relationship and signed an agreement that set out the framework, says Stanley.

As part of the pilot, two webinars were held, one with mentors, one with mentees, to exchange information and knowledge, and talk about the relationships. A final webinar, with all mentors and mentees, is scheduled to be held in March.

Anecdotally, the project has been a success, she says, but a comprehensive evaluation should provide greater insight. The hope is to make the ementoring program available nationally, says Stanley. But one challenge has to be worked out.

“(The matching) was the most important part for the success, it was also the most time-consuming, so it means creating an online platform by which both protegés and mentors can apply information and be matched online,” she says.

Xerox does online matching

CanWIT could take some tips from Xerox. Its Women’s Alliance, an employee resource group, has a web-based program that matches the online profiles of mentees and mentors. Software searches the mentor database and provides a few options for the mentee. Once she has decided on the best choice, he can personalize a request and send it to the mentor. The mentor can then accept or decline.

“We realized that the time it took to administer (a mentoring program) was extremely heavy, was a very big time commitment so, because of that, finding the resources, sustaining the resources to manage the program just became unmanageable,” says Susan Rogers, manager of diversity and inclusion at Xerox in Toronto. “It was decided if we’re going to do this, provide networking and mentorship opportunities, we really need to engage technology.”

Once a match is reached, the two must set up defined goals and objectives and the mentorship lasts until the objectives are met or 12 months are over. The two might meet in person, but often it’s by email, phone or conference calls, says Rogers.

“One of the biggest benefits of this program is you don’t have to be in the same building geography as your mentor or mentee to help develop skills you’re looking for. It also gives both mentor/mentee an opportunity to meet people, even if electronically or virtually, they may have never met before.”

Right now, there are about 300 profiles online, she says. And automatic reminders enforce timelines, so an approved mentee has two months to activate a mentor relationship while mentors have two weeks to respond to a mentee request.

Xerox is also in the process of launching a formal mentoring program company-wide, and it’s hoped eventually the initiative will be web-based, says Rogers.

“The only way we could offer this to all employees is through an ementoring program.”

Add Comment

  • *
  • *
  • *
  • *