Mentoring has long been recognized as an effective means of employing the knowledge and experience of one individual to guide another along their career path. The practice dates back thousands of years and the word itself is thought to have originated with the character of Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey, a Greek epic poem believed to have been written near the end of the 8th century BC. The concept gained widespread acceptance in the workplace during the second half of the 20th century, as organizations sought to provide pathways to success for promising young employees.
Organizations have long struggled to develop effective mentoring programs, however. In recent years, that has led many employers to embrace new technologies that never could have been imagined in Homer’s day. Offerings such as Mentorlink, eMentorConnect, Mentorloop, MentorcliQ, MentorCloud and Chronus facilitate mentor-mentee matching, goal-setting, guided conversations and helpful resources, along with dashboards and reporting features to track engagement and progress. The latest entrant into the burgeoning mentoring tech category is Ellen, an advanced artificial-intelligence app from San Francisco-based NextPlay.ai.
Touted as “the next breakthrough in HR technology and AI for the enterprise,” Ellen uses AI to make immediate, internal mentor-mentee match recommendations. Once the mentorship initiative has been launched, anyone who is interested in having a mentor or serving as a mentor simply downloads the app and answers a few questions. For those seeking to be a mentee, those questions revolve around their goals, while potential mentors answer questions about their strengths.
Unlike traditional mentoring programs where “visible leaders” made up the majority of those tapped to be mentor, one of the app’s greatest benefits is its ability to connect “eager-to-grow mentees to untapped mentors,” according to Charu Sharma, founder and CEO of NextPlay.ai.
“There are so many people at a company who have expertise, who want to pay it forward, who will raise their hands when given the chance, but they are not being leveraged,” says Sharma.
Throughout the mentoring relationship, Ellen employs AI to provide ongoing resources and reminders, frequently nudging mentors and mentees to have “high quality conversations.” When the mentor and mentee have an upcoming meeting, for example, Ellen sends a reminder and provides bullet points of things to keep in mind. After the meeting, the mentee is prompted to provide real-time feedback, so the mentor will know whether any value was gained.
Whereas traditional mentoring programs tend to focus on high potentials, Sharma says Ellen is unique in that it provides equal access to all employees, regardless of career stage.
“There are lots of vendors who provide coaching and mentoring for senior employees and high potentials, but the whole segment of early- to mid-career professionals is quite neglected,” says Sharma. “There are a ton of employees who can benefit so much if they had just a little bit of help, a little bit of nudge.”
At San Francisco-based Lyft, which served as a beta tester for the Ellen app, mentees indicate they have 218 percent more clarity toward their career path and feel 178 percent more equipped to achieve their goals within the company after just six months of using the new app.
While some apps facilitate mentoring relationships among employees who actually see each other on a regular basis, one of the benefits of this technology is its ability to connect employees across multiple locations and geographies, according to Julie Hiipakka, learning research leader at Deloitte Consulting.
“Technology enables mentoring by facilitating connections outside of the traditional face-to-face model,” says Hiipakka. “Mentoring platforms and tools help facilitate connections over distance and expose employees to unexpected and diverse experiences.”
But Belle Rose Ragins, the Sheldon B. Lubar professor of management at the Lubar School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is concerned because AI-powered mentoring apps “essentially replace people with technology.”
While traditional mentors and mentees typically choose each other “based on chemistry,” Ragins worries that apps “introduce an element of artificiality to the relationship,” possibly resulting in less effective matches. Ragins is also concerned that some organizations will attempt to employ these new technologies as a substitute for face-to-face mentoring.
“These tools can be used to help improve the access to mentoring relationships, but they can never take the place of informal mentoring relationships,” says Ragins. “It’s like friendships. You can email and text and FaceTime, but nothing beats having a nice dinner with your best friend.”
Whether they are matched up with someone across the hall or across the globe, Sharma says, these new mentoring apps have an enormous role to play in helping employees who are hungry for development but aren’t comfortable forging such relationships on their own.
“We are seeing in the workforce a select few hustlers who are able to find the right people at their company, but most people are not there yet,” says Sharma. “If you institutionalize something like this, it becomes much easier to just go on an app, fill out a few questions and then automatically get matched to the right person who can open doors for you.”