Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal has a quick article on the concept of "reverse mentoring.” The story goes that mentoring doesn’t always have to happen from senior employees to junior employees. Some of the knowledge transfer could be happening from the junior employees to their senior counterparts—reverse mentoring.
Funny, I don’t know why they use the word “reverse.” It sounds like the mentoring process is taking away or undoing something…
Reconsidering Our Mindset & Terms
I applaud these firms for their emphasis on mentoring employees, but why not think about it this way: In every functioning organization there are experts. Sometimes those experts are 55 with master skills and vaults of tacit knowledge earned from their years of job experience—and sometimes those experts are 22 and really good at things like social media, fresh graphic design, or trend spotting. If social media is the expertise that is required in the organization now, then this should be acknowledged and those who need to learn social media can be pointed to these identified experts so they can learn. The age or organizational level of the expert isn’t relevant to the success of the knowledge transfer process.
Calling special attention to non-relevant characteristics of an expert gives the impression of a management stunt. Knowledge transfer doesn’t need to be relegated to what feels like a gimmick. Also, calling this type of knowledge transfer “reverse mentoring” due to the age or junior level of the expert borders on sounding ageist. Would we called it reverse mentoring if a woman mentored a man?
SUMMARY: Knowledge transfer should be a normal part of the culture of any healthy organization. Identified experts should be given clear expectations, tools, and methodology plus opportunities to mentor and transfer knowledge to those who need it. There’s no reason to package it up as “reverse” when one of the experts happens to be young.