Corporate Eye

Innovation Governance and Reverse Mentoring

reverse-mentoringMy last post reviewed techniques some companies use to improve the technology knowledge of Board and C-Level executives. Executives need this knowledge to make effective Innovation Governance decisions. 

To be sure, not every innovation fully involves some type of technological influence,  however as McKinsey consultants indicate most do:

The technology lens assesses feasibility and often provides benefits that can create and sustain competitive advantage. Technology, broadly defined, is the enabler of almost all innovative products, services, processes, and business models. It can be a molecule, a service platform, or software. Too many companies define technology narrowly as an ingredient or component of a new product. Deep knowledge of the benefits of emerging technologies provides an important window into what is possible.

Younger workers grew up in years during which many innovations affected their lives. They are early adopters of new things and are full of knowledge about about how best to use them. Some enlightened companies are learning how to tap this knowledge base through a method called reverse mentoring (on my last post’s list of techniques).

Reverse mentoring involves employing lower level, tech-savvy managers to mentor top level executives on technology topics. Reverse mentoring’s history dates back to the Jack Welch reign at GE.

Welsh encouraged executives to learn more about the Internet. Perhaps Fast Company magazine co-founder best captures the meaning of Reverse Mentoring:

“Its a situation where the old fogies in an organization realize that by the time you’re in your forties and fifties, you’re not in touch with the future the same way the young twenty-something’s. They come with fresh eyes, open minds, and instant links to the technology of our future”. Source: Survey

Reverse mentoring can be a powerful approach to help mitigate the continuing lack of technology skills in too many Corporate Boards. For example, a report Digital Dynamics in the c-suite, published by UK based Sunguard Availability Services, indicates:

Without doubt, information and communication technology (ICT) is the biggest disruptive force confronting organisations and their leadership teams today. And it is not just large organisations, but organisations of all sizes, including the public sector, that are being affected by the inexorable advances in technology. …whilst acknowledging the opportunities digitisation can bring, most Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and their boards don’t quite know how to respond. And, because many see digitisation as a technology issue they, perhaps understandably, abdicate responsibility to their CIO. this is a fatal mistake.

No equivocation here and this is where Reverse Mentoring enters. It is not yet in wide use by corporations but a few trailblazers include companies such as Cox Communications, Cisco, Time-Warner, MasterCard and Hartford Financial Services Group. Future posts will look at the workings and features of some of these corporate approaches.

Some companies are realizing unexpected benefits. C-suite mentees are getting unvarnished messages, via the young mentors, about what is happening in the depths of their companies that they seldom see. Seems the mentees have not yet learned about ad hoc “the way we communicate here” (what the culture says you can and can not say) and informally give their mentees an honest assessment of what they daily observe.

Here is an example of information that mentees gain from the young mentors. Lance Perry, vice president, IT customer strategy and success at Cisco Systems says:

Working with his millennial mentors has also given Perry a deeper understanding of what millennials like and don’t like in a work environment, which is very different from his priorities when he was first starting out. “These guys come in and ask about flexibility, what the company gives back, what Cisco’s position is in the community,” he says. “I never asked those questions when I was interviewing for a job. For me, it was about money. For them, it’s more about the experience than the ladder they’re climbing.”

There is more to share on this issue.

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Ed Konczal has an MBA from New York University's Stern School of Business (with distinction). He has spent the last 10 years as an executive consultant focusing on human resources, leadership, market research, and business planning. Ed has over 10 years of top-level experience from AT&T in the areas of new ventures and business planning. He is co-author of the book "Simple Stories for Leadership Insight," published by University Press of America.