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Reverse mentoring: youth and seniors reverse roles

Youth and seniors have traditionally lived in different worlds, where "ne'er the twain shall meet". Moreover, today even a difference of one generation can mean a world apart in terms of technological knowledge and skills.

So what does this mean in the hierarchical world of business management, here in Thailand as in other ASEAN societies? Basically it means that grandfathers still command the respect of their grandchildren, while top managers are respected by young entrants. But when it comes to penetrating the digital world, or even just getting the computer or smart-phone to do what you want, the executive directors may have to seek the help of the secretary or the teenage college intern.

But will that director feel face-loss to ask, and will that secretary or intern be too deferential to display their superior knowledge before their elders and supposed betters? In all but the most progressive firms, there will certainly be problems. A locally-educated staffer should at least show enough deference to avoid embarrassment. A newly joining overseas entrant may risk his position in the corporate hierarchy by displaying his or her superior knowledge.

New hope for old dogs

But there is hope for all of us. The newly recognised concept of neuroplasticity gives the prospect for senior citizens to continue the learning process. It also offers continuing meaningful roles in life, way beyond formerly conventional retirement ages.

Neuroplasticity means that the brain remains adaptable, and can maintain flexibility throughout life. An older, healthy person can continue to acquire new skills. The atrophy of mental functions appears to be much the same as physical functions: "use or lose". This is why it is correctly stated that it is retirement, not hard work, that kills. Well-used brains have a good chance of remaining useful brains throughout life. While inevitably mental as well as physical degeneration can take their toll in later years, mature-aged managers can acquire extra skills derived from experience. These skills can match the new technical knowledge that young entrants can bring into the organisation. But how can the experience of senior managers and the new knowledge of younger managers and operatives be combined? This is where reverse mentoring comes into play.

Reverse Mentoring in Action

Many organisations, hopefully eventually most organisations, whether in the public or private sector, have now accepted the concept of coaching or mentoring. These are concepts which we will discuss in greater detail in subsequent editions of "Human Resource Watch".  But in brief, we can define coaching as a formalised relationship between an experienced outside consultant, the coach, with an operating manager within the organisation. The mentoring process might be differentiated from coaching as an internal process, where a more senior and experienced manager guides the progress of a younger, more junior staffer.

Reverse mentoring is something different from conventional mentoring. Many companies in advanced economies which have well-established mentoring schemes between senior managers guiding junior managers, have now recognised that while senior managers have the experience, the young or managers have a better grasp of technology. These young people may even introduce some useful theories of management that may be worthwhile trying out in practice.

Evidently, the higher the technology and the faster the pace of progress, the more senior management risks falling behind new developments. In some professions, a formalised Continuous Professional Development scheme will exist, requiring a certain number of hours, days or weeks of professional or technical upgrading each year. The recognition of neuroplasticity enables these developments to continue throughout a manager's working life.

However the reverse mentoring process is something different, because it takes place within the organisation, on the job, and usually between older and younger members of the same team. The process is mutual and two-way: young people mentor their seniors, while the seniors have the chance to provide their own guidance based on experience and maturity. Such mentoring is especially valuable in the marketing of new products. Thus young engineers will be better able to explain the qualities of new automobile models, which appear each year. Young surgeons and medical practitioners will be better able to mentor their seniors with the new technologies of the fast-changing healthcare scene.

The challenge of "phi" and "nong"

Developing a reverse mentoring process in Thailand is never going to be the same as in Western countries. In many North American countries, students often call their professors by their first names. Here in Thailand "Than Ajarn" is unlikely to become on first name terms with student. However the informality of Western relationships is not an essential feature for effective reverse mentoring. What is required is an environment where constructive mutual guidance can be expressed, bordering sometimes upon, but not reaching criticism of established mind-sets or systems.

Every society and organisation faces the challenges that older workers will be reluctant to accept mentoring from younger, more junior people in the same team. They may be reluctant to accept that younger team members have valuable insights to impart. Likewise the younger members will be cautious in sharing views and giving feedback that may cause resentment. The best solution may be group sessions led by an experienced in-house or consulting facilitator to "break the ice" and encourage interactive discussion between senior and junior or team members.

Another solution may be to mix sessions where young members practise conducting seminars on new technologies, such as digital knowledge or use of social media. There can then be reciprocal imparting of managerial skills by the more senior members. After creating a give-and-take atmosphere, it will be easier to proceed to one-on-one reverse mentoring where the juniors actually impart new skills to senior managers.

Those practicing reverse mentoring have found that positive results may ensue in terms of corporate commitment, better understanding of management objectives, better teamwork and reduced staff turnover. There is still some way to go, but "the longest journey is commenced by a single step".

Christopher F. Bruton, 45 years in Thailand, is Executive Director of Dataconsult Ltd, a local consultancy. He can be reached at Dataconsult's Thailand Regional Forum provides meetings, seminars and extensive documentation to update business on present and future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.