E-mentoring: A tool for federal workers

A mentor could be your ticket to work success

Mentoring is an increasingly popular trend in government. Now, federal officials are offering mentoring as an online service.

Office of Personnel Management officials have added electronic mentoring, or e-mentoring, to OPM's multiagency Web portal, GoLearn.gov. Portal users can find experts in their fields in minutes. About 20,000 visitors have used this feature since its introduction in January 2004, according to OPM officials, who have recently upgraded the service.

"There needs to be a resource for which people can capture experienced knowledge," said Jeff Pon, deputy director of the agency's

e-government program. "I think the utilization of mentoring is just the start."

A survey conducted last year shows that senior-level executives recognize the value of mentors. More than half said a mentor helped them succeed. But 60 percent of the women and 72 percent of the men didn't have one.

"There's more evidence that cites the benefits of mentoring," said Delores Bernardo, a senior associate at Catalyst, the New York-based think tank that conducted the study. But "the lack of access ...is a big problem."

Mentoring can divert time and money from other job training programs, Bernardo said. And some organizations don't have enough top-level mentors to coach employees. "E-mentoring is a way to circumvent" those problems, she said.

By folding e-mentoring into the larger e-Training initiative, which is part of the President's Management Agenda, OPM officials have linked e-mentoring to other courses and programs.

Pon said the goal is "to really have customers get what they need in a short amount of time." E-mentoring is "a personal resource and a network opportunity."

To use GoLearn's tool, federal employees enroll in a free GoLearn course. Once logged on or in the portal's virtual classrooms, they click on a mentoring icon for a specific topic. Then, they connect with a specialist in that area. Vendor Global Mentoring supplies experts for the portal.

OPM officials also provide the service to other agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Department of Housing and Urban Development; the Energy Department; and the General Services Administration.

Unlike GoLearn's help desk, which gives a scripted solution, e-mentoring teaches "people how to solve their problems," Pon said. "It takes it a step further."

Scott Wortman, GoLearn's client services manager, experienced the difference. When he was creating a training report in Microsoft Excel, Wortman said, "I went to a lesson and was kind of getting it, but needed some extra help. Within half a minute, I'm talking with a mentor. It's like having a personal assistant sitting there with you."

Not all managers have spread the word about the resource. As of early December 2004, only 10 percent of GoLearn's registered users had tried e-mentoring, according to OPM officials. Agency officials are trying to publicize the service and increase its visibility on the Web site.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that e-mentoring will become more popular. For example, "women with mentors are more likely to be promoted than those without," Bernardo said.

"With the workforce being global," Bernardo said, e-mentoring becomes "a key way to connect people who might not otherwise be able to form relationships because of geographic boundaries."

But the tool has limitations. OPM's e-mentoring service "is a good step moving forward, but when you meet in person, face to face, that is a different feeling," said Anitha Raj, vice chairwoman of the Women in Technology International's mentor/protégé program. "In terms of really getting the mentorship, it has to be going back and forth instantaneously."

GoLearn also doesn't offer instant messaging. But guidance, whether online or off-line, is essential to recruiting and retaining talent. "Mentoring is on the rise," Raj said. "Many companies are introducing it."

Lisagor is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

Finding a mentor

Women who have mentors are more likely to climb higher up the workforce ladder, experts say. Whether you're looking for a mentor or want to help someone else, check out the following resources.

n The Gov Online Learning Center's multiagency Web portal (www.golearn.gov) offers online mentoring to registered users. Private-sector employees can turn to MentorNet (www.mentornet.net), a nonprofit group that provides online mentoring for women in science and engineering.

n Women in Technology International's five-month mentor/protégé program pairs up about 60 people. Industry and government workers can participate.

— Megan Lisagor

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