November 2010
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Reverse Mentoring - The phase of Indian Enterprise

Bangalore: The adage "Mighty oaks from little acorns grow" may be true, but what do you do when your "acorn" days are far behind you? This is something that prompts enterprises today for a paradigm shift called 'reverse mentoring' 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 as the young twenty-something's and undergoes a mentorship process by the young employees.

Devised by the CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch in 1999, reverse mentoring is now gaining wide acceptance in India. Welch who lacked skill at using the Internet and realized it was a necessary one, brought in a younger, technologically savvy person in the company to help him with it and ordered more than 600 managers to do the same - become the student of someone younger and lower in the corporate hierarchy. This later went on to bring in humungous changes in the way of work at GE and transformed GE as a technology driven organization, using the power of the internet to integrate the many components of GE. Since the Indian market is getting overrun by young consumers, the old executives have realized that they need fresh hooks to net the young in order to hit the jackpot.

Bharti Airtel and Nokia are among the first players in India who have brought in fresh methods of reverse mentoring, where the usual mentor becomes the mentee under their young staff. Since most of Bharti Airtel's top officials are in their 40s and 50s, the company launched a reverse mentoring programme titled Rock On. All senior members were assigned a mentor, who taught them everything from how to use new gadgets, to where to dine and what's hot on the internet. Informal settings like a cafe or a weekend get-together at the house of the senior executive are chosen for mentoring sessions. Initial sessions were icebreakers, during which the duo discussed likes and dislikes, favorite holiday destinations, hangouts etc. "I learnt many new things which helped in strategizing our business. The youth use different tools to express their feelings, like blogging or social networking sites. Earlier, the only way to gather customer feedback was to get records from our call centers. We mostly ignored blogs and social networks, from where we could have got endless information." K Srinivas, President of Bharti Airtel's Telemedia services was quoted in The Week after being mentored by Saurab Sharma in his firm.

Nokia's reverse mentoring model was different where they selected a group of young employees who were experts in different domains and the domain specialists would coach senior executives. V. Ramnath, Director (Operator channels) of Nokia India after his reverse mentoring under Gautam Dhingra, found out that Nokia Music Store's search engine was based on the western model where people search for a song by the singer or by the album while in India, the youth just type a few words of the song and hit search. He did the same, but the music store did not offer any results which prompted him to revamp the site. Corporate behemoths like Microsoft and Starbucks Coffee found it difficult to address the vast changing needs of youth particularly when they enter the Indian arena. So the big fish started reaching out for the smaller fry by taking their help to identify the different mood shifts of the youth especially on what the youth thinks as cool, rich and stylish. The idea took off.

The key to success in reverse mentoring is the ability to create and maintain an attitude of openness to the experience and dissolve the barriers of status, power and position. Though more popular in technology firms, even companies in auto manufacturing, energy and IT products are now adopting reverse mentoring which is essentially the new phase for Indian Industry. But the adoption may not succeed all the time though much has been said about it. Lot of ego clashes may come to play in enterprise structures like IT where accepting a young mindset is not easy for older people which leaves the fact that success rate of reverse mentoring is yet to be quantified.

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