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Using e-mentoring to sustain distance training and education
Daniel James Homitz
The Engle Group, Hyattsville, Maryland, USA, and


Zane L. Berge
UMBC, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Purpose – The purpose of this article is to examine e-mentoring as a way to sustain distance training and education. Design/methodology/approach – The paper describes a framework for sustaining distance training and education by adding e-mentoring (mentoring over the internet). It also explores the role of mentors, the benefits of the programs to the mentor and the sponsoring organizations, and ways of overcoming challenges faced by e-mentoring in distance training and education. Findings – One effective and cost-effective way to monitor and improve the effectiveness of training and education in the workplace is to involve expert peers, subject matter experts, and managers in a mentoring or coaching capacity. Originality/value – The article shows a cost-effective way to monitor and improve the effectiveness of training and education in the workplace. Keywords Mentoring, Distance learning, Training, Education Paper type Research paper

The Learning Organization Vol. 15 No. 4, 2008 pp. 326-335 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0969-6474 DOI 10.1108/09696470810879574

In addition to task-specific skills, workers need a variety of critical thinking, social, and technical skills in order to get the job done and to continue to advance their careers (Kerka, 1998; Watt, 2004). Traditionally, employees learned these skills during on-the-job training or in formal, classroom settings. However, in the global marketplace of international and multinational corporations, coworkers are often in different zip codes and time zones or even on different continents. Centralized classroom based training is not always practical, economical, or desired. Over the last ten to 15 years, many organizations have moved some or all of their training programs out of the classroom and into computer-based offline and online formats for distance education. While there have been some success stories, many organizations find it difficult to conduct and sustain the distance training and education efforts. The root causes for the problems encountered by the training organizations are many, but usually can be boiled down to the failure to meet the peripheral learning needs of the students such as overcoming technical roadblocks and obtaining answers to questions only marginally related to or outside the specific course subject matter. As institutional decision-makers begin to receive negative feedback about the courses due to these and other issues and they start to question the effectiveness of these programs, they begin to look for new and different ways to help students deal with problems related to computer-based and internet learning. A growing number of corporations and businesses are discovering that mentoring and e-mentoring are a cost-effective way to improve the effectiveness of distance training and education even while cutting training staff and training budgets (Jossi,

1997). They realize that even though distance training and education programs can be a good way to address the work-specific skills, there is not enough time for the instructors to meet all of the other needs of the students above and beyond their traditional instructional duties. More and more these corporations and businesses are turning to mentoring to address the cognitive, interpersonal, and technological needs of the employees participating in the distance education program. e-mentoring is a natural evolution of this process in the digital era. In this paper, mentoring or e-mentoring are used interchangeably since most of what is said pertains regardless of delivery mode. An e-mentor:
[. . .] is not recognized as a tutor or teacher but someone who provides guidance or counsel. Mentoring is used as an invaluable tool for developing a personal investment and is a cost-effective way for delivering outcomes and achieving organizational growth (Blue, 2002, para. 4).



Mentoring should not be confused with training and functions more like coaching than training (Gregg, 1999). While this article focuses on the benefits of mentoring, clearly mentoring is not a panacea. There are, of course, ineffective mentors and coaches; in fact, it can go beyond ineffectiveness to being harmful to the organization and its people. Generally, when that happens, it is usually the case that the mentors or coaches use diagnostic instruments or solutions that they not capable of correctly using, or in some other way overstep their abilities (Bachkirova and Cox, 2005; Berglas, 2002; Ehrich and Hansford, 1999). Increasing numbers of non-traditional learners As individuals are made more responsible for their own learning and career development and find they do not have the time to dedicate to classroom learning, they are turning to forms of education other than public and private universities. Corporate universities are blossoming because they are able to narrow their focus to industry-specific skills and inductions to corporate culture in a stark shift away from the general baccalaureate degree requirements of traditional universities. Even when in partnership with an established academic university, the corporate education programs are often geared toward thousands or tens of thousands of corporate employees and aim to teach specific sets and subsets of skills that employees can immediately put to use. Similarly, the certification movement by companies such as Microsoft, Cisco, and Novell support programs that confer thousands of certifications every year. Moreover, corporations and businesses want employees to complete corporate university programs or want employees to get these certifications because they indicate that the person has specific knowledge in a specific area. This rapid explosion in the number of non-traditional learners is changing education programs around the globe as fewer training professionals are expected to train larger numbers of adult learners. To manage these large numbers of students and new, alternative forms of distance training and education that are necessary to accommodate these learners, many organizations are instituting mentoring programs. E-mentoring as one means of sustaining distance training and education Many proponents of online education programs have investigated the ways to sustain distance training and education. Among other factors, it is clear that by getting early

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support from upper management and decision-makers to champion the program, adopting the right technologies at the right time at the right cost, actively marketing the learning program, remaining flexible and encouraging truthful discussion of the initiative, and evaluating the effectiveness of the ongoing training, any organization can sustain the interest in and the success of the courses. Additionally, it is important that key players such as upper management participate in and model successful distance training and education experiences, create partnerships with the training department to ensure realistic planning and follow through, and take the lead by communicating frequently and positively with the learning community about the program (Gold, 2003; Resource Bridge, 2005). It is not enough to simply buy or license the technology, design the instruction, provide access, conduct the training, and continue with business as usual:
The development of an organizational philosophy that supports technology, lifelong learning and change can lay the foundation for supporting distance training (Berge and Kendrick, 2005).

Recent history has shown, however, that having the technology available and the cultural impetus for participating in distance training and education classes as a strong foundation is not a complete training and education solution as there can be many barriers to these types of enterprises. Even in programs that address all the factors listed above, difficulties with the instructor or flow of the class, poor learner motivation, the perception that there is just not time for study, and the potential lack of social interaction in the online courses can contribute to the possible failure (Muilenburg and Berge, 2005). If the classes are not delivered effectively, there is often a high drop out rate or rate of incompletion that could be due to many reasons including insufficient feedback from the instructor, technical difficulties, and/or poor course design (McKenzie et al., 2006; Muirhead and Betz, 2002; Pickar and Wheatley, 2001). When virtual or online courses are offered on a learning management system, CD ROM, online tutorial, or web based training module, an organization can run the risk that participants that struggle with the technology or feel that they are all alone in the learning effort do not enjoy the experience, may not complete the course or courses, and may not register again in the future (Robert, 2005). While there have been many suggestions on how to overcome these and other barriers, mentoring is being used by more organizations as an effective way to mitigate many or all of these potential problems. While mentoring may include actual instruction, it supports much of what is known about learning, including the socially constructed nature of learning and the importance of situated learning (Kerka, 1998). The role of e-mentors in distance training and education A mentor serves as a trusted counselor or teacher, especially in work settings, and mentoring is seen by many as comparable to leadership, managing, apprenticing, and coaching (Buche, 2008; Johnson et al., 1999). There are many ways that mentors can fulfill these different roles in a distance training and education setting. As leaders they ´ ´ can influence their proteges in an attempt to structure the activities of a learning program and the relationships between individuals and groups within it. As managers, they can administer, control, and maintain the status quo or they can be instruments of

change, depending on the learning situation. As masters to the apprentices, they can create a formal or informal contractual relationship during which time they help the apprentices to learn a trade, skill, or group of skills. As coaches, they can help students grow, develop, and expand the tools, knowledge, and skills they need to be successful. ´ ´ The mentors assess the proteges’ learning needs and then deliver supplementary one-on-one assistance in the areas where development or growth is needed. As problems or areas of interest are identified, the mentors work with the students to solve the problems or explore the issues (McKenzie et al., 2006). In today’s corporations and other organizations, mentoring is usually a relationship between senior employees and new or more junior employees but can also be a relationship between more experienced and less experienced peers. While this type of relationship can be natural, spontaneous, or accidental, many businesses and educational organizations are institutionalizing structured mentoring programs ´ ´ because they value and see the benefits of mentor-protege relationships (Johnson et al., 1999). Effective mentors serve as a guide to both the workplace and what their charges should be learning in their distance training and education courses, helping mentored employees in areas such as setting and meeting training goals alongside navigating office politics and other more informal duties (Owens, 2006). Although e-learning can provide or be used to deliver gigabytes of information, most learners still enjoy the human touch provided by interacting and communicating with a real, live coach or mentor. These “instructors”, acting as both subject matter experts and intellectual touchstones, can offer advice, guidance, assistance and feedback on both learning projects and real work assignments. Despite the often-impersonal nature of technology used in modern education, these human relationships continue to be important even as we undergo the transformation into the technology age. E-mentoring adds a human element to computer-mediated learning Mentors and coaches are being used as a tangible human presence in the learning to communicate the positive messages of the training program, assist in instruction and mediate the flow of the learning, motivate learners with real life scenarios and advice, and advise students about keeping to schedules and making time for learning during the workday (Falconer, 2006). Mentors and coaches can facilitate communication, share experiences, collaborate with students, and in the case of virtual courses, help to reduce the sense of isolation experienced by many online learners. As both experts and confidants, they can help to adapt online learning to different learning styles, and individualize and personalize the program, and therefore, make it more effective, memorable, and sustainable. E-mentoring, in particular, allows for faster response time and more opportunity for flexibility in creating and maintaining relationships even over great distances. It can help overcome some of the traditional barriers to offline mentoring such as organizational structure, interpersonal skills, and cross-gender relationships (Falconer, 2006). This fosters positive interactions and communication between mentors and mentored learners. Skilled e-mentors can support distance teaching Any mentoring program, however, is only going to be as strong as its mentors. It is important that adept mentors are identified, recruited, and supported. Ridout (2005)



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lists the characteristics of good mentors. Good mentors are responsive, good at listening, open and honest, non-judgmental and ethical, approachable and available, good at observing and problem solving, and patient, and they set expectations and ´ ´ have a genuine interest in helping the protege. Effective mentoring does not take a great deal of time, as the role of the mentors is not to provide answers but to make suggestions, ask the right questions and point the students in the right direction. They must encourage the learners to think independently, use the new knowledge or skills to reach their goals not by feeding them information but by making them find the information for themselves. In distance training and education programs, this can be done just as effectively in person or virtually in e-mail or other online interactions. In e-mentoring programs, the distance factor often allows participants to express themselves more freely than in face-to-face communication. This often provides a more honest, open, and reflective learning environment where, in addition to the course topics and mastering work or trade skills, mentoring pairs can explore their values, feelings, and objectives more freely than when sitting in the same room or speaking on the telephone, where there is often added pressure to respond immediately. More than in classroom situations or synchronous online teaching venues, using the virtual medium of asynchronous communication, mentors can create a reflective learning environment where, in addition to the subject matter, the participants can discuss and explore these values, feelings and objectives more deeply and reflectively and over a longer period of time (Headlam-Wells et al., 2005). By operating more as teaching partners than as authority figures in this virtual social environment, mentors can also minimize status barriers and partially or completely remove the effects of the organizational hierarchy. The benefits of e-mentoring for mentors Mentors can also benefit by participating in the mentoring exercise. Most professionals realize that corporations and businesses identify top performers from the ranks of the seasoned veterans, subject matter experts, or experienced managers or peers, and reward employees by selecting them as mentors. One way these mentors benefit is by contributing to the organization and the profession with the satisfaction of knowing that their knowledge, ideas, and expertise are valued, utilized, and appreciated (Eby and Lockwood, 2005; Ridout, 2005). ´ ´ Many mentors also report that their proteges often provide them with fresh perspectives on old ideas or processes, connections to new or different networking ´ ´ opportunities, and, especially in cases where the protege is right out of school, up-to-date information on new and innovative technologies, practices and ideas in their shared areas of work. Many mentors report that their teaching and course design skills improve when they review skills with students, locate information to share with them, assist them with technology issues, guide the trainees, and their own knowledge, work skills and expertise are enhanced by working with the mentees (McKenzie et al., 2006; Ridout, 2005). The benefits for the organizations sponsoring e-mentoring programs Beyond the benefits mentoring programs provide to participating employees, the corporations and businesses benefit as institutional knowledge and organizational mission and culture are passed along naturally and experientially rather than formally

in an orientation or classroom setting (Kerka, 1998). Using mentoring techniques, experienced personnel can recognize and develop new talent and share practical know-how and wisdom. Most corporations and businesses look to cut back on the number of instructors and total teaching days and replace them with pre-packaged offline or online courses. In addition, when trainers are conducting classroom and online training, they do not have the additional time that is necessary to act as online course managers to assist in tasks such as course registration or to act as computer technology consultants to assist in technical questions and technical troubleshooting (Chang, 2004). Having mentors available helps to fill these and allows the organization to meet the many non-instructional needs of the students such as the desire to have reflective, open-ended assignments rather than the tests and quizzes that are common in technology-based and other distance training and education. Mentoring can also help with employee retention. In today’s job markets, employees are often hired because of specific expertise but still may need help adapting to organizational policies, procedures, and culture. These younger employees are more likely than prior generations to change jobs more frequently. Many employers find it difficult to balance the need to offer continuing education and career development with the risk of losing these well-trained, highly skilled workers to other companies (Robert, 2005). The personal connections and positive public relations inherent in a mentoring program that supports the education program make it more likely that a younger employee will stay with the organization. These technology savvy employees, having grown up with computers, the internet, instant messaging, cell phones, and other forms of instant or near instant communication are more inclined to want fast and reliable access to relevant information and real activities, scenarios, and simulations. Although they are also more inclined to use self-study learning guides, web-based training, internet or other discussion boards or forums, online workshops, wireless courseware, and other forms of online learning (Robert, 2005), often they also desire quick and informed feedback. e-mentoring can address the desire for immediate comment and reaction and also help to build mutually-beneficial relationships that, even if they do not foster complete loyalty to the organization, can help to build a positive learning experience and keep the employees happy and in place. The challenges for e-mentoring programs Many of the challenges of distance training and education stem from the changing nature of work in the modern age, the transition of organizations as they have fewer boundaries and ownership of specific responsibilities are blurred or unclear, the new and unfamiliar virtual nature of the internet learning, and the flexibility and countless opportunities for change (Johnson et al., 1999). Of course, as with any type of instruction, interaction, or communication, there are challenges specific to a mentoring endeavor. Funding the effort, finding mentors, matching them with appropriate learners, getting a dedicated amount of their time, and continuing to support the program can take an enormous amount of initial administration and effort for the organization. In the case of e-mentoring, if the technology or software too complex and difficult to navigate, trainees find they need more up front training in its use but cannot get it, or



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they are unfamiliar with the ways and means of communicating online, they will not reap the full benefits of the mentorship program. Fluency in online communication is a vital skill in these instances, and the tools and processes involved are not always intuitive and may require additional planning, training, and support. Due to the astonishing growth of corporate universities and other programs, it is often difficult to find a sufficient number of highly skilled trainers to accommodate the sheer number of participants. In these cases, an organization can turn to mentors to fill the gap. However, the best mentors are also usually the most productive, effective, and critical employees and any time spent on managing learning is often seen as detrimental to the organization. In addition, not all willing mentors turn out to be the most qualified or as qualified as they self-reported when volunteering or being assigned to the program. Even if willing and competent mentors are plentiful, the startup costs of online learning are expensive and many observers perceive online mentoring programs as diverting time and money from other more urgent or needed learning initiatives (Lisagor, 2005). Preparatory training in the technology, software, online communication and related areas can be expensive. It is often difficult to procure funding for the proper tools, initial administrative costs, time away from work costs, etc. Overcoming challenges faced by e-mentoring programs To get the necessary time, money, and support, selling the long-term benefits of the program is key. As with other training enterprises, focusing on the return on investment (ROI) is not as important as focusing on the desired results, such as building intellectual capital, building learning communities, nurturing experts and creating new ones, and an awareness that quality learning requires quality inputs that include human capital (Allee, 2000). In addition, educating key decision-makers early on about effective teaching and learning practices that include e-mentoring, recruiting and retaining proven educators with a long track record of success in passing on knowledge, and providing reasonable and sound structures and guidelines for the mentoring partnership are all ways to ensure success. One major advantage of an e-mentoring system is actually its overall cost effectiveness. Although there are high startup costs, once established the operational costs of a computer-moderated mentoring program are relatively low (Headlam-Wells et al., 2005). Other findings of mentoring and e-mentoring case studies Many case studies have shown the effectiveness of mentoring programs and that they really do help to sustain distance training and education programs. Former mentees have reported improved career outcomes, more job satisfaction, comfort in the social culture of the organization, and higher income. However, the benefits for the ones being mentored are not always equal. While it is clear that e-mentoring levels the playing field by providing flexibility and easy access to those who might otherwise be excluded due to gender, ethnicity, disability, or geography, administrators and e-mentors must remember that there is a “digital divide” and participants that have online access both at work and at home have a clear advantage over those who do not (Headlam-Wells et al., 2005).

In a review of the mentoring program of the American Physical Therapy Association, Ridout (2005) lists ways that the organization gets the most from their mentoring program. But the list could be used by any corporation or business to enhance its own program. Ridout found that it is necessary for both participants in the mentoring relationship to clearly state and set expectations, share information about themselves, be responsive and communicate clearly, and be open and honest. This relationship will not be successful unless it is supported by the organization whose responsibility it is to find a mentor to help the learner, provide the resources, help determine the framework of the coaching, create a cultural climate conducive to maintaining a mentoring approach, and help the participants judge what constitutes success and how the progression of the process will be evaluated (Wade, 2004). What is most interesting is that during interviews of participants from a variety of ´ ´ mentoring programs at different corporations, both proteges and mentors reported learning as the most common benefit of participation (Eby and Lockwood, 2005). In this and other qualitative research studies, both groups reported that mentoring helped in understanding different parts of the business and obtaining different perspectives on work-related problems above and beyond the subject matter of any training courses with which the mentors might be assisting. In addition, many other unintended benefits of a mentoring relationship have been reported, including more ease of career planning, networking opportunities, and developing personal relationships (Eby and Lockwood, 2005; Owens, 2006; Ridout, 2005). While an online coaching program can benefit any employee, according to most reports, studies, and anecdotal evidence, e-mentoring programs tend to be especially ´ ´ successful for female proteges (Dartmouth University, 1999; Perren, 2003; Rossett, 2002a, 2002b, 2002c). The flexibility offered by the often asynchronous nature of the communication via e-mail or message boards allows participants with family, childcare and other obligations, usually taken on more by women, to schedule the interactions with the mentors around these other obligations. Conclusion Because much of the offline and online distance training and education content does not involve a live instructor, having a mentor or coach available to ask questions, bounce ideas, get pointed in the right direction, and get assistance can be vital to the success and maintenance of a distance education program. In addition, there are not enough instructors available to handle the growing numbers of students using offline and online distance training and education programs available to them. Waiting for guidance and questions from a generalized e-mail account or teaching organization can be frustrating and hurt the reputation of the training organization. Having assigned mentors available and ready to respond quickly not only assists the learners but also creates a positive perception of the department or division sponsoring this support and can help to sustain and expand the online education or training program. Just offering computer-based training (CBT), web-based training (WBT), online live training, online tutorials, frequently asked questions (FAQ) databases, knowledge management databases, or performance management systems is not enough. The people utilizing these tools of learning will often need or desire some type of human action, intervention, or assistance at some point in the course of study and learning.



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