I remember myself years back as a young documentation project manager who had just started with the job. I had some previous knowledge about technical documentation and being a project member as I had worked as a technical writer for a couple of years, so I knew about the basics of what happens in a documentation project. However, I had no knowledge about all the responsibilities and tasks of a project manager.
At that time in our company we did not have any official competence transfer process, so there was no formal training for becoming a project manager. You just had to pick up the tasks and start doing them, and learn on the go, so to speak. If I was faced with tasks, processes, or problems I felt I could not cope with or solve by myself, I relied on the help from other more experienced project managers in the company, by asking them questions and their opinions. The more experienced project managers provided me with a lot of information or sources where to find answers, helped me in solving complex problems, and of course gave me the kind of emotional support so that I felt that I will manage and I’m doing the right things. During the first years this helped me to develop into a competent project manager, who is capable of acting very independently in different kinds of situations and projects.
I could say that the more experienced project managers acted as my mentors who guided and supported me on my path to becoming a skilled project manager. According to Anderson and Shannon (1988) (as cited by van der Weijden et al., 2014), mentorship can be defined as a process in which more skilled or experienced person serves a role of a model who teaches, sponsors and encourages a person who is less skilled or experienced and this way promotes the professional and /or personal development of that person. Mentoring can be a formal process, but also informal as in my case.
So I have had my own, and I must say very good experiences about being a mentee, which has had a great effect on my professional development. But before reading a couple of interesting articles, I had never realized how mentoring can be effective and helpful for children in addition to adults, and for mentors in addition to mentees.
Positive effects of mentoring
There is research about the positive effects of mentoring, both for the mentor and the mentee, and research also suggests that both young children and adults benefit from mentoring. Over the years several studies have shown the importance of mentorship. Ehrich et al. (2004) (as citec by van der Weijden et al., 2014) conducted a meta-review analysis of more than 300 research-based articles on mentoring in mainly education. Though mentoring sometimes suffers from lack of time and expertise, which is often the case in any project, the analysis showed that mentoring offers many far-reaching benefits for mentees as well as for mentors:
Modelling as a form of mentoring
Nash and Shaffer Williamson (2011) studied one particular form of mentoring – modelling – and how it promotes professional thinking of the mentees. The study included middle-school age students and the mentoring took place through epistemic game called Urban Science. In the game it was studies whether mentors’ modeling of professional thinking contributed to players’ development of epistemic frame (that is, a profession’s particular way of seeing and solving problems) of urban planning through gameplay.
According to the results from the study, the epistemic frame that the players imitated during the game persisted after the game, and this serves as evidence that the players of Urban Science internalized professional thinking to the extent that they no longer needed the mentors’ scaffold. The professional thinking used by players went from being in the their zone of proximal development during the game to being within their actual development level by the time the game was finished.
While it is unclear when exactly this transformation (internalization) took place, there is evidence that the players of Urban Science began to achieve some autonomy in their ability to think as professionals, and that their autonomy was derived from their interactions with mentors. Thus it can be concluded that imitation of modeled behavior is one important step in the process of internalization.
I conclude based on my own experience and on the articles discussed above, that mentoring can have a strong effect on professional development, and potentially also in development of expertise. Mentoring is one path for learning, and I’m interested to see if this is something that will come up in my thesis where I plan to interview experts in trying to map their learning path to adaptive expertise.
If one is offered a possibility to a formal mentoring process, either as a mentee or mentor, it certainly must be worth to take. However, mentoring can also be more informal, and actually after remembering my past experiences and reading the articles, I was reminded that every encounter can be a learning experience. When you talk to and work with different people, whether they are your teachers, fellow students, colleagues, neighbours, relatives, or whoever, you can always take something with you from that encounter. For example, I have been talking about my thesis plans with my daugther’s friend’s mother, who happens to be in the process of writing her doctoral dissertation, and from those talks I’ve had many new ideas about what to do and how to proceed.
I conclude that learning truly is a social process and when you, with an open mind, talk to and work with different people, you are able learn a lot.
Nash, P. & Shaffer Williamson, D. (2011): Mentor modeling: the internationalization of modeled professional thinking in an epistemic game. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning.
van der Weijden, I. et al. (2014): How do young tenured professors benefit from a mentor? Effects on Management, Motivation and Performance.