COMMENT ON : Tri-mentoring – A New Spin On An Old Practice

It should be the most natural thing in the workplace – to share information with your peers. It increases individual skills and adds to the all-round knowledge of the organisation. But on-the-job learning can be haphazard, depending on whether or not there are formal training programmes in the organisation, if there are performance targets and skills matrices in place, and whether people are willing to share, or encouraged to question.
Many people find they learn their most valuable workplace lessons from more experienced colleague who knows the ropes and tricks of the trade. But there are number of barriers to this natural sharing of information. Companies that have no structures in place or have overly rigid structures are unlikely to be good organisational learning environments. Too much rigidity only ensures the status quo, and there has to be willingness to share for the greater good.
Regardless of the organisational structure, resistance to traditional peer mentoring often comes from experts who have difficulty sharing with novices or who have trouble passing on their knowledge because they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be the new kid, or because they are knowledge hoarders. And novices often don’t know how to ask the right questions to elicit the right information.
I’ve also found in some companies that formal training – skills not learnt on the job – isn’t always valued. In some organisations expertise is equated with time served and has nothing to do with the building or application of new knowledge, nor the ability to recognise and solve problems. Often too, where formal recognition of workers’ skills does exist, it’s only the most highly skilled workers who are acknowledged as trainers.
However, workers can and do learn from each other in the normal performance of daily tasks, regardless of their individual levels of competency, and this leveraging of tacit knowledge needs to be formally recognised and promoted. As way to recognise this implicit learning, I’ve been developing formalised peer-mentoring system, which I call tri-mentoring.
Essentially, this is group of three workers who share their tacit knowledge in order to build organisational capability. It’s one of those occasions when three is not crowd. Pairings don’t work because it’s likely one person will be dominant or more influential, and four or more can be too hard to coordinate and reach agreement. People do feel more comfortable when they learn from more than one person and trio offers flexibility, healthy discussion and can more easily cover overlap, especially in organisations that run shifts. The trio self-selects for learning, but managers provide the direction (via skills matrix) and experts do the assessment.
As an example of how tri-mentoring has enhanced performance, there was situation in painting bay where workers had quite specific instructions, but each person interpreted them differently – the painter, the finisher and the quality control officer. The painter finished his job to the standard he thought was acceptable and sent it to the finisher who threw it back, saying it was not up to scratch. Meanwhile orders were delayed, time was wasted while the job was repeated and the quality controller was under pressure for not meeting targets. When these three got together, discussed the job, decided on uniform acceptable standard and agreed on targets and times needed to complete the work, there were fewer rejects, less time and labour wasted, consistent supply and less stress.
Another example was in food-processing operation where workers were required to determine moisture content before moving the product onto the next phase, but there was no way to accurately measure the wet/dry balance; the decision was made based on look and feel, and so the moisture content would vary according to who was ‘on’ at any given time. By bringing groups of workers together and having them collectively set the standard, the problem was finally fixed.
Although it is early days, it seems that tri-mentoring works well in organisations with eight or more employees and particularly well in larger firms. It is easy to implement, self-regulating and self-managing, and leads to greater worker engagement, less downtime, fewer wasted resources and better problem solving. It also seems to decrease favouritism and helps to build confidence and self-esteem within individuals. It’s an effective way to leverage knowledge in the workplace and it surprises me that something so easy to implement isn’t being done more in New Zealand companies.

David Williams has his own knowledge-management company
and is currently investigating effective tacit knowledge management for his PhD. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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