At a discussion on new management trends with a colleague recently, I raised the idea of reverse mentoring. From what I had read, it’s a simple concept and works exactly the way the title suggests: younger and less experienced colleague coaches the senior executive.
Not that reverse mentoring is a paradigm-shifting idea. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch once required several hundreds of his top executives, including himself, to find themselves younger mentors when he realised he and his management team had much to learn about the internet and various technology applications. Most of these mentors were in their twenties and thirties.
In India people have tried reverse menotring in fits and starts; but many more are joining the ranks now as their senior executives grapple with new questions like how to manoeuvre around iPads, Facebook, and social media trends, apart from splitting hairs over more mundane things like strategically managing costs, intelligently navigating risk and achieving profitable growth.
More often than not, these young people around you are really smart. Before asking an intern who couldn’t seem to take his eyes off his shiny new tablet, I thought LIMH (laughing in my head) was another markup language for displaying Web pages and BBR (blonde, brunette, redhead) was an onomatopoeia for a sound you made when you were shivering with cold.
But what got me thinking was my colleague’s next question: why do organisations need reverse mentoring to teach old dogs new tricks? Have these people stopped interacting with their children? Wouldn’t their kids be equally competent in giving them the low-down on how to cover their digital tracks or how to shop for apps on their smartphones? Isn’t it a better idea to sit down with your teenage daughter or son when you sometimes feel overwhelmed in the ever-changing, ever-growing worlds of technology and media?
There it was, in italics and bold typeface, with several exclamation and question marks in tow: why, indeed, would these companies, which may be facing tough times in this downturn, want to spend precious dollars on something that might be more easily available? Probably all they need to do is organise their time smarter and go home earlier.
The issue that I am trying to highlight here is not the various tools companies are using to brush up the skills of their senior executives, or whether they are trying to engage younger employees. It’s about the way many of us tend to see the whole technology thing and weigh its pros and cons when it comes to our children.
Here’s a typical example. While browsing the Net, I came across “Digital Diaries”, a study by the internet security company AVG. Among other things, it found that more small children in the US today can open a Web browser than swim unaided; more preschoolers are able to play computer games than tie their shoes laces; and that while a huge chunk of them knew how to smoothly navigate their parents’ smartphones, they couldn’t navigate their way on a basic bike.
So the study sent out a strongly worded warning to hapless parents: their children might be paying a big price to acquire such technology skills. At stake are their life skills — like being able to tie their shoe laces or fix a meal for themselves. Conclusion: keep your tots offline. Ouch!
I have always been amazed at how kids are getting more and more tech-savvy these days. What I don’t get the hang of is this sense of righteous indignation all around when they seem to get there faster than us. Much of the debate on new technology, its implications for and impact on our lives boils down to an ominous warning against the day people hooked on their laptops and mobile phones will forget how to ride their bikes — their life skills, to be precise.
Just remember the times you had to key in contacts into your mother’s cell phone or set up television show recordings on that smart set top box you gave her as a gift. Or count the number of times you have cleaned up caches, deleted the cookies and upgraded the virus protection software on your dad’s laptop.
It’s the same thing really. The next generation will probably be smarter than you in some ways, but you are probably wiser. So keep a tab; set the limits, if you may. But don’t make technology a this-or-that issue. Has anybody done a study that conclusively says that if children are tech-savvy they would be social nincompoops? If you really think about it, our computer and mobile phone skills are probably becoming as essential for navigating the world we live in as, say, riding our bikes.