Sun Microsystems, Mentoring, and Communities of Learning

December 23, 2009

It isn’t often that a report emanating from a global corporation offers small libraries and nonprofit organizations some much needed guidance and inspiration, but Sun Microsystems has accomplished exactly that with its “Sun Mentoring: 1996-2009,” by Katy Dickinson, Tanya Jankot, and Helen Gracon.

“Sun Mentoring” is both a report and a user’s handbook for anyone interested in designing and implementing a mentoring program, and it doesn’t much matter that the project is enormous, having matched more than 7,000 mentors and protégés worldwide between 1996 and 2009. Smaller organizations looking to create a program with much smaller numbers of participants will benefit from the details contained within the report. It covers topics including formal vs. informal mentoring, mentor selection systems, matching mentors and protégés, best practices for mentors, and mentoring in good times as well as bad times.

What is striking here for anyone who reads between the lines is that what works in that enormous global program can just as easily be replicated in settings with fewer resources since the principles remain constant regardless of the size of the organization being served. And the principles are equally adaptable. At Sun, for example, “people usually join a mentoring program because they are curious and want to learn, or are ambitious and motivated to improve their career, or are stuck personally or professionally and want to find a new way to proceed,” the writers note on the first page of the introduction to the report. That summary doesn’t sound much different from what we see among our library and nonprofit colleagues. The Sun program, furthermore, benefits tremendously from careful matching of mentors and protégés, from having well defined goals and objectives, and from engaging people who genuinely want to learn from each other; none of these elements are beyond the capabilities of even the smallest organizations.

When we look at all the components which coalesce to create successful mentoring programs, we begin to realize that they parallel the components of a successful workplace learning and performance program. They start with individuals, grow to meet increasing needs, and contribute to the development of a community of learners with far-reaching impacts for individuals, organizations, and the customers they serve. And for those who want to know that the effort produces results, the Sun authors conclude (in section 11 of the report) that mentoring “returns good value for the time and money it takes. ROI (return on investment) on mentoring can be 1,000% or better and grows as the program matures.” Who could ask for more?

Those interested in learning more about how to organize a successful mentoring program within a library or nonprofit organization will find plenty of guidance in “Mentors and Protégés: Creating Successful Workplace Programs,” the new online, self-paced course I’ve written for the LE@D (Lifelong Education @ Desktop) project through the University of North Texas.

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