This week, TechCrunch reported that Facebook is now testing a way to connect users who are looking for mentorship opportunities, either as mentors or mentees.
Hot on the heels of its foray into recruitment earlier this year, it’s looking increasingly as though Facebook is serious about making an impact on its users’ professional as well as personal lives.
There are lots of reasons why this move makes sense for Facebook, not least because its continued growth depends on identifying new ways of using and growing its social network.
It also chimes nicely with the current zeitgeist which positions mentoring as a truly transformative practice, capable of tackling deeply entrenched problems from workplace sexism in enterprises, to overcoming challenges associated with starting-up a business.
Having a mentor, and, by extension, being a mentor, is increasingly seen as a professional rite of passage. It therefore feels like an intuitive step for a global two billion-strong social network to start bringing together potential mentors with mentees.
But how is this likely to work for its users?
Is it really easy to find a mentor online from a pool of people you’ve never met and will, in all likelihood, never meet?
It feels counter intuitive when so much received wisdom makes identifying a mentor sound marginally more troublesome than finding a life partner – as much of an art as a science.
In her book ‘Lean In’, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes about the process of finding a mentor:
“If someone has to ask the question, the answer is probably no. When someone finds the right mentor, it is obvious. The question becomes a statement. Chasing or forcing that connection rarely works.”
The crux of this is that mentors need to be people with whom you have worked and demonstrated your potential – who know first-hand how you think, behave and contribute.
They need to personally like, trust and, crucially, believe in you. Can you effectively replicate that in an online and anonymised environment?
Well, quite possibly.
Multiple factors are disrupting traditional career models, and as workforces and workplace practices change, it makes sense that management and mentoring will change with it.
Just as the concept of a long and linear career within a single industry is outdated, so is the idea that career advice must come from an experienced senior person within the same organisation.
Widening the field in order to broaden possibilities seems like a natural progression.
As with all technology platforms that aim to connect people (for whatever reason), there are obvious issues with data privacy as well as more complex issues associated with online bullying that will have to be effectively addressed if this is to work.
Only time will tell how this plays out, but the good thing about social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn’s involvement is they’ll be hugely incentivised to make such initiatives work effectively.
This, coupled with the sheer scale of their networks, could truly democratise the process of finding a mentor and make a rather haphazard workplace practice become truly mainstream.
The traditional mentor/mentee relationship will not be consigned to the dustbin of history, but it looks set to change.
As is so often the case, technology will be at the forefront of this change. But it is the behaviours and experiences of individual users that will ultimately have the biggest impact.