Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Reverse Mentoring

We all know that the culture of personal mentoring of new entrepreneurs by experienced investors and entrepreneurs has been a key part of the vibrancy of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial ecosystem. I am happy to see that this concept is beginning to take root in Singapore as well, with more young entrepreneurs looking for mentors, and an increasing number of experienced entrepreneurs and venture capitalists/angel investors learning to take on this role. Indeed, since about 2 years ago, my own organization (NUS Entrepreneurship Centre) has started to engage a number of mentors to help advise and coach some of our NUS spin-off companies. Besides recruiting a number of experienced investors based in Singapore, I have also engaged a number of "international visiting mentors" who are experienced entrepreneurs based in Silicon Valley, to tap their global business experience.

In a macro-sense, mentoring represents a kind of market process, albeit imperfect, to recycle the tacit knowledge and experience of one generation to another. The more efficient this recyling process, the more productive the entrepreneurial creation process is likely to be, as the new generation learns through their mentors how to avoid many of the mistakes made by the earlier generation. The growing interest in mentoring among the entrepreneurial community in Singapore thus augurs well, even though we are still at a nascent stage and there are still lots of room for improving the mentorship process in Singapore (e.g. while it is a widely accepted practice in Silicon Valley for entrepreneurs to provide stock options to mentors, this is seldom done in Singapore, and many mentor-mentee relationships are fuzzy and lack a disciplined process).

However, the purpose of my blog today is not to dwell on this issue (maybe it can be the subject of another blog...). Instead, I would like to suggest that we should start looking at promoting a different kind of mentoring -- that of reverse mentoring, i.e. mentoring of an older generation by a younger one.

The main aim of reverse mentoring is to overcome a major flip-side of experience -- as the world is constantly changing, often times experience gained at one time period may no longer be applicable to a later time period, and indeed, an over-reliance on past experience can close one's mind to fresh perspectives and prevents one from innovating new approaches. Just as the greenhorn can benefit from coaching by the experienced, the experienced can also benefit from coaching by the young, who often are much more attuned to new developments and new possibilities in the world, particularly new technologies, new social trends and new cultural values.

While the concept of reverse mentoring is not really new -- e.g. Tom Kelley, the founder of the famous design company in Silicon Valley, IDEO, has a good discussion of it in his recent book, The Ten Faces of Innovation -- it has not caught on yet in any significant way, even in Silicon Valley.

My prediction is that reverse mentoring will become a major new phenomenon over the next 10 years: while the full potential of the digital revolution as a transformational force in both the enterprise and consumer market is becoming ripe to be exploited over the next decade, many of the senior managers in my generation who are still occupying position of influence over the key strategic business decisions of their organizations have NOT personally learned and embraced many of the new emerging digital media and technologies themselves. In contrast, the new digital media and technologies -- be it social network, virtual world, re-mix, etc. -- have become second nature to the generation of younsters who are only now entering the labor market. There is thus a great need -- and a great opportunity -- for the reverse transfer of knowledge, whereby the managers & policy makers of my generation can learn from the tech-savvy generation of youngsters -- be they students, employees or entrepreneurs -- the potentials and nuances of the new digital media and technologies, through the same process of personal mentoring, except that it is now the young teaching the old.

One of the great privilege of being an academic professor in a university like NUS is the opportunity to learn from the continuous flow of bright students who hail from the new digital generation. Indeed, the free, open-enquiry academic environment of a university provides a wonderful context for reverse mentoring to be practiced -- provided that the professors come with the open-mind to learn, reverse mentoring can naturally occur. In contrast, in business corporate and government departmental settings where relationships are more hierarchical, reverse mentoring goes against the grain of the organizational authority pyramid, and will usually not occur unless there is explicit recognition by senior management that learning from the new generation need to be an integral part of their organizational culture, and that specific formal mechanisms are put in place within the organization to facilitate it.

As Tom Kelley pointed out, reverse mentoring should be an integral part of a truly innovative culture. To those of you who are like me, I encourage you to consider having one or more reverse mentors for yourself, to help you refresh your mind to the changes in the world. To underline my own commitment to this idea, I have started the process of recruiting a number of my NUS students to serve as reverse mentor in digital media/technologies for me and my management team at my organization (NUS Entrepreneurship Centre). (Incidentally, I have started my blog with my 14-year old daughter as my reverse mentor.)

To those of you from the digital generation, I encourage you to consider the entrepreneurial opportunities of creating new reverse-mentoring businesses for the baby-boomer generation. With reference to my previous blog, I believe that those of you who can innovate ways to get the elderly and soon-to-be-elderly to embrace more effectively the new digital technologies -- in their own idiosyncratic ways -- will be well positioned to exploit the much larger opportunities of the globally exploding elderly and soon-to-be-elderly market.


BjornLee said...

i didn't know you have a daughter.. :)

this is shaping to be a great blog!
u r an inspiration to me to renew my faith to blogging again, after a one-year hiatus..

Alex Toh said...

Thought provoking and definitely not main stream. Your contributions to the entrepreneurial community coupled with your foresight has changed my previous stereotyping of my lecturers back at NUS. =)

Dian said...

Prof.Wong, your entry reminds me of an entry by Prof.Tom Kosnik. the title is:
Tomk's Top 3 Tips for Managing Midlife Challenges

The second point he wrote is:
Make kids your coaches.
Join a company that they think is cool, and where they consume the product or service. Ask them how to make it better. If you can’t land a job at Nike or Nintendo, find other ways that kids can be your coaches. Make one kid your wireless LAN administrator. Have another show you how to start your blog. Join kids you know on Facebook.com. Ask them to launch you on Myspace.com. Ask them how you can create a “clean and green” lifestyle and reduce your carbon footprint. Pay your kids coaching fees for the value they add. Get them business cards if they think that’s cool. If you don’t have kids of your own, go borrow some. There are more of them than there are of us. Learn to lead - and follow - across generations as your lives evolve.

Both of you practise what you preach, teaching and learning from students and younger generation. That's what makes you cool!


Marmalade said...

As the Chinese saying goes:


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