This week, i’ve been working with a global organisation on the development of an online Mentoring space. Mentoring is an interesting topic, falling somewhere between a formal business activity and a highly informal personal development one. By it’s nature, it inhabits a middle ground, often involving individuals from within and outside of a business, sharing information of a business and personal nature.
Creating an online space to support this has all sorts of challenges. On the one hand, we want to create a space with the structure, control and support of a formal learning and development environment, whilst on the other hand, if it’s to be a useful space, we need to include the lack of structure, freedom and independence of the social network platforms.
As we know, online communities are created through the engagement of individual participants, so we need to create a framework that is strong enough to ensure it is ‘mentoring’ activity, not just unstructured discussion, whilst remaining informal and trusted enough to encourage individuals to disclose personal information and engage with the space.
One notion that we are exploring is around ‘Trust’. People generally trust the banks with their personal and financial data, but they are less likely to trust http://www.get-cheap-dvds.com. Similarly, we are likely to entrust friends with personal information, but less likely to trust our employers. Trust is based on perceived security (which may be different from actual security), and confidence that the information will only be used for the purpose intended e.g. that a bank will use personal data to keep our money safe, not to sell it for their own profit, that friends will use their knowledge of us to support and nurture us, not to exploit us.
Even in ‘normal’ social networks, there are frequent ‘misunderstandings’ of trust, or breakdowns of it. People apply themselves to these spaces in radically different ways; older people tend to cultivate one online personality, whilst younger people tend to have a high number of ‘disposable’ ones. Both attitudes can be mutually incomprehensible. I fall somewhere in the middle, having a range of conventional ‘real’ online personalities (Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn etc) and a range of ‘fake’ or disposable ones (e.g. my registration details with Yahoo are made up – why? – because i don’t use it for transactions, or for ‘important’ emails for me, so i don’t feel the need to trust them with my real data).
And even though my main online personas are ‘real’, they still differ widely in terms of flavour, rather like creating different CVs for different jobs. My LinkedIn profile favours my professional status within Learning and Development, whilst my own website, http://www.julianstodd.co.uk doesn’t mention this at all, it’s for my photography. I therefore have my own ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ spaces, as well as public and private ones.
In Mentoring, we want to create a space that is trusted, secure and that people will want to engage with, but ultimately, their level of engagement will depend only partly on the space we create and largely on their own ‘attitude’ to disclosure of personal information and trust.
There are things we can do to encourage disclosure and engagement, by introducing the idea of granularity within disclosure. Granularity is best described as creating levels of data, with full control over who can see what. For example, in Facebook, you can have it so that Friends can see your photos, but the general network can’t. Granular security tends to involve multiple layers of access; things that just i can see, things that my friends can see, things that everyone can see.
The whole notion of granularity is based on trust though. If i am encouraged to record my mentoring objectives on a system, i need a high level of confidence that only i can see them. If i think everyone can see them, then am not going to record my dissatisfaction, self reflection or discussion of my weaknesses. This can be achieved by utilising a third party engine, one that is viewed as ‘outside’ the culture, but safe.
To be successful, we need to get both sides of the equation acting correctly; individuals need to feel secure enough to engage and businesses need to behave in a correct manner with regard to honouring that trust. It’s a tricky balance, but the rewards are high.
Businesses need to face up to the fact that formal and informal spaces are increasingly blurred, and adapt their policies and approaches accordingly.
When the twin worlds of formal bushiness spaces and informal social networks collide, there are significant challenges to overcome, but if we focus on building trust, honouring that trust and allowing people to engage in ways that are meaningful for them, then we stand a chance of being successful.