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Learning at work is broken. Here's how we're fixing it.

April 14, 2021

Three years ago, Matt, my cofounder, and I were running up and down the streets of Toronto struggling to convince HR executives that they needed our software. It would help them facilitate social events at work.

They weren’t buying it.

But the same thing kept surfacing in all of our discussions: mentorship.

They told us the rate of learning and knowledge transfer amongst employees is critical to creating a competitive advantage in their industry, but connecting people to learn was difficult. It makes sense: in a modern, service-based economy, the skills and productivity of your people is your asset. 

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and LinkedIn 2017 Jobs Report

The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges of Learning and Development. Working remotely makes apprenticeships and knowledge transfer less natural because we are more task-oriented than ever, and less likely to deliberately teach, or stumble upon learning opportunities. 

This has led me to the conclusion that Learning & Development at work is broken. This isn't just my personal opinion; Harvard Business Review did a study that revealed that 75% of employees say training didn’t improve their performance. 

So if incumbent methods don’t work, what will? Here’s how mentorship will fix Learning at Work. 

Redefining mentorship into learning

Every company we spoke to admitted that their employees were asking for better mentorship opportunities. However, some HR leaders, managers, and even employees told us that “mentorship is an organic thing that can’t be forced." 

We wondered if that was true. The word mentorship often implies there is an everlasting relationship between two people, sparked by a match made in heaven, and that the primary purpose is to direct the mentee through the ups and down of life. Were employees asking for something that was not possible to provide?

We started building and selling software to run mentorship programs in businesses. Early traction landed us a spot in Y Combinator's 2019 batch of startups.

With our software, HR leaders could invite their employees to shortlist leaders in their organizations to be their mentors.  We also solved unexpected emotional and logistical factors:

  • How do you prevent top mentors from being swarmed with potential mentees?
  • How do you allow a mentor to have a say in who they match with?
  • How do you make rejection less painful for mentees?
Choosing your mentor with software

We began launching mentorship programs with organizations like: 

  • The United Nations
  • 7–11
  • Disney

The results proved there’s a need for mentorship programs. We discovered a huge latent demand among employees for being able to connect with someone else in their organization to talk through their on-the-job questions and unblock barriers together. 

Employees get excited to match with one another. The data below is from a program we ran with 450 mentees. It shows that within minutes, people rush to choose from the best mentors. Employees were so excited to match, they were doing it outside typical work hours. 

Mentees race to pick a mentor 

But software can’t create a match made in heaven - can it? Take a look at the graph below showing how mentors and mentees felt about the strength of the pairing after their first meeting. 

In recent months, 90% of mentors and mentees think their match is a good fit after 1 session (1% think it’s “not a fit”), and we could improve on this even more over time

It turns out our software can also facilitate mentorship inorganically with a high degree of success (1% think their match is “not a fit”), and there’s room to optimize further.

More importantly was the insight about what employees use their monthly or biweekly sessions to cover. After analyzing our database of thousands of notes from mentorship sessions, it turns out the pairs talk about specific, job-related topics that close their skill and knowledge gap. Example topics:

  • “How to effectively engage my team”
  • “How to improve our social media campaigns”
  • “How is life in the New York office?”
  • “How does data flow into PowerBI?”
  • “How does the organization restructuring affect our upcoming audit?”
  • “What other roles are most relevant for me?”
  • “How does our Backup Service work?”

What we discovered is that these are not conversations about life, like “how do you deal with kids and work?”, but productive learning conversations to help them be better at their jobs. 

We call this peer to peer learning, and we believe it is the true interaction and need that employees and companies want when they use the word ‘mentorship’. 

Peer to peer learning makes its way to the UN

Our first mentoring program at the United Nations featured roughly 350 mentorship pairings from around the world, across 82 countries. Only 12% of those pairings were within the same office, while the majority (88%) were between employees in different offices and countries. 

The UN is a massive organization with a number of complexities, initiatives and projects. We asked them about their program after they launched it. They shared that the program unlocked knowledge that helped people do their day-to-day job better. It also helped employees explore future career paths within their organization.

Why Peer-to-peer learning works

Businesses that reach out to us for help with mentorship have usually already purchased an LMS (Learning Management System), a staple product. You may have browsed or been required to complete courses on one.

A traditional LMS used by most companies today

These courses tend to be aggregated from across different content providers around the web. 

There are three major problems with this model of “learn on demand.”:

  1. The knowledge is not relevant enough . You need company-specific content.
  2. The knowledge is not trustworthy . Most online courses are not taught by someone reputable.
  3. The content is evaluative . You are often tracked or quizzed on your completion. 

As a result, the user retention and Net Promoter Score of these systems is low. I’ve spoken to Product Managers at these companies to confirm this.

In contrast, “Peer to peer learning” excels as a learning medium at work because:

  • It’s relevant: Knowledge comes from real colleagues.
  • It’s trustworthy: Some colleagues have a reputation for helping with specific types of topics.
  • It’s non evaluative.
Summary of traditional learning at work vs peer to peer

How software will enable peer to peer learning

We know peer to peer learning works so how do we maximize it? It’s a hard problem made harder when your customers are large companies that are (now) remote. If the goal is creating as many high quality learning connections as possible, software can help with three sub-problems:

  • Discoverability: “Who knows the details behind our inventory management system?”
  • Availability: “Is it even possible that the VP of engineering has time to talk to me?”
  • Productivity: “How can I be an effective mentor?” and “Who else would benefit from what I just learned?”

At Together Software, we believe the traditional way that big companies train employees is broken and there's a huge market for those that can fix it. Want to be a part of this solution?

We are recruiting more like-minded, talented people to help build out our vision of peer to peer learning, and fix learning at work. Come join us!

Download our Full Report on Mentoring

We interviewed and surveyed employees from 50+ leading North American Companies including McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, IBM, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, Capital One, Norton Rose Fulbright, Mackenzie Investments. Get the results below.

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