ASSOCIATES (vol. 1, no. 1, July 1994) -

Table of Contents

E-MAIL MENTORING: A Research Project by Tinker Massey Archivist Cataloging Department University of Florida and Peg Earheart Team Leader Resource Services Vanderbilt University Mentoring is a process by which influential people significantly help others reach major life goals. During the process, those with resources help to promote the welfare, training or careers of others. The process encourages the sharing of knowledge among people and the responsibilities for decisions. Spontaneous formations of mentor/mentoree professional relationships have long existed in our libraries. Development of library listservs have created a unique opportunity to provide resources beyond the confines of our institutional environments. In 1993, we established a pilot program on e-mail mentoring, something which had never been tried or tested because of the infancy of e-mail technology and services. We hoped to use the results of this pilot project to outline procedures and methods that would allow people more access to mentors outside their immediate working area, especially those with specific interests that would enhance each other's development. The following are the results of that pilot study: PURPOSE: The purpose of this research project was to explore interpersonal communication parameters utilizing the e-mail system (electronic mail) as a vehicle for a mentoring process. Many libraries cannot or do not have appropriate resources for this aspect of staff development, and so limit their staff's abilities to adapt/cope with changes and to develop themselves in their jobs. PROCEDURE: Two mentors were initially identified whose personal, educational and employment backgrounds were sufficiently similar to insure equivalent responses to the mentorees. Both mentors had previous experience in "face-to-face" mentoring and were considered flexible, trustworthy, intelligent and compassionate by the population base used to define the research participants. An initial invitation was relayed to prospective participants at the Virginia Library Association Paraprofessional Conference, May 25-26, 1993, and then again on the LIBSUP-L (Library Support Staff Listserv) listserv on June 15, 1993. Some thirty-five inquiries were received by the principle research coordinator and an initial survey questionnaire was sent to each inquirer. Eleven participants returned the forms and contacts were made on e-mail. The prospective participants were asked to fill out the required forms and return a schematic of their organizational structure, plus an updated personal job description. This battery of information was designed to give the mentors a clearer idea of each participant. The research coordinator matched the mentorees with the appropriate mentor, while mixing each group geographically to insure staggered response times throughout the time zones. Mentors and mentorees exchanged knowledge of when communication on e-mail was acceptable to them and how often responses could be expected. Mentorees began their communications at times dependent upon their acceptance into the program. It was apparent that a standard English language and library language had to be established with each participant so that communications had the same vocabulary base and general meaning. RESULTS: Immediate difficulties were identified in the messages' emotional content, abstract meaning ("beating around the bush"), and some special cultural language. These were consistent barriers to communication and had to be identified, defined, and resolved with each individual mentoree. Since there were no nonverbal cues, as in "face-to-face" mentoring, each mentor/mentoree partnership had to become aware of structural language that replaced nonverbal cues. Placement of words, particularly adjectives and adverbs as well as choice of words used were deemed significant cues for emotional content and elaborative meanings. Some cultural language was identified and defined because of differences in age, sex, race, religion or workflow integration. Usually that was easily resolved and was a minor deterrent to communication. Staggering time zones of the participants resulted in an increased ability to communicate with all mentorees and better manipulation of time spent on communication by each mentor. Approximately one third of the mentorees were not as inquisitive about the mentoring process which resulted in decreased communication. It is also presumed that, since most of this project was designed to occur during the fall of the year, many mentorees were extremely busy with normal routines of their library work and, thus, had less time to participate in this project. CONCLUSIONS: It was very wise to have an initial survey and request for information. Data gained from this initial inquiry separated the truly interested from the "bandwagon" followers, allowed proper background information for the mentors, and allowed first contacts to be vital and useful to the mentoring process. E-mail contacts were made introducing the mentor to the mentoree, sharing virtually the same information about the mentor (background, education, work experience, and what interest she had in the participant). In the initial communiques, the mentor tried to elaborate on the participant's background and queries/interests from the initial survey, asking appropriate questions for stimulation of communication. Return e-mails were very responsive to those questions with additional questions of their own centering on organizational communication problems or personal development pathways which might or might not be appropriate to them. When mentorees seemed confused about personal development, they were asked to do some self-inventories of skills, etc. matched against dreams/goals. By sharing this process of introspection, we have helped a number of mentorees to be more enlightened about their own personal goals and how they are able to accomplish them. Sometimes the specific and critical language of workflow areas (acquisitions, reference, circulation, cataloging, etc.) has been a deterrent to clear communication. When that was defined as a problem, the mentor and mentoree defined their specific vocabularies and communication resumed. When cultural language interfered, a similar process occurred without much delay. The greatest demand in the communication process came from the need to keep all communiques clear, concise and very direct. The mentors could not allow messages or language to become circumscribable because the innate meanings involved would become distorted and misunderstood. There were also times when the choice of vocabulary or grammatical structure also distorted meanings or carried wrong emotional meanings. These circumstances were part of the attempt by mentor and mentoree to establish a basic language that could carry appropriate meanings and emotions. The goal of all the e-mail mentoring communication was to keep the mentoree positive, establish open communication, and help the mentoree develop new goals and procedures in his/her personal and work life. With these very busy participants, consistent contact was difficult. The mentoring process is based on the need of the mentoree to gain insight and knowledge about his/her environment in order to develop and maintain appropriate goals. The mentor's responsibility lies in helping the mentoree analyze his/her organizational and personal alternatives thoroughly and aiding in the decisional process by presenting enough feedback to allow for investigation and weeding of options until feasible goals can be established by the mentoree and work begun toward those goals. "Where do I start?" is the most frequent question broached. Sometimes frequent communication and difficult personal questioning can lead to new directions and options not formerly acknowledged as possible. During this probing stage, it is essential that mentor and mentoree maintain as quick a response time as possible. It was found that the more e-mail was utilized in this process, the better the results became and the faster the decisions. Need for e-mail mentoring was shown to exist most in libraries where there were few or no possible physical mentors, or a lack of strong personal trust for confidential communications. Another pattern that emerged was the acknowledgement that on-site personnel did not have ample time, training, or commitment to start or continue such a relationship. There is also another situation which becomes very critical for the mentoree: when s/he moves beyond the mentor's abilities. As we have stated before, mentoring is an extremely important facet of staff development which can give the institution more qualified, contented and better-coping individuals facing continuous environmental changes. E-mail mentoring has shown itself to be a very useful tool/technology for attaining more knowledgeable staff who are ready to help changes occur in their institutions. It is hoped that a more formal continuous program of e-mail mentoring will be organized to accommodate staff (professional and paraprofessional) in their quest for adapting to new situations and goals demanded by their work and personal lives. [If anyone would like a copy of the packet of material, including surveys and bibliography, presented at the poster session, please contact Tinker Massey at TINMASS@NERVM.NERDC.UFL.EDU - The Editors]