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Mentors are your friends. Be nice to your friends. (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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“We ought to start a mentor program,” said one of the four Jim’s reporting to me several years ago.

“Great idea,” I replied. “One question: what’s a mentor program?”

A mentor program, Jim explained, recognizes the expert-in-the-next-cubicle, providing support, prestige (or at least respect), and a role in influencing how IS deals with LAN and desktop technology and support.

“I like it,” I told him. “You’re in charge.”

At this juncture all four Jim’s (and the rest of the room too, except for the other Bob who sat sketching the meeting notes) explained that this would prevent the proposal of any more good ideas. Suggesting doesn’t automatically mean volunteering.

Eventually we found two volunteers and started the program. We won a national award for it, too. And here’s the greatest part: I got some of the credit, when all I did was pop for lunch, books, and a few trinkets. Total budget variance: 0.0113%. Non-money.

Last week’s column started a series on the interaction between IS and the end-user community. As you may remember, the column discussed three insights that form the backdrop for these interactions: (1) Visibility = Dissatisfaction; (2) You need to provide stealth end-user support; and (3) IS isn’t the expert when it comes to personal computers.

Mentor programs build on all three of these insights at the operational level. By improving “next-cube” support, fewer problems reach any manager’s radar screen. If you’re really persuasive, get your mentors to buddy-up with new users, so neophytes have someone to say, “I don’t remember what they said about this,” to without feeling embarrassed.

Mentors require a small but real support effort on the part of IS, but reduce the total time expended by IS analysts supporting end-users greatly. Let’s look at how to organize a program like this.

1. Find a compatible and enthusiastic pair of individuals to head this up. Two is a great number of people for a program like this. Two people bounce ideas off each other where one just mutters. Two load-balance where one burns out or lets the program slide. Two keep each other’s enthusiasm going.

2. Qualifications: you need party planners and social directors, not techies. Business happens over lunch and participation is voluntary. Your mentors gotta wanna. That means planning lunches that are entertaining as well as useful. (Yeah I know: making work fun isn’t in fashion this year, but I’ve never had much fashion sense.)

3. Monthly Lunch Programs: have contests with prizes, (give the group a list of obscure features and see which one knows the most) drawings for door prizes, and guest speakers (every vendor in town will drool over the chance to talk to a group like this). Ask mentors to submit “Tip ‘o the Month” ideas for your company to include in its employee newsletter, and give a special prize each month to the mentor supplying the tip.

4. Giveaways: give every mentor aftermarket books on your applications – the ones for sophisticated users, not beginners. Also give them a plaque, clock, t-shirt, sweatshirt … something that both identifies them as a mentor and that they’ll like.

5. Influence: involve mentors in product decisions, configuration defaults, training-course content … everything that directly affects the end-user community. Give them access to a test server housing new software releases as soon as each new release appears on the market. Invite them to stress-test the new releases and give them prizes for major bugs.

This isn’t a strategic program – heck, it isn’t even tactical. It just helps everyone out with their day-to-day grind, at very low cost. You may not be a hero for putting together a mentor program. The mentors will be the heroes if anyone is, and that’s as it should be.

But you’ll have done your good deed for the day.

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