Empowering Mentorship Through Technology

On November 17, 2023, the Alberta Mentorship Program held an online Community Champions Mentorship Circle about Empowering Mentorship through Technology.

This panel discussion, moderated by Cheryl Whitelaw from the Alberta Mentorship Program, brought together individuals in the mentorship field with technology expertise and experience. The panel included:

  • Tracy Luca-Huger, Mentor Canada
  • Dapo Bankole, President of Mopheth Systems
  • Najib Mangal, Manager of Community Connection and Employment Services of Lethbridge Family Services (LFS)
  • Doug Piquette, Executive Director of Edmonton Region Immigrant Employment Council (ERIEC)

The panel also invited Bruce Randall, the former Executive Director of the Calgary Region Immigrant Employment Council (CRIEC), to participate in some questions.

The panelists discussed how they:

  • Use technology to support mentorship and solve challenges faced by mentorship programs;
  • Choose technology that will make a difference in the administration and operation of mentorship programs;
  • Balance artificial intelligence (AI) and the human touch when creating mentorship matches; and
  • Manage technology challenges.

What problems are you solving with technology?

Tracy Luca-Huger, Mentor Canada

Pre-pandemic, Mentor Canada worked alongside Canada Service Corps to determine what young people wanted in mentorship. Mentor Canada is oriented toward youth (individuals up to the age of 30). They discovered that there was a gap in the program format. Young people did not have access to the mentoring in the format they wanted: in-person connection with the ability to meet virtually and remotely. While most young people are tech-savvy and regularly use technology and apps to communicate, using it for mentorship is different. A key challenge is that technology can be costly for organizations. There is a risk that some users may not have access to or know how to use the platforms.

“At Mentor Canada, we wanted to remove some of those barriers, allowing young people to access mentoring in a way they wanted to,” says Tracy.

When the pandemic hit, mentors and mentees still needed to connect—perhaps more than ever. Mentor Canada, like all of us, had to switch to remote and virtual demands quickly.

“We wanted to ensure that when our mentors and mentees met, there was security and integrity around their mentorship,” says Tracy. “We began looking for platforms—not programs—to help us with this adjustment.”

Mentor Canada looked everywhere and only found programs with technology designed around them. Eventually, they found a Canadian-based platform that would work for their programs. It needed to have an administration capability where administrators could see past the Excel spreadsheets and into the logistics of mentorship.

“We wanted to revolutionize how mentoring programs are delivered,” says Tracy.

Their goal was to allow national organizations to administer their own programs, including having app-based opportunities to meet virtually or remotely to help remove those original barriers while supporting and maintaining those relationships.

Dapo Bankole, Mopheth Systems

Dapo has found mentoring technology to be limited. Matching mentors and mentees up until this point has been quite cumbersome and manual. Through his platform, he is trying to solve volunteer fatigue. Often the same mentors are used often because they are available and willing. And new mentors can be hard to recruit because they fear the level of commitment. A lot of people have experiences they are willing to pass on to a mentee, but financially, they are not able to volunteer their time. Dapo wants to give this group the option of being paid for providing their time.

A lot of apps are not suited for mentoring. They focus on a different process than the mentoring journey. He wanted to create a platform that helps mentors and mentees connect, through platform suggestions or from viewing profiles. He did not want to force selections. Instead, he wanted to give individuals the ability to find suitable mentorships and select the duration of the mentorship through their profiles.

“I am a mentee; I am still being mentored, so creating this mentorship app this is full circle for me,” says Dapo.

Being technology-based, Dapo wants to know how the connection is working, and he wants the ability to track mentorship levels of engagement. At the end of the defined mentoring cycle, the mentor and mentee rate each other, which shows up on their profiles. If someone does not complete the survey, the rating does not appear on their profile, but the administrator is notified of it. He wants programs to have the ability to hold people accountable for their mentorship, as it is very serious and important.

“Another goal of our technology is to improve the quality of matches, enhance communication within the connections, and allow people to choose their mentors,” says Dapo.

Najib Mangal, LFS

Najib has always wanted a platform. The one-on-one support system in mentorship is limiting, cumbersome, and time-consuming.

“We deal with professionals who have skills and experience using technology, so why not offer that option to them?” he says.

For many years, Najib has researched and demoed different platforms and came across one that his program is using today: MentorCity. They use this platform to optimize administration within their services. For LFS, mentorship program funding is limited, so they have to be strategic regarding staff time. Through automation, they can focus on being impactful in other areas of their programming, which reduces the administration burden on staff and streamlines their process.

This platform also addresses the need for more mentors when there is a limited pool in their community.

If LFS only facilitates one-on-one or face-to-face mentorship, they are at a disadvantage. They often ask local mentors to take on multiple mentees or ask them to mentor on an ongoing basis. They hope that MentorCity will bring them to national mentors.

“An engineer on the East Coast and an engineer on the West Coast have similarities. It does not matter where they are as long as they can connect with mentors or mentees through that online platform,” says Najib.

Giving mentees the ability to connect nationally allows Najib to focus on improving the quality and range of their services.

Tracking abilities have provided the program with positive support and feedback for progress, resource allocations, and other administrative tasks. Platforms can now be customized for what users need, along with centralizing data collection, which helps evaluate mentorship progress more effectively and allows LFS to simplify the mentoring process, respecting mentors’ limited availability.

Doug Piquette, ERIEC

ERIEC faces a lot of similarities between the needs discussed by Najib, Tracy, and Dapo.

They have always looked at how to make their lives easier in terms of running a mentorship program. Years ago, the Government of Alberta helped fund a platform for ERIEC, an economical, open-sourced system, CivicCore/Neon One, out of the United States. They chose it for its client management capabilities. In the early days, they had small numbers when it came to the mentorship program—Excel spreadsheets were fine then—but CivicCore/Neon One helped them hone their craft with the management of their organizations and make matches.

“We still, to this day, handcraft the matches, which is helpful,” says Doug. “Algorithms are great, but it does not supersede the magic of human beings.”

AI can also be helpful up to a point. But Doug still has his staff handcraft those mentored relationship matches.

The nice thing about open-sourced systems and working with the Neon One team is that they are open to customizing the system to ERIEC’s needs. They also listen to the difficulties ERIEC’s encountered in the system and want to improve ERIEC’s experience. ERIEC’s sister organization in Calgary, CRIEC, was using a similar platform, but they are now using a more updated version of it. Overall, though, it is hard to compare platforms when they are so customizable to an organization. For cost efficiency, over the years, the maintenance fee has been reasonable and manageable from month to month.

ERIEC has not had many issues over the years, and as a client management system, Neon One has functioned well. Neon One has functionalities that could be added, but with a team of three in the Career Mentorship Program, the additional functionalities could complicate the mentorship process.

Bruce Randall, formerly of CRIEC

Bruce understands the benefits, limitations, and costs of an operational system. When he was still with CRIEC, they followed Doug’s lead and used the updated version of Neon One. He is also familiar with another mentoring program that uses a slightly different version of Neon—one with a basic platform with different functionalities. It costs $30,000 to set up and $4,000 to $5,000 a year to maintain it, but it could look after hundreds, even thousands, of people.

What functionalities are being used in mentorship organizations, and are they making a difference?

Tracy Luca-Huger, Mentor Canada

Context looks different depending on the needs of the organization and the ability of the mentees to select a mentor, or program staff to match the mentors to the mentees manually. Mentor Canada offers MentorCity nationally because of that feature. It has a broad range of functionalities that could be useful for diverse mentoring programs across Canada.

The functionality of addressing the changes of matching mentors to mentees for program administration, resource limitation with staffing, and infrastructure is something Mentor Canada wants to provide in this field, to enhance the mentorship program without having to hire more staff. Functions that Mentor Canada users find helpful include the:

  • Ability to view tracking logistics for the progression of mentoring relationships;
  • Option of having an app where mentors and mentees can connect; and
  • Ability to administer the program from a phone or tablet.

Being able to house an entire program within a platform and allowing administration to place all the required resources and tools online for their mentors and mentees eliminates the back-and-forth communication and paperwork involved with it. The communication within the platform allows Mentor Canada to communicate directly to stakeholders from the system. The broad functionality, depending on the context, was critical.

“How individuals communicate now needs that flexibility,” says Tracy.

Tracy likes to encourage organizations to start small and get comfortable with their programs and resources within their organization. Then add on once the platform is launched. First, an organization should figure out what their core needs are—what does the program need to ensure mentors and mentees are engaged and have that high-quality experience?

Dapo Bankole, Mopheth Systems

“Context matters and different people want different things,” says Dapo. “For us, flexibility is key. You want a flexible platform. Our goal is to develop a platform that meets everyone’s needs.”

The ability to track information is also key. If clients want to meet offline, though, the platform needs those people to report their meetings in the system; otherwise, we cannot track them.

When giving communication options, you have to think about how people want communication delivered and how they want to track it. Do they want online chats and video meetings that are recorded? The goal is to provide people with options. Mopheth Systems wants to offer a national mentoring community within the platform where people can come and find mentors and connect with people for free.

Najib Mangal, LFS

There are so many functionalities that Najib appreciates about their platform such as:

  • Centralized training and workshop deliveries;
  • Tracking who participates in these events;
  • Being able to use third-party, pre-recorded information and host it within the platform; and
  • Centralized tracking allows LFS and their funders to track program progress.

“It is the broad reach that allows us to connect to a larger audience, notifying them of upcoming events,” says Najib. “The flexibility and scheduling convenience allow individuals to participate in the events, no matter what time zone they live in.”

The platform also lets LFS house everything within it. They can reach numerous individuals quickly, which eliminates the administration burden because it is done electronically and is efficient. To date, they have not used the matching functionality, but it has improved program administration.

Doug Piquette, ERIEC

The ERIEC platform is a repository of information and data from both the employee and employer side of things. Communication is more efficient in areas of reporting and employer engagement. They can track and ensure that employers are engaged, and the ecosystem is alive and well.

A challenge is that non-profit funders are reluctant to provide funds for platforms because of the expense of ever-changing technology. An organization could buy the best system today, but a year from now the system may need major changes. This makes funders cautious about the amount they will invest in platforms—though they may see the need, they are wary of the endless requests for funding to meet the costs.

They have great communication with Neon One. When Doug asked them about the advanced functionalities that organizations would love to see in their programs, Neon One noted that a lot of organizations get all the bells and whistles on their program but never use them.

“You have to be cautious of what you purchase,” says Doug. “Ensure that your program is being used properly and the right staff are involved so you can get your investment back.”

Bruce Randall, formerly of CRIEC

The one thing CRIEC was able to do with their inexpensive system was to add a function to consistently ask the same questions and record the mentee’s answers. This provided consistent data that matched milestones of the mentorship process. It was called the Return on Investment tool, which connected to a power dashboard.

“It was a wonderful tool that enabled us to go back to the funder and say, in an anonymized fashion, here is the information we gathered from the process,” says Bruce. “It helped explain parts of our story to the funders.”

How does AI change the quality control and screening with your platforms?

Tracy Luca-Huger, Mentor Canada

Within MentorCity, when cue words are used within a conversation, the program flags the conversations and notifies administrators to shut down conversations or intervene. It will show the frequency of the meetings and the duration of them to ensure security, as MentorCity does not offer screening. Administrators also can join meetings. These features help us protect our mentors and mentees.

Doug Piquette, ERIEC

It is important to consider what question you are asking ChatGP and other forms of AI. Not all questions and answers are equal in quality. ERIEC’s core work is to provide mentorship. For Doug, it is important to understand the points in the process that benefit from the personal touch, especially when working with newcomers. But there are functions where AI and technology can make the work more efficient.

Dapo Bankole, Mopheth Systems

When there are so many options, it is easy for organizations to get lost.

“We always have to remind ourselves why we are there—what are we trying to achieve?” says Dapo.

Dapo believes that security is an ever-changing landscape—it never stays the same. Organizations need to be prepared to keep learning how they address it. Mopheth’s user base will determine how the platform evolves. “It is not just the administrators,” says Dapo, “but the people using it.” It is important to listen to the concerns of the people using the programs and ensure that they are provided with a safe and secure platform.

Najib Mangal, LFS

LFS was asked some of these questions by their funder before LFS subscribed to MentorCity. Depending on the platform headquarters’ location, there are certain criteria a platform must meet before you can subscribe to it. For example, if it is the United States instead of Canada, there are different security considerations.

In LFS’s practice, they do not allow the automation process. The initial screening is done in-house, and the goal of the mentorship is formed there. Then, it is up to the individuals on how they want to work together. If they want to meet in person or virtually, it is up to them.

Given where you are today, what are the challenges/questions that you are facing?

Tracy Luca-Huger, Mentor Canada

Mentor Canada has found that organizations lack the internal capacity and knowledge to set up these systems. Mentor Canada has a full-time person to help them and organizations with the back end of the platform and with choosing the right tools and programs. They also provide training modules and hands-on onboarding support with what organizations need.

“We do not want to take away from the hands-on approach, but we want to build up that infrastructure,” says Tracy. “We want them to have the right resources to get started and be able to sustain it.”

This is critical because these systems can be expensive, so deciding what you need versus choosing every add-on is important. Mentor Canada has been able to support and subsidize some of these programs through these challenges.

Doug Piquette, ERIEC

In the early days, ERIEC had a mentorship map that was laid out, from beginning to end. They used this map to see where technology best fits into the process and how they could use it. This helped Doug choose the right platforms for the right reasons.

Dapo Bankole, Mopheth Systems

The challenge is how to simplify the platform as technology changes. The world is complex, so Dapo keeps asking, “How do we hide the complexities of the platform and make it intuitive and user-friendly?”

As technology gets more complex, individual needs change. Dapo believes that by understanding the people he is trying to help, he can focus on what they need now and in the future.

Najib Mangal, LFS

Najib is always excited about technology, but he says it is easy to forget that though he might understand it, others might not.

“You have to start slow and take small steps when introducing technology,” he says. “We can overcome it by being engaged and involved in that initial step—we add the human connection to guide them through the process.”

LFS’s career mentorship is growing fast with this technology and facing additional costs as they grow to address the needs of their users. Mentors may be tech-savvy, but their mentees might not be, so they have to be flexible and see if users prefer meeting in person or online.

The Alberta Mentorship program is sponsored by the Edmonton Region Immigrant Employment Council (ERIEC).

The Alberta Mentorship Program is appreciative of the funding from the Government of Alberta through Labour and Immigration, Workforce Strategies. Our program is here to provide information and support to help organizations start mentorship programs.

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