Social learning platforms are often marketed as knowledge management tools, ways to store an organization’s knowledge so it can be tapped as needed.

Because knowledge management is framed in terms of its benefits to the organization rather than to individual learners, people outside the fields of training and organizational development tend to think of it as something separate and distinct from mentoring. In reality, knowledge management is just mentoring with a new name. Companies adopt social learning platforms with an eye towards providing a space where employees can share knowledge and experiences, and guide colleagues to lessons already learned.

Mentoring opportunities in social learning platforms tend to come in short bursts and to be just-in-time events. Ad-hoc mentoring works extremely well, especially when the requests deal with specific short-term goals. A user might ask for information about whether a particular vendor is reliable, or how to work around a bug in a particular piece of software. And because the request is broadcast to a large group of users, even users who didn’t request the information may still be able to benefit. Better yet, the request can be sent to a wide pool of participants whose current job descriptions don’t reveal their ability to help with the topic at hand.

Although many users may find the ad-hoc mentoring available in social learning platforms to be among their most attractive features, organizations could see better returns by deliberately using the tools to engineer opportunities for mentoring in a more strategic way.

Ask the expert

Many social learning platforms aren’t designed for synchronous communication, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for slow feedback. Near-synchronous communication often works just as well, as long as participants understand that it isn’t meant to be a substitute for another kind of venue, like a conference call or Web meeting. A question and answer session can give the group a reason to gather without forcing anyone to prepare a formal presentation ahead of time.

Consider scheduling a specific time, limited to about an hour, when a subject matter expert or a panel of experts will field questions on the discussion boards. The goal is to provide enough time to give everyone a chance to pose a question and get an answer, but not enough time to deter anyone from participating. Experts should commit to responding to all questions in the scheduled timeframe or deferring response to a specific later date.

When the session starts, users can refresh their browsers as often as they choose to see new questions or answers without chiming or blinking prompts, meaning that the experience is more or less self-paced. As a result, users can participate at their desks, and can even stop to attend to momentary distractions with minimal disruption to their experience.

The Mentor Center

Some topics don’t lend themselves as easily to short bursts of information, or they aren’t appropriate for discussion in a semi-public forum. If the skills the potential protégés require involve navigating organizational politics or dealing with interpersonal conflict, mentoring should take place offline and in an unrecorded format to enable frank and helpful discussion.

Even when the discussion itself won’t take place in the social learning environment, the platform can help you reach across the organization to find both protégés and willing mentors, especially in large organizations spread across several different locations.

Newly promoted managers, for example, can often benefit from talking with managers who have held similar positions for two or three years. Any single location might lack a large enough pool of participants to draw from, but if the organization can draw from its entire population, the likelihood of finding suitable participants increases.

The social learning environment can be used to broadcast the request for volunteers, to explain the goals of the program and the duration of the commitment, and to keep a scoreboard of statistics that might help recruit future participants. How many people in the organization are looking for mentors to help them develop leadership skills? How many are interested in learning better problem solving? Has anyone started the program as a protégé and moved on to become a mentor in the same area?

Social learning platforms are tools that can enable new kinds of communication among users, and they’re flexible enough to be applicable for many different kinds of content. Experiment with different strategies and you’ll find the solutions that work best for your learners, your subject matter, and your goals.