This nation’s mentors can be kindly or they can be curmudgeons, but apparently these once vital — often volunteer — internal company coaches, advisers, and tutors are heading the way of the typewriter ribbon, according to some high-level business executives and educators.

I recently received a query from a member of the faculty at one of the nation’s top technological research universities regarding what I’m generously calling “online mentoring.”

Specifically, this chemical engineering educator — a former distinguished engineer at one of the world’s top chemical companies — asked me if I could recommend a firm that could convert written educational content into a script for the purpose of creating a powerful video for fledgling employees. In his note to me, he said, “We’re looking to create just-in-time delivery of content for young engineers who are just entering the work force.”

That’s all well and good and I did, indeed, refer him to a company that teaches skills to today’s fresh faces in the workplace via 60-90-second videos in what is touted as an effective training platform.

But getting back to his original inquiry, our faculty member explained: “We’re looking into developing short three- to five-minute videos on very specific content, e.g., how to run a meeting, how to perform a certain calculation, etc.

“You can imagine an entire library of such videos, covering all aspects of how to be a successful professional engineer,” he continued. “The new hire (recent engineering graduate) can use the videos to learn about some aspect of their job at the moment they need it. They can watch the video, discuss it with their boss and immediately put learning into practice.”

Then came the paragraph that set me off:

In the old days,” our faculty member wrote, “there would be 55-plus-year-old mentors available to train the new hires in both soft and hard skills. Those days are gone. The lean company simply doesn’t maintain the resources to do this anymore.

Bam! I’ve gone ballistic. Mentors are obsolete? Those sometimes-impatient veterans who led me by the hand when I got my first writing job are out to pasture? Why didn’t I get a memo on this? You know, a memo whose format was taught to me years ago by a kindly middle-aged secretary who took me under her wing when I told her I was going to ask the boss for a raise?

Personally, it scares the hell out of me to think that someone’s going to learn how to run a meeting — or write a concise memo for that matter — by watching a video. It’s lunacy to me that the worker of the immediate future won’t have mentors — either by design or byproduct — to teach them the ropes. No organization should be so lean that it doesn’t have mentors.

Here’s part of the problem as I see it: Online knowledge bases that contain FAQs, articles, product guides, etc., tend to be written by people who have little to no insight into the user experience. Same holds true for someone wielding a script and a camera.

Call me a Luddite if you will, but nothing — and I mean absolutely nothing — replaces the experience a newbie can absorb in any field of endeavor from a veteran. We’re talking about the employee who not only knows her particular craft, but also knows from experience how to teach that new worker how to avoid some of the pitfalls she experienced back when they were wet behind the ears.

Misunderstanding Millennials

I related my rant to a newspaper friend of mine, and he just shook his head. He told the story about his first managing editor, a man who would wander over to his desk, pipe gripped firmly between his teeth, and shove several sheets of copy in his face.

“Here’s the deal, Jimmy Olsen,” he would growl. “The lead to your story is in the last paragraph.” Then he would slowly tear up the pages into small pieces and sprinkle them across the reporter’s Royal typewriter.

“Give it another try,” the editor would say, turning on his heels and returning to his desk on the rim.

“The thing is,” my reporter friend said, “I had no compunction at all about marching over to that editor and asking him how I could make the story better. And together, we did. That man taught me most everything I know about journalism.”

Another thing that bothers me about this urgency for video to replace human contact is a sneaking suspicion that what we’re really doing is tiptoeing carefully around the millennial generation in order to avoid upsetting them.

That’s pure nonsense, as portions of a recently released study from the Oxford Economics Workforce show. The report claims American executives may be out of touch with what millennial employees think.

For instance, it claims 60 percent of executives responding to the study believe millennials are frustrated with manager quality. However, only 18 percent of millennial involved in the study say that’s the case.

Sixty-two percent of the executives say millennials will consider leaving their jobs due to lack of learning and development, but only 31 percent of millennials say they have ever even considered this.

All of this concerns me because I have to live in the same day and age as these executives, and I’m thinking they are wildly overstating the problem. To make matters worse, they’re spending enormous amounts of time and resources building solutions that millennials — not to mention the rest of us — just don’t need.

The place to learn about the inverted pyramid or the difference between two, to and too, is in journalism class. But you pick up most of the fundamentals — and specifics — about your new craft from a crusty old editor with a bottle of Johnny Walker Black in his desk drawer. These are the people who care about your success because they care about the product.

I’m all for YouTube as a tool to teach any number of tactics and techniques, but to assume that’s the only way learning will occur in the future — just because some millennial show a preference for it or because they always have access to a device capable of playing a video — is just wrong thinking in my mind.

Lost in all of this is the common understanding that people as learners fall into several categories. They tend to be visual learners, auditory learners or kinesthetic learners. Add to that the theory of multiple intelligences developed by Howard Gardner, Ph.D., Professor of Education at Harvard University, that essentially states we have several different ways of processing information and these ways are relatively independent of one another.

Combine that with the fact that not everyone in every role in every organization is the same, and you have yourself a big problem when you try to advocate a one-size-fits-all approach.

The bottom line to me is this: If you want to learn how to run a meeting, you’re going to chat up a colleague or mentor who has successfully conducted effective meetings. And you’re going to have to attend a lot of meetings to see how they’re actually run.

You’re not going to find a satisfactory answer sitting in front of your computer, watching a video.

[Photo Credit: Merrimack College via photopin cc]