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What's Happened with Industry Mentoring?

Publishing guru Bob Sacks has written a provocative piece called "

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: May 16, 2007

Publishing guru Bob Sacks has written a provocative piece called "Where are Today's Mentors?"

"...there is one aspect in this new world environment that has me worried and concerned. It is the area of mentorship where, it seems to me, we have fallen behind and by that loss as an industry we have been greatly diminished. What has happened? When and where did we lose the skill set and the will to teach the younglings? Have we so trimmed our business models and our work force that there is just no time to teach and mentor? Have we lost sight of the power of the properly groomed apprentice? Is there just not enough time now with the diminished workforces to add the burden of schooling for the future?"

I wrote back to Bob and this is what I said...

Today's mentors? You mean you want young people to learn from the upper- and mid-level executives who dismissed the Internet, desktop publishing, cross media, and ran bloated, bureaucratic self-protective organizations? Okay. I guess we need to cultivate more narrow-minded bonus-focused executives to discourage the young people below them so that, in frustration, those young people can they out on their own and start their own businesses. If that's what we want, then mentoring is a great idea. Everyone can learn a lot from viewing a bad example. Many successful businesses were created by inspired executives who could not make headway in the organizations they were in. Seriously, mentoring comes from age diversity in organizations, not just a plan. In many job cutting schemes, middle-management is cut the most, which creates a discontinuity in organizational succession. When companies stop growing, as many big publishing companies have, there can be a serious age-imbalance that interrupts traditional passing of knowledge as one generation looked out for another. What this means is that managers start making old mistakes in new ways because there is no one there to stop them. Industry growth can cover a multitude of sins; industry decline exposes them and creates new problems. The lack of mentoring is one of them. There is another issue. Many young people are in a marketplace for which additional education is quite common. For example, one-third of all business students will have MBA's about 10 years after they graduate. Much of what was passed in the mentoring process is now passed in additional outside educational endeavors that were not available in the past. Technology has also changed things, and standardized them. Desktop publishing has standardized trade practices that were sometimes unique to organizations that would have otherwise required a mentoring process to impart.

I've reflected on my comments a bit more, and I have a couple of things to add. Colleges may emerge to be more about networking than ever. In the past, distance became a primary reason for no longer staying in touch with fellow graduates. The first graduates who have FaceBook, MySpace, instant messaging, and the like, are only now being granted degrees. This could get interesting from a mentoring perspective. Businesses are getting smaller because of the large varieties of support services that they can buy from others. For example, the ratio of graphic designers who work for design firms compared to those who work as freelancers was a ratio of 3:1 in 1997. We are getting to a stage where that ratio may become almost reversed by 2010 when my analysis of Census data indicates it will become 2:3. Who mentors a freelancer? Because communications have changed, the networking that used to occur as a result of proximity is now expanded. Those freelancers may be more plugged in than ever... and the mentoring process that was intrinsic to working for a firm in years past might become more powerful among connected freelancers.

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink's Economics and Research Center.



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