It began with one ministry, but the government of British Columbia may soon automate parts of its mentoring program across the province.

Between 1996 and 2001, the provincial mentoring program was largely paper-based, with each ministry responsible for matching up protégés and mentors in its

own area. In 2001, however, the province’s Ministry of Children and Family Development added an electronic dimension to the match-making process.

By that time, the number of participants involved in that organization’s mentoring initiative had grown to 170 — a tenfold increase from the first year of the project, according to Lois Cumming, who manages the program in the ministry.

“”The manual process could not keep up with the need,”” she says.

From 2001 to 2003, Cumming’s organization tested Corporate Mentoring Solutions Inc.’s Collabro software. The tool lets users enter information about their competencies and skill-building interests, and allows for requesting mentors from equity-seeking groups, such as women and Aboriginal people. Participants can also request human or computer-based decision making when it comes to matching protégés and mentors.

Automating the information also widens the pool across departmental and organizational boundaries, which helps give participants a broader understanding of other workplaces — an important point given the rapid pace of change in the public sector, Cumming says. It also blurs the traditional lines between roles, as protégés with strong skills in other areas can also become mentors.

Despite the use of computers, however, the mentoring process itself takes place in person, for the most part. “”Employees would still rather sit down face-to-face if possible.””

The decision to test and then keep Collabro was based largely on its uniqueness, Cumming says.

Although her ministry followed a procurement process, developing business requirements and posting them on the province’s Web site for bids, no other off-the-shelf products could be found.

Many organizations simply develop their own tools in house, she says.

In all, Cumming’s ministry spent under $100,000 on the project, including the cost of licensing the software, co-ordinating the program and providing technical support.

The number includes the cost of running the ministry’s own help desk to deal with users’ problems.

While it’s too soon to know if the application will be used across all government departments, Cumming says it’s something the participants in her ministry would like to see.

“”Our staff were overwhelmingly positive about the program and they were the ones asking if it could be rolled out province-wide.””

Staff are given two hours a month for mentoring, she says.

Specific benefits for participants include finding personal support while dealing with organizational change, being able to implement skills in practice and not just in training or course settings, and help with career development.

From an organizational perspective, electronically enabled mentoring has seen retired staff continue to be involved as mentors and also gives staff a sense of employment opportunities in other areas.

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