The Master’s Voice: learning through mentoring


by Dr Alan Bruce

Sgt. Nathan Brewer, the lead team mentor for the Marine Drivers Training Course, and his team at Camp Shaheen, Afghanistan.

One of the noted aspects of training and skill acquisition in traditional security environments has been the need to develop training standards, methods, materials and assessment systems in often rigidly hierarchical environments. The sense of importance attached to accurate transmission of information, standardised procedures, risk management and accountability is interwoven with an innate sense that learning is done best when received from above and followed exactly.

The real contradiction is that most security and emergency situations do not themselves follow such pre-ordained and routinised procedures. The random and chaotic is more the norm. In such contexts, a premium is placed on very different skills: initiative, intuition, risk-taking and innovation in a contextual mix of experience and recalled best practice.

Mentoring has ancient roots in European society.Mentoring implied not just guidance and suggestion, but also the development of autonomous skills and mastership. A great value was placed on expertise and development of self-confidence over time.

My experience of teaching and training in policing environments is constantly encountering these contradictory themes. Student practitioners will talk about the differences between by-the-book methods and skills and the contrasting learning experiences founded on informal example-sharing or reliance on the (often significant) tacit knowledge of more experienced colleagues. The problem with this dichotomy is that too rigid a reliance on one method can produce reactive and one-dimensional responses to critical situations. Too rigid a reliance on the other can produce ad hoc and impulsive responses where the potential for violations of norms and standards is great.

So how can we square the circle between experiential or informal practice based learning on the one hand and formulaic and rigidly described procedurally codified learning on the other? And how do we relate this learning to a world in which fragmentation, complexity and diversity are at unprecedented, high levels. The challenge is to define a body of knowledge and an innovative set of methodologies that address best practice within a dynamic matrix of skills, knowledge and attitudes.

A Saturday Scholar Mentor from San Jose, California, jokes with one of her students.An option that is increasingly coming to the fore in work environments is mentoring. The concept of being able to guide, shape or share previous experience is not a new one. Most apprenticeship systems were to a greater or lesser extent based on them. Traditional learning relied to an enormous extent on the guide to develop competence and indeed, over time, expertise. But mentoring has also been seen as running the risk of incorporating bad practice or low standards if there is no countervailing objectives standards-based control mechanism.

Mentoring has ancient roots in European society. Mentor was the man Odysseus entrusted his kingdom to when he went to the Trojan wars. In classical Greece young men often lived with more experienced elders to learn not simply knowledge but, in addition, skills and attitudes. The mentoring relationship was also evident in the Guilds of mediaeval Europe and the forms of apprenticeship that evolved from them. Mentoring implied not just guidance and suggestion, but also the development of autonomous skills and mastership. A great value was placed on expertise and development of self-confidence over time. Mentoring was seen as informal and also as a relationship – and relational learning was viewed as critical in passing on skill but also in establishing a secure place to learn more.


Workplace mentoring has been identified as an important aspect of work-based learning. Some of this has been developed in the schools system, to familiarise students with the world of work and to develop exposure to the realities of learning needs in applied environments. For younger pupils this has been viewed as a process where relationships with caring and competent adults who can provide emotional support and facilitate skill development are established. It has also been used as a system where less-experienced youths and adults were more likely to bridge the gap between school and work.


Mentoring has been seen as a critical resource to companies and communities in developing skills and knowledge - and in unlocking tacit knowledge.
Such developments were analysed by Bettina Brown in 2001. Having examined school-work mentoring systems, she concluded that workplace mentoring required a partnership commitment that involves time, energy, and the resources of qualified mentors, school personnel as well as learners themselves. She also pinpointed that, as in other endeavours, workplace mentoring required planning, training, monitoring, and assessment to ensure that the individuals being mentored would achieve successful outcomes.

Numerous publications have examined the role of mentoring in work-based learning. The following are among the key issues that have been addressed to varying degrees through work-based learning efforts involving mentoring:

(1)    Establishment of a mentor recruitment plan
(2)    Eligibility screening for mentors and students
(3)    Training for mentors and those to be mentored
(4)    Matching students with mentors
(5)    A monitoring process and
(6)    A process for providing ongoing support and training
(7)    Closure steps.

Having established the outlines and principles, how can mentoring be applied to real security learning environments? And how can advanced technologies support such a process?

The impact of industrialisation and Fordist models of production in the Nineteenth Century produced standardisation and regimentation by breaking down jobs and, frequently in the same process, de-skilling labour. Work increasingly became routine and static. The work of time and motion specialist like “Speedy” Taylor reduced the worker to the status of an automaton or machine where the only imperative was increasing productivity (and lessened costs) - an example that would later be enthusiastically emulated in the new Soviet Union with the hero-status of Comrade Stakhanov.


A group of pupils gather around their mentor in Mingora, Pakistan

The principles and ethic of mentoring survived however and over the last 30 years it has enjoyed a re-birth, with special attention being paid to the advantages of mentoring by both strategic management specialists, adult learning specialists and personal coaching systems.

At its most basic, mentoring can be described as activities, supports and guidance from one person with experience (mentor) to assist another person to perform more effectively, clarify goals and options, and make choices that enhance their career.

Mentoring is used in many contexts. It has witnessed significant growth in recent years because of the massive impact of change in the labour market and the development of exponential technological growth leading to unprecedented access to new information and learning. People have choices as well as the realisation that they are unlikely to remain in one job or one position over an entire career. At a time of uncertainty, guidance is crucial.


Among the places where mentoring has been used are:

  • Business
  • Health
  • Education
  • Learning support and access
  • Community and social disadvantage
  • Employment centres
  • Skills development.

In practice, mentoring covers a number of dimensions. In recent years, for example, there has been much debate about the difference between mentoring and coaching – and the links that exist between them.  Mentoring can best be understood as a process that is centred on the needs of an individual to make changes, make choices or progress in a different direction.

An innovative approach is the use of advanced technological on-line mentoring, including the use of social networking Web 2.0 technologies.
The process includes giving advice. Of course to give advice the mentor first has to listen. Mentoring includes provision of advice but this is not binding - and at all times the mentee is free to accept or reject the advice. The advice is based on the mentor’s experience – but also on the mentor’s professionalism and ethics in understanding that the job of mentoring is not to influence, direct or push the mentee.

Mentoring also includes strong elements of guidance. Again this is primarily based on the experiences and expertise of the mentor. These elements of guidance are to enable the mentee to reflect, consider options and in the end to make choices based on information and appraisal. Guidance can point out the consequences of choices made by the mentee. But it cannot substitute for choice. Frequently, mentors are faced with mentees who want the mentor to make decisions for them. The mentoring process cannot do this.

A critical role of the mentor is to support. Many mentees come to the process lacking self-confidence or doubting their own ability to make progress. The mentor has a critical role to play in pointing out achievements, reflecting back positive gains and underlining the importance of choice in achieving stated goals. Support can also mean pinpointing specific challenges. If necessary, mentors can advise and support to seek additional specific interventions to meet more challenging needs.

Mentoring can be established for any number of reasons. Mentoring has traditionally been informal and self-selected. This can still be seen in programs in the American tradition that reflect the friendly nature of mentoring – such as in ‘buddy’ systems. Mentoring also has to operate within a professional and ethical framework. Therefore it must remain voluntary and subject to mutual agreement. Mentoring is not just about solving problems. However, problems – and severe problems – can underlie a decision to seek mentoring.

Mentoring schemes are often developed as part of an agency’s HR department. It can play a very useful role in promoting skills development, selecting training options or career planning. Mentoring has been seen as a critical resource to companies and communities in developing skills and knowledge - and in unlocking tacit knowledge, for example. Mentoring, done professionally, provides focus and purpose and clarity for all stakeholders.

Many HR Departments, particularly in a time of severe recession, see mentoring as a luxury or additional expense superfluous to company needs. In fact mentoring has been shown to have defined financial benefits for agencies by providing more focused interventions and developing satisfaction and motivated and improved performance.

An innovative approach is the use of advanced technological on-line mentoring, including the use of social networking Web 2.0 technologies. These developments show that mentoring, despite its ancient roots, very much has a future in the 21st century.

Learning the proper way to charge a a fire hose during an aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) testing.In 2010, I concluded engagement in a project financed under the EU Grundtvig strand of the Lifelong Learning Program. This project (involving adult education partners in Spain, the UK, Denmark and Ireland) looked at issues of mentoring and adult learning and the development of specific web-based tools to support the mentoring process. As part of the process an on-line platform or Virtual Learning Environment was developed in which communication, file sharing and assessment could take place. Currently in education the VLE is used as a distance-learning tool where courses take place or where classroom-based learning is enriched.

The project (called Sink or Swim) used two VLEs, Fronter and Moodle. It also adapted social networking media (Facebook and Twitter) while taking extensive use of blogs and wikis. Using a VLE for mentoring can depend on the context of the mentoring programme being set up. However VLE supported mentoring has a number of defined benefits that include:

  • Provision of 24 hour access for communication
  • Accessible anywhere that has internet availability
  • Provides a platform that does not require face-to-face communication
  • Progress of the mentor/mentee relationship can be monitored by project leaders

As a result of the project it was felt that when using a virtual learning environment (VLE) it was important to consider a number of questions:

  • Can VLE supported mentoring be used in an educational context to help motivate and retain students?
  • Is the VLE to be used in a context in which personal issues are discussed which are perhaps not be suitable for the  online environment?
  • Can the VLE be confined to supporting real mentoring and not abused as some kind of supervisory tool by senior management?

The project experience of using the VLE highlighted a number of specific concerns regarding confidentiality, security and confidence that real learning needs could be addressed in a virtual way. Some of the systems were password protected (extensive use of the Fronter platform in Denmark underlined this). It was found that early involvement of the ICT support structures was critical. The UK partnership investigated using Facebook as an alternative form of communication for a 'Study Buddy' mentoring system in a business class. However the Sink or Swim group created in Facebook was managed so that it was hidden from view in its privacy settings.

The Sink or Swim project outlined the following needs which should be considered when accessing VLE supported mentoring:

  • How and when mentors/mentees access the platform
  • How frequently project leaders access the VLE and their role
  • How and when mentors and mentees communicate across time zones to other project participants

The project demonstrated the need for a constant presence in the VLE. A meaningful relationship had to be established online if the VLE was to be used on a regular basis by the mentors and mentees. The choice of VLE software used in the project could also play a role in whether their relationship was well established.

The experiences of the Sink or Swim project occurred in the adult education and vocational training sectors. The lessons for the security environment should be clear. If mentoring plays a valuable role in imparting skills, attitudes and experience-based lessons it also develops relationships of trust and interactive communication in a paradigm of shared goals. It is a neutral space to test approaches without preconceptions or received prescriptions. At its best, mentoring can play a vital role in developing the critical judgment, analytical skill and decision making flexibility all of which contribute to quality in responding to situations of crisis or unpredictability.

To be a mentor requires interest, motivation, aptitude and engagement. Mentors need to be people with established levels of competence and skill in their chosen areas. Mentors also need to be strongly other focused, principled and able to develop empathy with the perspectives of the other. Mentors need to operate to ethical and professional standards and to know where boundaries are when engaging with mentees. Mentors are frequently selected from senior members in organisations, frequently with strong profiles of achievement and success. In some countries, mentors are employed by State agencies as a resource for industrialists and employers.

Mentoring needs to be structured in accessible and cost-effective ways, Mentoring is not a burden – it is a resource. Used widely it produces gains for all stakeholders. There may be valuable pointers here for the security sector in developing the competences and resources to cope with a rapidly changing world.

Photograph front page: Mentor and Odysseus



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