Formal learning, or institutional learning, which is the idea of learning formally from a designated, certified teacher in some kind of a structured format (e.g., schools, conferences, workshops, speakers, webinars, etc.) is a relatively new concept of learning. It’s only about 150-200 years old. Prior to that and since the advent of time, the oldest and quite possibly the most effective way of learning we human beings have used, has been mentoring. Hundreds of years ago, for example, if one wanted to be a carpenter, one would find someone in their town/village or someplace nearby and learn from them. In most cases, these apprenticeship models had no time frame … it was not limited to a semester or year or four years.
Here we are in 2010 and I still firmly believe that this traditional modality of learning–mentoring from someone who has walked in your shoes and done what you’re trying to do successfully–is the most powerful way of learning. Mentoring however, has evolved into many models itself. There is peer mentoring, upward mentoring, communal mentoring, and anonymous mentoring. All these models are good and possible because communication channels now allow for us to connect with people far beyond our own towns and villages. We are able to find more people better suited to mentor us than at any other point in our history. Technology has been the driving force and enabler for this.
Anonymous mentoring is an especially unique model only recently available. The idea is to connect with those same mentors, but not have to worry about someone trying to sell you something or you trying to impress someone else or having to worry where what you write will end up and if it will be used against you. This is especially useful in this day and age where the Internet has as many dubious characters as it does good ones. The anonymity truly frees up both the learner and mentor (who, incidentally, have said that because they themselves did most of their learning through their failures, not successes, they are more comfortable with sharing their war stories as well) to explore any and all topics, to peel the layers of the onion and get to the root cause of many issues that we historically either dance around or have some form of protective shield against.
This concept of anonymous mentoring was featured in HBR earlier this year and is worth exploring, especially if you have organizational cultures where emotional safety is not always there. The anonymity creates the ultimate safe environment for substantive learning, which allows for capturing all kinds of learning moments and converting them into “aha” moments.