Using Research to Inform Mentor Program Practice

By Barry Sweeny, 2003


The Difference Between Theory and Practice

Yogi Berra once said, ìIn theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.î I am sure that every one of us understands and shares Yogi’s feelings because we have personally experienced that gap between theory and practice. When we design and try to improve mentoring programs and practices we have to address that gap.

  • At the program level, closing that gap is the essential function of needs assessment and program evaluation. Done well, these processes give us the data we need to improve the program’s effectiveness.
  • At the mentoring level, the training and support we provide mentors closes this gap by helping them grow from their current ability to become mentors who implement effective mentoring practices.

Linking Improvement at the Program & Practices Levels

But program evaluation & needs assessment are not done in isolation. The results of these processes are conclusions about the extent to which program goals are accomplished and participant needs are addressed so participants can grow and performance is increased. When these desired results are not fully attained in practice, improvementsin the program are made, in expectation that these will improve results in practice.

This is why what is done at the mentoring program and the mentoring practices levels must be aligned with and informed by each other.

This is also why, I think it is helpful to think of what happens at the program level as a “Theory of Mentoring Best Practice“. The program is really an attempt to provide what is believed to be needed to cause the desired effect in mentoring practice.

Monitoring and collecting data about what happens in practice as a result of programchanges should then be viewed as an experiment which tests out the Theory of Mentoring Best Practice . Finally, where the Theory does not seem to cause the desired effect, or the effect is different from what was expected, the Theory is adjusted to better reflect experience. The whole process is reciprocal and reiterative, and is an attempt to close the gap between Theory and Practice – between what we believe and what we do.

The Author’s Own Best Practice Search

This author uses these ideas every day in his own work, in what I call my “best practice search”. It is an example of addressing this same gap between theory and practice. However, my definition for “best practices” is not a description of what others’ research and theories say is ideal, although it is informed by these sources. I only label something as a “best practice” when I have seen it work in practice in a number of diverse settings, and so I recommend it to everyone else.

Figure 1 - Refinement of Theory by Application in PracticeAs shown in this diagram, what I do during my best practice search is first to translate the description of a concept or activity used in mentoring in a specific setting so that it is restated in more general language. Initially, I would call that more general statement an “hypothesis“, which I then use to guide my practice and to test out the applicability of the hypothesis in a wider range of settings. The focus is to decide if the generalized mentoring concept or hypothesis actually works in practice.

Of course, after using the general principle in a real situation, one finds out the ways in which the tentative statement is flawed. The result is new information which must be integrated into the general hypothetical statement by rewriting it. In that way, the general statements together are an emerging “theory of mentoring” which have been proven in specific applications.

Two Kinds of Best Practices

The more settings in which I am able to test and validate a mentoring theory, the more confidence I gain that the theory is more probably a ìprincipleî which can be used to guide practice across many or even all settings. The best practices I offer on this web site under my name have emerged from this process and have passed that criteria. In my mind, they have attained the level of a general guiding principle.

What I have learned from this process is that these principles should be divided into two groups:

1. Those principles (best practices) which apply in all settings (example in the diagram’s center below)

2. Those principles (best practices) which apply only in specific settings

However, as the figure below illustrates, the differences from setting to setting are primarily semantic, based on word choice.

Just as a brief “aside”, I have found that in ALL but two of the 25 components of effective mentor programing, the setting-specific  differences can be dealt with by a process of “translating” the specific language to a more general level. Those two components which truly ARE setting-specific and which can’t be generalized relate to:

  • The job-specific tasks which are the focus of mentor guidance for skill development, and…
  • The setting-specific organizational improvement initiatives

Translating General to setting-specific language

Applications for YOU

If you are a program leader, try to use the following advice.

You SHOULD Translate The Best Practices To Work in Your Specific Setting

The best practices (general principles) I have provided on the web pages throughout this web site can be used exactly as they are stated, even when stated so generally. However, you may want to translate them so they fit the unique context and language of the specific setting in which your program must function.

The trick of that translation process for you is to be sure that you retain the essence of the general idea and reasoning within the statement and that your setting-specific translation does not become overly prescriptive and rigid. That is why the word “should” rather than “must” was used in the three examples in Figure 2 above.

If you are a researcher:

  • I urge you to consider the ideas I have offered here for use in your work.
  • I urge you to use the language of “hypothesis”, “theory” and “guiding principle” to clearly label the level of confidence you have in the ideas you assert.
  • I urge you to explicitly define your own use of the term “best practices” to mean at least a “theory”, if not a “principle” level of confidence.

I do so because the lack of clarity about these things has led to many presentations of program descriptions as “best practices” and as a result, the terms have become almost useless. As a researcher, part of your unique contribution to the field is educating others and modeling clarity about this language and these crucial distinctions. Thanks for your help with that task.

If you are a mentor, protégé, or protege’s manager, please:

  • Urge your program leaders to articulate the specific basis or “hypothesis” or “theory” which they are using to guide program planning. For example, if your program is all about development of people, ask “What conceptual model of human development is the basis for program planning?” You will be surprised by their reactions and pleased with the improvements which will result from answering that question!
  • Consider your personal work to be “action research” in which YOU are testing out in daily mentoring experiences the hypotheses and theories on which your program is based.
  • Whether it is designed to do so or not, use the program evaluation instruments your program sends you, to report back the conclusions you have reached from
    your own action research. be sure to use the research language of “hypothesis”,
    “theory” and “guiding principle”.