Teach What You Know -- A Practical Leader's Guide to Knowledge Transfer Using Peer Mentoring, Part 2
This chapter excerpt represents the second of a two-part installment from Chapter 10 of the book, "Teach What You Know: A Practical Leader's Guide to Knowledge Transfer Using Peer Mentoring", authored by Steve Trautman. Copyright 2007 Steve Trautman. Published by Prentice Hall Professional, July 2006, ISBN 0321419510. All rights reserved.
Chapter 10: Peer Mentoring in Practice
Electronic Arts Canada Case Study: The Toolkit Put Together
I've been working on improving how people transfer knowledge in the workplace since the early '90s. During that time, I've had a chance to work with a number of different types of organizations, each one faced with a different version of the same problem: "How do we get our employees to communicate with and teach each other with more predictable results?" This wasn't a new question when I started—and there is still much work to do on the subject. The results so far are worth sharing because you can definitely replicate them in your situation.
There are many stories sprinkled throughout the book explaining how different kinds of organizations have used and adapted the tools presented. In this section, the focus is on how one company used the Peer Mentoring toolkit to improve the experience of their employees.
Electronic Arts Canada (EAC) is the largest and most profitable studio in the Electronic Arts (EA) video game family. In preparation for writing this case study, I spent a day interviewing people from EAC who have been involved in implementing the peer mentoring framework and tools for more than a year as leaders, peer mentors, apprentices, and executives.
The word that they used over and over again to describe peer mentoring was "framework." Brad Herbert (EA's worldwide vice president for human resources) and Jeff Ryan (EAC's senior director for human resources) both described the peer mentoring tools as a framework for future training at Electronic Arts worldwide. "If you think that peer mentoring is only about onboarding, then you haven't even scratched the surface," said Herbert.
Initiating a Plan
When my colleagues and I started working with EAC in November 2004, the studio had been growing at an incredible clip, hiring more than 600 full-time employees in the prior 2 years, to bring their total number of employees to more than 1,400. The growth was at all levels of the organization, across all disciplines, including software engineers, game producers, artists, animators, designers, project managers, and testers. Video game development is a relatively new industry so there are many young people involved. The youthful employees managed their grueling 70-plus hour work weeks, at least for a time, by sheer determination and lots of Coke and pizza.
For me, the culture I encountered when I first visited EAC felt very similar to what I experienced in the early days of Microsoft: very smart people on the cutting edge of technology, passionate about their work, and committed to getting it done at all costs. On top of all the new hires (more than 60 percent on some teams), EAC was also facing familiar transitions, including integrating a company they'd acquired, adding additional office space, reorganizing the art teams into a centralized unit, and rolling out a new standard for game development., To top it all off, they were in the final stages of releasing a new gaming platform. For many employees, the familiar technical environment was giving way to a far more complicated future. Oh, and did I mention they were also shipping games? The situation was defined by new people, new thinking, and new technology on top of increasingly aggressive competition and backbreaking deadlines.
The challenge, of course, was that the pace wasn't sustainable. There were some cracks opening up that put the organization at risk. Burnout was increasing, turnover was becoming a problem, and Electronic Arts' reputation in the marketplace for being a "sweatshop" was hampering their ability to recruit new talent. Hiring continued through all of this. New employees were a cause of real concern because they were both desperately needed and at real risk of failure. They could, potentially, even do more harm than good. New people were brought on board with limited orientation beyond signing up for benefits and getting a tour of the facility. The dedicated in-house training resources were primarily coming from headquarters in Redwood Shores, California. Those training resources were focused on technical training and a few leadership programs. The Vancouver Studio (EAC) had grown so quickly and was focusing so heavily on shipping games that they hadn't begun to develop any orientation programs to help new hires get up to speed. With so few hands and so much work, each new recruit was thrown into the deep end with a "sink or swim" mentality.
I want to be clear that I didn't advocate taking away the "edginess" that made working at EAC exciting. As is the case in many companies, starting a new job at EAC will never be a completely "controlled" situation because of the nature of the work. In my opinion, taking the "sink or swim" approach isn't even all that bad, unless you also hand the new employee an anchor (all of the challenges noted above). That makes survival too difficult. I think that if you're going to throw new employees into the deep end, you need to make sure they have a good shot at living through the experience; throw the employee a life-preserver in the form of support from a solid peer mentor.
* Read the rest of this excerpt and download part two of Chapter 10:
Peer Mentoring in Practice
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This was first published in August 2006