`Mentors' at head office can help far-flung employees to stay in touch. Roger Trapp reports
Imagine you are representing some multinational in Outer Mongolia, Upper Volta or some such place. With all kinds of businesses seeing untapped markets where previously they saw only wilderness and deserts, it is not such an outlandish scene. And, though modern communications and modes of travel mean that such individuals probably would not feel as isolated as their forebears who represented the likes of Shell in the early post- war years, they no doubt still feel rather lonely.

It can be stimulating being at the cutting edge of a company's thrust into new markets. But such excitement can be heavily outweighed by the sense of dislocation that results from a lack of knowledge about what is going on at base. After all, rumours that the push into a new venture is about to be abandoned as a failure may be rife in head office long before anybody in the operation itself has an inkling.

One way of dealing with this situation is to use the increasingly popular concept of "mentoring". Companies such as the US telecoms organisation AT&T and the consumer goods group Colgate-Palmolive use mentors to keep in touch with expatriates' progress abroad, to update them on news at head office and to act as troubleshooters for both these people and those at headquarters, according to research from Ashridge Management College.

Kevin Barham, leader of Ashridge's centre for management and organisation learning, and Ashridge associate Christopher Conway, have discovered that, for example, Philip Morris, the US producer of tobacco and other goods, looks for mentors who have been expatriates themselves, on the grounds that the shared experience helps to create a valuable resource.

On the other hand, expatriates at Rhone-Poulenc, the French pharmaceuticals concern, are assigned "godfathers", people with whom they can keep in regular contact, and who will help them to consider and negotiate their next career moves.

As Mr Barham and Mr Conway add, in their article in the latest edition of Ashridge's journal Directions, "mentoring can also be used to develop a global perspective among emergent global managers or younger high potentials."

For example, Stora, the Swedish forestry products company, is using mentors to underpin the development of global capabilities from an early stage in the careers of its managers, and at the same time to bring about the change of culture and attitude required by a global corporation.

As part of this, Stora is introducing a mentorship scheme to encourage international integration across the organisation and to support young managers in their first positions. Since one aim of the programme is to increase mobility between different parts of the business, "adepts", or those being mentored, are paired with mentors from different business areas so as to give them access to experience and understanding of how to enhance career development in various departments.

"Mentoring is one of the fastest-growing approaches in human resource development in the UK, and there is growing interest in its international use," write Mr Barham and Mr Conway. However, they point out that successful implementation in the international domain depends on three interlinked factors.

The first is time. As well as the problems of communicating across different time zones in global companies, more time than usual may be needed for international mentoring relationships to develop. For example, while a 12-month relationship is not uncommon in many organisations, up to two years may be required for one to be created in the international arena.

The second factor is distance. While new methods of communication can help mentors and mentored to stay in touch, psychological barriers may still remain, and need to be brought to the surface. One of the European companies being examined by the Ashridge team is investigating what distinguishes those who are successful at "distance mentoring" from those who are not as adept.

Finally, there is culture. While the management of expectations is the key to mentoring being successful in any organisational context, it is of special importance when there is an international aspect. In such circumstance, cultural differences are bound to have an effect on "the concept and dynamics of mentoring," write the researchers, adding: "Whether companies are using mentoring to develop international managers or whether they are planning to introduce mentoring into their human resource development activities in the countries where they operate, they have to take the potential impact of cultural differences into account."

And behaviour is only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath this more obvious manifestation of differences lie values, norms and deeply-held and often unconscious assumptions that affect behaviour.

Mr Barham and Mr Conway have identified and are now researching nine "iceberg factors", or key areas of cultural difference that they believe can have a crucial effect on the successful implementation of mentoring.

Among those under investigation so far are change orientation - which examines whether an organisation's propensity for change affects its ability to use mentors; leadership - whether different attitudes to management, ie, seeing the manager as expert as opposed to facilitator, makes any difference; and communication context - which involves looking at the potential difficulties posed by mixing people from high-context environments, where little needs to be said explicitly because most information is known, and low-context ones, where the message itself is important because information is less easily traded