Industrial mentoring for junior researchers: An enabler for personal development and innovation

Ingrid Yu
University of Oslo

David Cameron
University of Oslo

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Ann Vølstad

Åshild Larsen
Equinor ASA

The SIRIUS Centre for Research-Based Innovation, based at the University of Oslo, is a collaborative organization that addresses challenges of digitalisation in, and beyond, the oil and gas industry. It aims to produce innovation that solves operational challenges in industry through application of high-quality computer science research. The centre brings together academics from the three Universities (Oslo, Oxford and NTNU in Trondheim), two research institutes (SINTEF and Simula), large companies in the oil and gas sector (Equinor, Schlumberger, Aibel, Aker Solutions, TechnipFMC, Bosch), IT vendors, both global (IBM and SAP) and local, and with a group of specialized smaller companies.

It is a complex task to generate industrial innovation and excellent research at the same time. The centre brings together a diverse group of participants, with widely differing backgrounds and motivations. It is very easy to miscommunicate. Effort must be made to bridge the gaps between our academic researchers and their industrial counterparts. As part of this effort, SIRIUS ran a mentoring program for junior academics in 2017 and 2018. This paper describes the program, its results and practical experience that was derived from the program. Each of the authors brings their own perspective to the paper. The lead author is the deputy director of the centre. She defined the objectives, led and ran the mentoring program. The second author was the manager in the centre with responsibility for relationships with the centre’s industrial partners. He was the sponsor of the program. The third author works for AFF, a consultancy that prepared the content of the program and facilitated the meetings in the program. The final author is one of the mentors. She is also a C-level manager in the energy company Equinor.

The program was run over a year, from mid-2017 to mid-2018, after a period of planning that began in late 2016. Some form of mentoring had been proposed in the funding application for the centre, but it was unclear what this would entail. An open tender contest was held to select an external facilitator for mentoring programs. AFF was chosen. Centre managers then worked with AFF to tailor the course to our needs. We recruited ten junior researchers (PhD students and post-doctoral researchers) and recruited the same number of mentors from our partner companies. The mentors included some of the main contact persons in the company, but they were able to recruit other senior managers in their companies. The program recruited mentors from Equinor, Schlumberger, Evry, Numascale and IBM.

The mentors and mentees each received training in their roles at dedicated workshops. This training in being a mentor was a useful incentive in recruiting mentors and crucial for the success of the mentoring program. The trainings allow the mentors and the mentees to establish a common understanding of what we mean by mentoring, including the different rolls, obligations, and expectations of the program. The coordinators of the program interviewed each mentor and mentee and used these interviews to match the mentor-mentee pairs. The program had four common workshops or gatherings: a kick-off, two mid-way events (one with both mentees and mentors and one with only mentees) and a concluding celebration.

Between these common events the mentor and mentee organized regular one-on-one meetings. Where possible, some of these meetings were held at the mentor’s offices, so that the mentee could get some insight into the mentor’s company and its concerns.

The mentoring program was assessed at its end. Both mentors and mentees were satisfied with the program and believed that it gave professional and personal benefits to both mentor and mentee. We have also observed that our researchers have matured in their understanding of industry and ability to communicate their research to non-experts. During the external mid-term review of the centre, the external reviewers noted that this program was an excellent initiative, that should be replicated in the university and in other centres for research-driven innovation. We have now started the second mentoring program, using the same model and methods.

We conclude that a formal and structured mentoring program that connects senior industrialists with junior researchers is a valuable tool for building collaborative innovation. The junior researchers develop in maturity and communication skills. They also increased their own strategic networks. The mentors gain a better understanding of the academic mind-set and work style. All are mutually strengthened by an enjoyable, social and educational program.