The recession has thrown into question the whole way business operates. It has certainly made some hard-hit countries such as Iceland tear up the rulebook and start again.

As everything is turned on its head, one question being asked is: should the students be learning from their teachers or vice versa? "Reverse mentoring" is in fashion, with younger, tech-savvy executives mentoring their elders who feel they have lost touch with parts of their workforce and wider society. As one leader quipped: "I've now got friends in low places."

Computer maker Dell last month announced that its women middle managers would mentor their older male bosses, with the aim of educating the men about the challenges these women face in making it up the ranks of the organisation.

Jacey Graham, who runs global diversity and inclusion consulting company Brook Graham in Britain and is also a visiting fellow at the Cranfield School of Management, points out the incentives for Dell's male bosses.

"The senior Dell men will also get the opportunity to understand about differences in male-female approaches, communication and leadership styles at work and gain insight into the ways these 'female styles' are often mistakenly judged and perceived by those in power."

Graham says reverse mentoring programmes usually deliver on four levels: senior leaders learn how to broaden their range of behaviour, language and approach, and incorporate this learning into everyday business activities; they become more aware of ways to include more diverse talent; they understand how to engage different groups of people and provide stronger signals to them that they are valued; and the programmes develop greater insight into how HR can help the company become more diverse and inclusive.

Professor David Clutterbuck, a British mentoring expert and author of Everyone Needs a Mentor, says reverse mentoring has been used successfully in companies including GE, Procter & Gamble, BT and BP.

Senior managers are often very out of touch with key areas such as new technology or customer concerns, and reverse mentoring can address this, he says. That knowledge is usually held by people at relatively junior levels. Reverse mentoring provides a way to bypass the normal communication channels, which tend to sanitise knowledge, says Clutterbuck.

Reverse mentoring is an opportunity for a reality check at the top of the organisations, he writes. "The more junior (usually younger) employees have an opportunity to observe and learn from management thinking, to influence organisational policy and to become more at ease dealing with people of substantially greater hierarchical authority."

The stimulus for upward mentoring has arisen from two main areas of concern, he says. "In diversity programmes, one of the limiting factors on progress of women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds has been the inability of top management to understand the issues. Even though they may have attended diversity awareness, emotional commitment often only comes from seeing the issues through the eyes of someone who experiences them on a frequent basis."

Reverse mentoring originally came from Jack Welch's GE. In reality, says Clutterbuck, what began at GE wasn't really mentoring - it was more tutoring - but it established the principle that senior people have much to learn from junior colleagues.

The most effective reverse mentoring is not about skills transfer, he says. Rather, it's about opening up the recipient's eyes to perspectives and concepts that may not have occurred to them. Clutterbuck recommends mentoring relationships that are deliberately status-free.

"Abandoning status and authority within a relationship not only makes for greater rapport and openness, it also influences in a very positive way the quality of learning dialogue. When one party is felt to be in some sense superior, the sense of mutual exploration and discovery is muted."

Being the mentor in a reverse mentoring relationship is not easy, he warns. In most cases the more junior person will have little experience in leading a learning dialogue with someone so senior. This young mentor, too, needs to be trained to accept and enjoy this reversal of roles. Coaches can help.

Reverse mentoring is not yet being done in a big way in New Zealand, although Dell is going to introduce it here, says Chris Johnson, executive coach and partner at executive search company Kerridge & Partners.

Kerridge & Partners uses reverse mentoring itself. "We have got someone of 23, our most junior member of staff, inputting to our partners' presentations," Johnson says. And her ideas are often taken on. Johnson has seen it happen internationally. Sony founder Akio Morita would take on an MBA student to work with him as his assistant every year.

The success of reverse mentoring depends on the self-awareness of the older male boss, says the coach. "If you are reasonably self-aware then you are more likely to be receptive to a younger person helping explain something to you." If you think you know best you are unlikely to be receptive.

Meanwhile, the director of the New Zealand Coaching & Mentoring Centre, Aly McNicoll, says that although she hasn't seen examples of reverse mentoring in New Zealand, she is seeing a lot more peer-to-peer mentoring.

She and her colleagues have launched the idea of group mentoring, whether with two on two or peer groups of four or five, either from one organisation or from several companies across sectors. With the latter, she says, people are getting a lot of diverse perspectives from different professions.