Engineering Coaching and Mentoring Programs

By Mae Francis Leach, Ph.D.


"...In coaching and training the focus on... is on the "action" end ... "

Coaching and mentoring are the oldest and most elementary forms of human learning. Mothers and fathers coach and mentor their children by instinct. Before the advent of schools, these methods were the principal vehicles to pass knowledge between generations. Even now, these advisory relationships appear in trade apprenticeship programs and in a Ph.D. candidate's association to his/her advisor. Coaching and mentoring are not new, rather they are tested and proven methods of learning. However, programs designed to use these tested tools can be made more efficient, effective and certain by applying the new knowledge of Organizational Engineering to their design and execution.

Are Fundamentally Different 

Organizational Engineering teaches that a person conveying information must choose a "mode" with which to transfer that knowledge. The options available exist on a continuum running from "action" on one side to "thought" on the other (Salton, 1996, 2000) as depicted in Graphic I.

One option available to the advisor is a "thought" or intermediate level response. In Organizational Engineering, this describes a response that does not directly address the issue at hand. At this end of the spectrum the advisor might outline the options available,  identify probable outcomes or provide an assessment of the alternatives. In relationships grounded in the thought mode there usually is no "right" answer to the issue in question. These relationships focus on examining and evaluating the options. For example, an advisor might assist a person making a career decision by helping to weigh the relative advantages of immediate dollars versus long-term opportunity.

The word "mentor" is derived from the Indo-European root "men-" meaning "to think" (American Heritage Dictionary, 1992). When the relationship between the advisor and learner is primarily on the "thought" end of the mode spectrum the advisor is referred to as a "mentor" and the relationship is one of mentoring. For example, a president of a firm typically confronts issues that span organizational segments and are of a general policy nature. What is needed to make effective decisions is knowledge of interrelations and cross-impacts. This is the realm of the mentor— someone who can help examine what might be done in a particular instance.

At the "action" end of the mode spectrum, the knowledge of what to do is not at question. Rather, the focus is on how it might be done. Here the advisor is providing knowledge on the actions needed to resolve the issue at hand. This can be accomplished by demonstration or explanation and the advisor is typically referred to as a "coach" or "trainer." For example, a basketball coach may outline a play on a blackboard and describe what each team member must do for the play to be successful. Or, a golf instructor might demonstrate the proper way of driving a ball off of a tee. In both cases, the knowledge being transmitted is how a certain task might be accomplished.

In coaching and training the focus of information provided is on the "action" end of the mode spectrum in contrast to the mentor's focus on the "thought" end. Thus while both positions are advisory in nature, they are distinct and draw on very different skill sets. When applied to children both positions can be occupied by the same people, typically the parents. In adults the knowledge base of the recipient is typically high and the coach/mentor functions divide to take advantage of the higher levels of knowledge available through specialization.

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Program Design: Coaching or Mentoring? 

There is no lack of ideas on how to setup and run coaching and mentoring programs. Any search engine on the Internet will produce thousands of citations whose typical posture is one of operational prescription— first do this, then do that. To one degree or another, most of these prescriptions are likely to work. This paper is concerned with the underlying foundation on which all of these programs rest. If that foundation is flawed, the resulting program, no matter how well constructed, will be imperfect.

Typically, the "off the shelf" prescriptions of those offering help in creating coaching/mentoring programs do not distinguish between the two basic forms of knowledge being transmitted— action and thought. They usually offer various undefined mixtures of coaching and mentoring within their "one-size-fits-all" schemes. To the degree that the client's needs fit the predetermined model, the solution "works." However, a much greater success rate could be realized by designing programs that distinguish between these fundamentally different approaches to advisory service.

If the goal is performance (action-oriented response) either on a playing field or at a podium, coaching is the appropriate strategy. What is desired are action-oriented "how to do" and "when to do it" sequences. With coaching, understanding the dimensions of all of the options available is secondary; performance is primary. The goal of this type of program is "how" something might be accomplished.

On the other hand, if the goal is to arrive at better decisions or accurately evaluate complex issues, a "mentor" is the more appropriate choice. Here there is no "right" answer or an absolute standard against which to assess "best." Success depends on understanding and accurate evaluation. The goal of this type of program is focused on "what" course of action is to be chosen. Once this is done, "how" that particular course might be executed becomes the dominant concern and the value of mentoring diminishes. The implications of the differences between coaching and mentoring are critical. The skill sets needed to be an effective coach involve "doing" things. It is not necessary that the coach understand exactly why a particular strategy works or why it is the best available. It is sufficient that the coach be able to demonstrate or explain their approach in a way that can be learned by others. In Organization Engineering terms, people with strong action oriented profiles of Reactive Stimulator (RS) and Logical Processor (LP) will tend to do well as coaches.

In contrast, a mentor draws on "thinking" resources. It is not necessary for a good mentor to be able to "do" the things he or she talks about. It is only necessary for them to understand a situation and be able to offer options and evaluations. People with a strong representation on the thought end of the mode spectrum (a Relational Innovator (RI) and Hypothetical Analyzer(HA)) will tend to excel as mentors.

A complete explanation of how these judgements are derived and how the behavioral implications of strategic styles are estimated can be found in Dr. Gary Salton's seminal works on Organizational Engineering (Salton, 1996, 2000).

Implications for Program Design-A Case Study 

"...FAA recovered by reorienting the mentoring program ... "

The Federal Aviation Administration, Southwest Region (SW FAA) established a mentoring program in 1996. After operating for several years, management evaluated the program. The typical response of "I made a new friend" was not the goal of the program and caused management to rethink the method of its approach to the advisory program. After the program had begun, SW FAA adopted Organizational Engineering technology.

The Survey instrument was administered to thousands of employees. Compiling the results revealed that about 80% of the staff were predominantly LP in orientation. This action-oriented posture prefers to work with well-defined goals using known methods within a clear operational framework. Unknown at the time of its creation, the SW FAA's mentoring program had been predestined for failure from its onset. People who were highly skilled at "how" to do something were being asked to advise others on "what" might be done. For them, the "what" was not an issue. They knew "what" to do. They had accepted that and focused their energy on learning "how" to best accomplish the accepted objective. The skills they had developed were not well aligned to the program that the SW FAA had launched.

The SW FAA recovered by reorienting the mentoring program to a coaching format— an action oriented program designed to exploit the high level of "how to" knowledge available in the agency. The new program included specific short-term goals, timetables and measures of success. A process of understanding, discussion, practice and demonstration governs the coaching practice itself. This program has proven ideal for the strong LP's and is paying high dividends to the agency.

The SW FAA's mentoring program continues to exist but as a separate entity used to address career development and other issues where goals cannot be specified in operational detail. For example, the goal of "getting into management" requires greater specification of exactly what is being targeted before operational plans can be put in place. The mentor encourages and dialogs helping the person define, assess, evaluate and articulate issues that are real but indefinite. Like the coaching program, the mentoring program is also meeting with success. The right process is combined with the right people and the outcome benefits all involved. 

It is notable that SW FAA is keeping the programs separate. The coaching program is more resource intensive but produces tangible near term gains that more than offset its cost. The mentoring program is less expensive but the gains it produces are not as tangible.  Keeping coaching and mentoring distinct allows the SW FAA to manage both programs in a way that is sensitive to the fundamental differences between them.

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Table II is a checklist for helping determine whether you should be designing a coaching or mentoring program. If you checked answers in both the "Yes" and "No" columns, you may need two distinct programs. Their orientations, program protocols, standards of success and support requirements can be very different. Keeping them distinct can allow management to "fine tune" both programs using the tools and resources appropriate to each. This helps insure that the program will not join the ranks of management "fads" that periodically descend upon organizations only to evaporate without a trace and leaving behind nothing of enduring value. Rather, the program can be cultivated and grown to a full maturity that will yield fruit for generations yet to come. Getting it right matters.

Program Design: Intermediate Cases 

The strategic profiles identified above combine two strategic styles that share either thought or action based modes. The two profiles identified above (RS/LP and RI/HA) offer the clearest way of delineating between coaching and mentoring programs. There are two other strategic profiles, however, that combine elements of both thought and action. For example, both the HA/LP and RI/RS strategic profiles combine the thought based strategies (HA and RI) with the action oriented strategies (RS and LP).

These two intermediate profiles are displayed in Graphic IV. The existence of these "mixed mode" strategic options does not nullify the observations made above. Organizational Engineering has shown that most people favor only one of the strategic styles that make up one or the other end of these simplified profiles. In other words, people will typically favor either the thought or action based strategic style as a principal means of navigating life even though they have some access to other styles that favor other points on the mode spectrum.

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In fact, Organizational Engineering teaches that all fully functioning human beings have access to all four of the basic strategic styles, they must have such access in order to conduct life. This fact explains why the present and somewhat muddled advisory programs work as well as they do. The ordinary human has access to both the thought and action elements of the mode spectrum. However, the fact that the individual will favor one or another basic "mode" approach means that the program designer will have a foundation upon which a known level of excellence can be structurally “built into” the fabric of the program. 

In the real world, the designer of the coaching or mentoring programs will always be faced with the issue of designing programs that combine elements of both coaching and mentoring. The existence of the "mixed mode" strategic patterns provides a "built in" method of addressing these situations. For example, if a program designer has a need to transmit complex and detailed knowledge involving both why a particular choice was made and how that choice can be executed (e.g., a computer network operator) the combination of the thought based HA and action based LP would probably be ideal.

Program Design: The Role of Hierarchy 

From a program standpoint, knowledge is the key and not the position of the person having the knowledge. For example, corporate officers regularly confront difficult policy issues. Most executives in this position use their staffs as a "sounding board" to examine their options or to help insure that a performance that they must give (e.g., a board presentation) will meet their objectives. These staffs are not formally designated "coaches" or "mentors" but serve that purpose. The designers of advisory programs would do well not to arbitrarily confine themselves by requiring that the coach or mentor be in a peer or superior position. The transmission of the right kind of knowledge is the goal, not the social pairing of people of like status.

However, hierarchy can be a legitimate consideration when dealing with large-scale efforts. For example, SW FAA leaned that it is unwise to make an immediate superior the mentor or coach of a subordinate who reports to that individual. The hierarchical structure of the agency requires evaluations and these can be tainted if the superior believes him or herself to be judging behavioral patterns for which they are responsible. Similarly, it is unwise to enlist friends since a multitude of personal issues can intervene to contaminate the advice given.

The exposures and opportunities inherent in hierarchical relationships are perhaps best left to the judgment of the professionals designing the program. This will, in turn, be influenced by the firm in which the program is being applied. In a strongly hierarchical firm, it is probably unwise to attempt to pair subordinates and superiors in a formal, large scale program. In smaller scale, more targeted efforts this strategy may be a viable option. In still other cases, the designer may be left no option except to pair people who are joined in other relationships. In all cases, however, the program designer should be aware of the organizational implications imbedded in working and social relationships that may influence the success of the program being designed. As a general rule, the program designer might ask:

"Can my advisor/client pairing strategy influence working relationships outside of the boundaries of my program?"

If the answer to the question is "yes," the program designer would be well advised to consider the nature of that influence and whether the proposed program will contribute more value to the firm than any detriments that might be generated by its execution. Of course, if the answer to the question is "yes" and if the expected influence is positive the designer has probably hit upon a near optimal situation.

Program Execution: Selecting the Advisor 

The first key to advisory program success is designing a program that is suited to the type of knowledge transfer desired. Another key to the success for either coaching or mentoring programs lies in the selection of the right advisor(s) to service that program. Whether coach or mentor, the ability to convey knowledge can vary depending on the advisor's "perceptions, experience and knowledge" (Menda, 1999). In other words, an advisor must have the requisite knowledge, must have experience in deploying that knowledge in the targeted context (either coaching or mentoring) and should be sufficiently perceptive to know if the transfer of knowledge has or has not been successful.

Knowledge, the first condition for a successful advisor, is usually easily satisfied in an advisory program since people having the desired knowledge usually display it in the ordinary conduct of business. It is only necessary to systematically identify those who are exhibiting the desired acumen. An individual's education, grade ranking, performance ratings or similar measures of ability can be used to cull an employee base for those who possess the knowledge which is to be diffused within the organization by the program. In small-scale endeavors the second condition, experience in deploying that knowledge in the context desired might also be satisfied by observation. Discussions with colleagues can usually determine whether the person is good at showing how something should be done (coach) or is helpful in examining why a particular course may be either advantageous or detrimental (mentor).

This type of selection by observation may, however, be impossible in large-scale implementations. This is a matter of paramount importance since Organizational Engineering has shown that two equally knowledgeable people can have markedly different success depending on their "fit" with the type of program being implemented— coaching or mentoring. For example, a person who is deeply committed to structured approaches executed with precision (say a brain surgeon) can be expected to provide different counsel than a person who is committed to novel, unpatterned approaches aggressively executed (say an entrepreneur or a commodity trader). This would be true even if the counsel being provided was based on knowledge common to both people (e.g., instruction on how to play bridge).

In the case of the SW FAA, for example, the population from which advisors were drawn was 80% of a "brain surgeon" orientation. They knew what, why and how and, within their domain, they were without equal. However, if someone was seeking advice on relieving bottlenecks at hub airports the "brain surgeons" might not be the best election. Here the entrepreneurial orientation, might be a better choice. People holding high levels of this posture are typically able to generate a plethora of new options. Their action orientation would probably lead them to devise quick methods where the ideas could be safely tested. In other words, they are well positioned to offer conceptual level options to those who are charged with making a decision.

In large-scale deployments, Organizational Engineering methodologies can be used to help select among all of the people who have the requisite knowledge. Using an Individual Analysis as the evaluation media can serve as a reliable surrogate for observational evaluations. This is because a strong RS or LP orientation describes a person who uses action as a means of navigating life. Similarly, an RI or HA orientation depicts a person who is using thought based strategies. In both cases, the strategic style indicates that the person has experience in using the "mode" imbedded in that style. The designer of the program need only select the appropriate mix demanded by the program structure — thought for mentoring and action for coaching.

The final condition, the ability to perceive that a knowledge transfer has occurred, can be addressed by training. Most formal mentoring or coaching programs will involve an orientation or training program where the goals, responsibilities, procedures and support mechanisms are outlined. This session provides an ideal opportunity to introduce basic teaching skills that can serve to guide the advisor in assessing the success of his or her efforts. A combination of defined objectives and a brief session devoted to how to assess whether the goals have been reached should be sufficient to satisfy this requirement of knowledge transfer.

Program Execution: Matching the People 

Organizational Engineering makes it clear that even in a well-designed program, selecting the coach or mentor is only half of the equation. The other half is the match of that advisor to the specific person receiving the advice. Highly qualified advisors whose strategic style ideally matches the program goal may not be able to convey information to a particular target person. This situation can arise because of a gap between the strategic profile of the advisor and that of the recipient.

For example, many newer people joining the Southwest Region of the FAA tend to subscribe to a "Changer" pattern. This strategy resembles the "entrepreneur" posture described earlier and can be characterized by an attitude of "Great idea! Let's give it a try!" If these new entrants were blindly aligned with the large Conservator or "brain surgeon" component of the SW FAA population, a difficult situation would almost certainly emerge. The Conservator posture of the larger population can be characterized by an attitude of "Let's make sure we understand what we are doing and then let's do it RIGHT!" The thought of moving directly from an idea to action (the favored posture of the newer "Changer" group) would be an anathema to the Conservators and this discomfort is likely to be reflected in the quality of program execution.

The basis for the expected difficulty does not lie exclusively in the "mode" choice of both parties. Both groups have thought and action components. The Conservator or "brain surgeon" posture is a mixed mode combination of the thought (HA) with action (LP) strategic styles. The Changer or "entrepreneur" posture also combines a thought (RI) and the action (RS) based strategy. The foundation for the expected problems lie in the "method" based component of the Organizational Engineering paradigm. Method is the means by which information is acquired and organized and is explained in detail in Dr. Salton's books (Salton, 1996, 2000). The newer "Changer" group favors unpatterned strategies while the larger "Conservator" group favors structured methods. This difference translates into distinct strategic profiles.

The two contrasting strategic patterns, Changer and Conservator, are depicted in Graphic V. Notice that the low level of overlap between the two profiles. If one profile belonged to the advisor and the other the client, the recipe would be one of persistent difficulty for both people. The reason is not the intentions or abilities of the participants. It lies in the fact that assumptions and strategies of the two people diverge. They are not talking the same "language."

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In the example of the SW FAA, a mentor subscribing to the Conservator pattern is likely to begin approaching an issue with a thorough analysis. However, the client has already begun generating ideas. The advisor recommends study and assessment— an analytical strategy. The client is ready to implement— an experimental strategy. From the perspective of the advisor, the client appears impulsive, sloppy, irresponsible and perhaps a bit lacking in "gray matter." From the perspective of the client, the advisor may appear slow, overly cautious, mired in unnecessary detail and perhaps a bit of a "stick in the mud." This is not a prescription for a harmonious or effective relationship.

Obviously, there is no right or wrong in the above illustration. The "right" way depends upon the issue addressed. If the subject carries heavy downside risk (e.g., somebody dies if things go wrong) the advisor's careful strategy might be appropriate— the investment in thought, study and assessment is probably worth the cost. However, if the downside risk is low and the potential gain high, the client's strategy might be "right"— little is lost from failure and gains will more quickly accrue with speedy implementation.

The problem is that most of us assume our way is a right way and we automatically apply it without considering the specific issue of common concern. Organizational Engineering calls attention to these discrepancies in perspective and fosters intelligent choice.

"OLD RULE: Mentors and protégés should have a lot in common.  NEW RULE: The best matches are mismatches."

Contrast this "engineering" orientation to platitudes currently in favor. For example, a recent article implies that human nature has changed and that new rules are required to accommodate this shift in the human condition (Dahle, 1998): Organizational Engineering teaches that both of the proposed rules are right AND wrong. The old rule (a lot in common) usually means that the information transfer will be low in cost and efficient in execution. This is probably the best and most cost effective approach in stable, well-understood situations where the method being used is well suited to issue resolution. The "new rule" (best matches are mismatches) might be best in unstable situations in which the guidelines for success are poorly understood and the "right" approach is unknown. Without insight provided by Organizational Engineering, both "rules" will lead to failure as often as to success. With Organizational Engineering insights, the relationships can be "tailored" to meet the challenges being faced. Applying these insights means that relationships can be predestined toward success and a level of optimality can be systematically realized.

How To Assess Fit 

The fastest and surest way to examine the potential interaction of two people is to run a formal TwoPerson Analysis™ . This is available from Professional Communications Inc. In both cases a computer program applies Organizational Engineering methodologies and produces an English language assessment of the points of synergy and vulnerabilities imbedded in a potential relationship.

If less precise measurement is acceptable, the profiles of two people can also be "eyeballed" and gross mismatches easily identified. The "I Opt"™ analyses provide the information necessary to construct rough profiles. While this strategy is cheaper, it does require that the individual making the judgements be knowledgeable of and probably be certified in Organizational Engineering. The situation here is analogous to a "do it yourself" project. Some people are sufficiently skilled to produce objects of high quality. In most cases, however, the "do it yourself" project shows obvious signs of the non-professional. Does this mean that "do it yourself" should never be tried? Of course not! If the matter is of minor consequence or of a transitory nature, the "do it yourself" strategy might be optimal. Again, there are no absolutes in Organizational Engineering except the underlying principles. The key is for the person applying the methodology to know the limits of the technology and of their own capabilities. Those limits exist in both cases.

A Counter-Intuitive Result 

A common prescription from both consultants and textbooks is that a "balance" is somehow an optimal strategy. Graphic VI shows a person equally adept in all of Organizational Engineering's strategic styles and patterns.

The SW FAA has made a counter-intuitive discovery— this is probably the worst of all options. In most common situations, it is an almost certain prescription for failure. The reason does not lie in communication. People with this profile can understand and "relate" to almost anyone. It also does not lie in any underlying deficiency in the profile. Successful diplomats and facilitators often have this strategic orientation.

The reason for failure is that the profile does not provide consistent guidance. People with this profile see issues in all of their dimensions. At first blush this sounds good since they try to choose the "right" resolution strategy for each unique situation— sometimes analysis, sometimes disciplined action, other times new ideas and still other times an expedient response. This may be an effective personal strategy but it is a poor teaching strategy— for either building thought or for action based skills.

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The reason for the difficulty is that the person being advised must try to figure out which solution is applicable to which situation. It could be akin to a teacher randomly bounding between instruction in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. The student may learn but it is likely to be a frustrating and inefficient experience. The efficient transfer of knowledge favors a consistency of approach.

Another aspect of a "balanced" style that may make them somewhat unattractive as advisors is that they are usually not the "best" at any particular thing. Since they do not practice a single approach consistently there tends to be no systematic skill accumulation.  Others are probably better analysts; more prolific idea generators, more effective problem solvers or better able to deliver consistent results of higher quality. If the goal is to pass on the highest level of knowledge associated with a particular approach, using an advisor with a balanced style is probably not the best way to achieve it.

Does this mean that people with balanced styles are somehow inferior? Of course not! People maintaining a "balanced" strategic profile could be ideal as a counselor for a diplomat. Here the goal is to convey knowledge on the transmission of information across chasms that are born of cultural, personality or strategic differences for purposes of reaching agreements and reconciling difficulties. The balanced style's flexible approach is an optimal fit with this process. Learning to be a better diplomat involves learning how to make those shifts and so the balanced style's tendency to take different approaches becomes an advantage rather than a detriment. The capacity to shift approaches is exactly what the person working in a diplomatic arena needs to learn and refine.

A balanced profile is, however, not an ideal posture for most situations where advisory programs are typically applied. This does not mean that Organizational Engineering principles are themselves the ultimate answer to everything. There are strong RI's who are illiterate, intense LP's who are a bit "butter-fingered", powerful HA's who know little on particular subjects and potent RS's who have not mastered the art of limiting risk.

Strategic styles (a basis of Organizational Engineering) speaks only to method and mode and not to content. The content component is left to professional judgment and to other technologies more suited to its measurement.


Table III outlines some of the major exposures identified in this article. The tools of Organizational Engineering are available to address all of the threats the table identifies. These hazards are foundational. If the programs being developed are not properly constructed, anything built on them is likely to be flawed.

Other issues can arise from the programs constructed on these foundations. For example, some people have argued that coaching and mentoring can be used as a strategic tool at an organizational level (Davis, 1997). This typically involves aligning the objectives of the program with the central objectives of the enterprise. There can be little doubt but that this will prove to be an advantage.

However, the transmission of knowledge is a fundamental need to be addressed by any advisory program. Knowledge on how to sort the mail at Microsoft can be every bit as important as knowledge on their much-vaunted "WWW strategy," at least in certain circumstances. For example, losing a Request for Quotation for a $100 million dollar software deal from an Asian country could mean that a substantial opportunity has been lost forever. The point is that there is no need to confine these fundamental approaches of learning to subjects of policy level interest. They apply equally at an operational level— a level that is also vital to organizational success.

Organizational Engineering is unique and that it applies to all levels, from the boardroom to the factory floor. Personally satisfying and professionally enlightening coaching and mentoring programs of all types can be built upon an OE foundation. Using it, an organization can enjoy the benefits of a more knowledgeable and productive staff that can translate into a permanent competitive advantage.


Mae Frances Leach, Ph.D. is Manager of Organizational Development and Special Projects for the Human Resource Management Division, Federal Aviation Administration, Fort Worth, Texas. Dr. Leach can be contacted via email at or at her FAA office at Not recognizing the difference between coaching and mentoring. Installing a person with the wrong skill set or divergent communication preferences in the advisory role.


Cunningham, Ian and Honold, Linda, Everyone Can Be a Coach, HR Magazine; 06-01- 1998

Dahle, Cheryl, Women's Ways of Mentoring. , Fast Company, 09-01-1998, pp 186.

Davis, Eileen. Mentoring Assumes a Strategic Role, Executive Forum ; 11-01-1997

Menda, Kathleen. Managerial Mentor Redux, HR Magazine; 02-01-1999

Salton, Gary J. Organizational Engineering: A new method of creating high performance human structures. Ann Arbor, Professional Communications, Inc. 1996.

Salton, Gary J. Managers Guide to Organizational Engineering. Amherst: HRD Press, Inc. 2000.  Mentoring-A Guide to Corporate Programs and Practices [Part 2 of 7), Catalyst, 01-01- 1993, pp. 10-22. 

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