Carol Braddick
Jun 26 · 7 min read

Another surge in the coaching market. But it’s not new coaches. And it’s not robots either.

Digital tools will both complement and challenge coaching

We’ve been here before. The coaching market has been crowded with suppliers of coaching since, roughly, 2000. What’s different this time?

The current wave of new suppliers is full of tech products, solutions and platforms. Here are highlights of what to scan for in this wave — so you don’t get knocked over.

First, a spoiler alert: there’s no robot clickbait in this post. Thanks to the speakers at CogX19 who called out the “robots are coming!” tropes as distracting, irresponsible and unhelpful to public perceptions of AI.

It’s far more likely the future coaches we interact with will be digital agents on our devices capable of text and audio interactions. Maybe we’ll use an object like Alexa. We might interact with device-based digital humanoids such as Ellie, who works with veterans suffering PTSD or Sara, the socially-aware robot who assisted delegates at Davos 2017. Robots, on the other hand, might charge around offices to remind us of a conference room booking or bring us coffee (yes, please!).

The Three Ds: D+D+D= Category Blur?

When you hear talk of the digitisation or digitalization of coaching, start asking questions. I’ve heard both terms cover an absurdly wide range of scenarios — from enterprise coaching management and reporting systems to chatbot coaches. When you hear talk of disruption, notice which markets are being disrupted: Training? Learning and development? Coaching? Leadership development? All of these.

The third d, democratization, is relatively clear when applied to coaching: what thousands of employees didn’t get before, they can have now. But the clarity disappears there as well.

What’s being democratized? Currently, that ranges from a coaching-like experience to working with a human coach. The former show up mostly in digital platforms in the learning and development niche, the latter from players scaling human coaching to thousands of employees using mobile platforms and lower coaching rates. Early stage coaching chatbots — software on our devices capable of relatively linear conversations or Q&A on a narrow range of topics — also fuel democratization.

Expect blurring of the terms many have worked to tease apart: coaching, mentoring, advising, learning, development, and training. You may see a coaching-related product pitched as an employee benefit, a source of advice, tips from experts, a buddy (Hello start-ups: coach in your pocket is already overused). Distinctions valued by coaches and buyers of coaching — such as performance coaching and developmental coaching — are also muddled. You’ll see apples-to-oranges price comparisons, e.g., the low cost per employee of providing customised push notifications of open positions vs. the higher cost of a series of sessions with a human career coach. And look past the clickbait headlines about “online coaching”; “coaching via device”; often when you read the full piece its’ about what has bee BAU for several years: “just” a human coach speaking with a human client via mobile phone.

If you look down from a purist’s pedestal, you’ll underestimate vendors whose coaching products are gaining in sophistication, market share and user acceptance.

The Perils of Being a Purist

I promised to stay clear of robot tropes as a means of goading human market incumbents into dealing with these supply side changes. Nonetheless, be mindful of morphing into NoNo, the status quo-defending penguin from Kotter’s My Iceberg is Melting.

It may be tempting to dismiss new market challengers as CINO (coaching in name only). But if you look down from a purist’s pedestal, you’ll underestimate vendors whose products are gaining in sophistication, market share and user acceptance. And here’s where Clayton Christiansen’s explanation of disruption matters: what was viewed as inferior becomes good enough to go mainstream for a large chunk of the market. For example, digital learning and development platforms with high numbers of subscribers are in an advantageous position to scale an experience that’s moving closer to coaching as coaching chatbots improve. (Here’s a close-up of what it takes to build and improve one).

It’s a Good Time to be a Data Ethicist

The big ethics issues in using AI and employee data on coaching platforms and devices are similar to those in other fields: what data are being collected? Who has access to these data? Can employees opt out, have their data erased or take their data to a new employer? (partial list). There are already multiple codes of ethics (sound familiar, coaches?) to address some of these issues, including an inventory of codes.

It’s time to move on from the earnest handwringing, the furrowed brows. And be honest with ourselves first if the serious ethics issues might also serve as a convenient mask for our own anxiety about the future of our careers as the human incumbents in the market. Collaborations among vendors, buying organizations and coaches can adapt existing codes to address risks in tech-enabled coaching. In the absence of a body authorized to enforce codes, it will be up to the stakeholders in the market to speak up for ethical practice and share knowledge on what works well.

Given the importance of non-directive conversations in coaching, tech-enabled coaching also raises concerns about user agency. It’s easy for a chatbot to ask whether its human user is ready for a coaching session. It’s not so easy for it to process the long-winded response from the human. So, we live with menu-driven conversations and push suggestions from digital tools — for now. As digital coaching tools and chatbots mature from clunky ugly ducklings into more fluid conversational agents, we’ll need designers who appreciate the importance of purposeful friction in coaching conversations. When organizational buyers of coaching tools, vendors or coaches introduce tech, they’ll need to set expectations about the user experience. These aren’t meant to be Amazon Prime order-in-next-3-hours-get-it-tomorrow transactions.

Riding the Wave

As the human market incumbents, coaches need an augmentation strategy — just like the thousands of employees doing work that will be automated need to upskill and demonstrate value in a different competitive environment.

If your strategy is to stick with coaching human-to-human, this is the time to double down on your CPD and Supervision to be an even more effective coach and reshape your value proposition to fit future clients’ needs. If you’re competing with large suppliers and their sophisticated coaching platforms, recognise that it’s far easier for them to provide the reporting on activity and engagement that large buyers expect. Coach-client matching algorithms and testimonials of high matching success rates are becoming a must-have for the large coaching suppliers. Their data also facilitate analyses of outcomes and coach effectiveness. For smaller coaching suppliers operating without a platform, it becomes even more important to improve processes to meet buyers’ needs and make coaching outcomes more visible.

If you have an appetite to integrate some tech into your coaching, start with feedback from clients, input from your Coach Supervisor and your own reflections on where you could have more impact. Where are the value leakages in your coaching processes? How can tech help close that leak? Addressing the time and energy gaps between coaching sessions is a useful starting point. And if you change little about how you coach, some of the tech on the market or People Analytics tools used by buying organizations may help raise the visibility of coaching results.

A third option is a more radical pivot. Consider this scenario: The coach is heavily involved at the early diagnostic and relationship building steps. Based on this, the coach designs a program of exercises and tools for the client — much like a personal trainer would put together cardio, stretching and strengthening plans. Clients use a digital journal for reflections and to update the coach. They also access the digital set of resources curated by the coach — or the partner selected by the coach to provide this service. The coach works with more clients, has less touch time with clients and intervenes based on progress updates.

A coach, case manager, disc jockey all in one. What would the coach charge for this service?

Tech-enabled Coach Training and CPD

You’re probably already talking back to Siri and Alexa. Start thinking about how you respond to feedback from a digital agent “holding up the mirror” on your coaching.

It’s still early days of applying machine learning to coaching sessions. As this becomes more common, coaches will gain insights on patterns in their coaching sessions, i.e., have data that challenges or supports their view of their coaching style. Supervisors can use these data in their work with coaches. And the matching algorithms will need a refresh.

A longer-term leap in tech for coach training and CPD may include conversational cobots, i.e., digital agents that join coaching sessions. Coaching cobots would be designed to observe, listen, give feedback, and intervene. They might, for example, notice if you have a “coach voice”. If this takes off, we may next be working with cobots in the today’s three-way conversations among leaders, their managers and human coaches.

And what of digital twins? If adopted for professions such as teaching or nursing, might coaching be next? Another reason to ramp up your CPD and Supervision. Not to be prepared to compete with robots that aren’t coming, but to set up your digital coaching twin for success in another new phase of the coaching market.

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