How to be a coach in the digital era?

We live in interesting times. Digitalization is not just a trend, it is reality. We are actually already on the verge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution which, as described by Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum, builds on the Third, digital revolution, yet merges the physical, digital and biological worlds. It is VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) at its best, bringing about transformation in the way we work, live and communicate.

So what does this mean for a coach? To me it is mainly two things. Firstly, the topics our clients come with reflect the context they live in. On the one hand they experience the prevalence of technology, information overload, overstimulation and fast pace of living. At the same time there is a growing sense of loneliness, need for human interaction and longing for simplicity. It is interesting to observe how this reflects the areas and topics our clients wish to explore.
Another issue is that the very form of coaching is consequently changing. Where do you consider yourself on the change curve with relation to this? I believe that since we as coaches do not live in an isolated world from our clients, we should be open to and experience the same disruptions, adapt, explore and take advantage of what we believe to be useful.
Having said that, what are some ways in which we see changes in the way coaching is done?

Virtual coaching
It seems that remote meetings using new technology have become as common as bread. Reluctant at first due to limitations in using space or seeing the whole client, we came to appreciate the obvious advantages of virtual coaching: saving time and no location-driven boundaries. Example – in a recent global initiative PwC was able to offer pro-bono coaching to NGO leaders without any constraints, with coaches and coachees pairing up with each other worldwide through such means as Skype or WebEx. The only technical thing we needed to be mindful of is the different time zones.

Digital coaching
I find this term quite ambiguous. Looking at the general tendency, it is being used in relation not only to coaching per se, but a developmental platform blending coaching with training, mentoring and other content. Coaching can be done in the form of text messages or virtual meetings, with additional support such as bite-sized training, peer interaction, self-assessment or self-coaching tools. The advantage of such a solution is its diversity and additional aid in-between coaching interventions. It serves also as a database and toolkit. At the same time for transparency and ethical reasons we need to make sure to contract with the client that what is being offered here is not pure coaching. This option is also being said to “democratize coaching,” making it available to a wider public. This is due to the traditional business tendency of restricting coaching to executives who either work with a limited number of internal coaches or external ones, which entails substantial costs. A digital platform may be more affordable and accessible. The question is – does it (or – how can it) provide a genuine, effective and complete coaching process?

Coaching bots/apps
This is where things get even more interesting. We are being offered self-coaching or self-reflection apps (i.e. Wysa), where we interact with a bot. Many of the apps are free of charge and available in one click, on your mobile, in your pocket. However, it needs to be said that this device is highly limited. It might be a fun addition to coaching, helping embed worked-out behaviors, systematize habits and provide quick real-time support, but it should not be treated as a stand-alone solution. Not only it is limited to a chat, it usually just provides pre-defined answers to choose from or looks for key words to provide ready-made replies. At the same time it is fascinating to see where these baby-steps in Artificial Intelligence can take us.

AI in coaching
Advancements in AI are to take the chatbot experience much further. Through massive data input, AI is learning the world, and humans, to be able to provide more personalized, flexible, on-demand learning and coaching experience. But will AI replace coaches, or humans in general? Extremely unlikely. Although “Westworld” has left me in a rather uneasy mood, such vision will remain fiction, at least for the time being. Even Andrew Ng, a global AI leader, reassures that this will not take place for decades at least and that AI should be rather perceived as “automation on steroids,” not as a sentient, human-like form.

I am looking forward to AI solutions as an addition, yet not substitute for a competent human coach, who, according to the ICF Core Competences, should have the “ability to be fully conscious.” A coach’s work includes building rapport, trust and intimacy with the client, using metaphors, stretching and challenging to the extent allowed by the client, using intuition, extracting what is beyond words, deepening the big agenda, “dancing with the client”. The list goes on. How can this be catered for by anything other than a human coach?

In order to have a realistic approach to digitalization in coaching and make better choices, we should consider both its opportunities and limitations. Please treat the below not as a closed list, but as an invitation to further reflections. To name a few advantages:
– Virtual coaching diminishes place and time constraints and makes coaching much more accessible in larger, dispersed companies
– Technology can be used to automate simpler tasks and allow coaches to focus on the essence
– Some digital solutions may be more economic, easily accessible and feasible for the greater public
– Digital coaching platforms may provide additional content supporting coaching
– AI may complement coaching with more personalized solutions
– Technology may be more appealing to some, especially to the younger generations
– Some people may feel more comfortable disclosing sensitive information to a bot, rather than another human being

And what drawbacks and risks should be recognized?

– Making ourselves reliable on technology may be tricky – even petty issues such as lack of good internet connection may ruin a virtual coaching experience
– A chat will not replace conversation – tone of voice, body language, use of silence, etc. are just as important as words
– The term “coaching” may be further misused, indicating other forms of development
– Clients’ accountability may be lost as they become too reliant on technology to remind them about their goals and tasks
– Data protection may be an issue
– It may be difficult to choose legitimate and well-tested solutions in a saturated, unregulated and openly accessible market
– Digital solutions are too limited to serve as stand-alone coaching – clients should be made aware of their supporting function
– AI will not have the skills and competences of a professional coach, essential to provide a genuine and effective coaching experience (and kudos to that!)

I often hear from clients that the coaching session is the only time they have to focus on themselves. It seems that getting out of their routine, switching to a different environment and being able to dedicate an hour or so to their own thoughts and feelings in a face-to-face coaching session makes all the difference. And it is their conscious decision and choice.

At the same time we need to realize that the needs and expectations of our clients may be shifting and digital transformation in coaching is not a matter of “if”, but “how.” What we can and should do is make sure that it is being done in the best service to our clients. Let’s allow ourselves to get disrupted by technology and experiment with it to better understand it and take advantage of it. Let’s approach it with reserved enthusiasm by getting involved and discussing the pros and cons to co-create the future of coaching. It might require a mindset shift to adapt to these changes, but who, if not us, should be open to that?

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