Put Technology in, Coach

Coaching in business has made great strides. The development of certifications, credentials, empirical research and professional organizations has each helped build the credibility of the practice.

Still, professional coaching overall is missing some important components. The process for selecting and matching coaches with clients needs to be streamlined, the management side of coaching could be better served through integration in HR technology, and measurement and evaluation of coaching needs to be enhanced to better demonstrate its value. Incremental progress can be made on each one of these challenges by using technology better in coaching.

According to a 2010 study from the book “Virtual Coach, Virtual Mentor,” more than half of professional coaches in the United States regularly use telephone coaching as part of their practice. And as 2011 research featured in Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research shows, distance coaching and mentoring are just as effective as face-to-face.

Technology-enabled coaching can also enable a better match because studies have shown it increases access to a large pool of potential coaches by eliminating geographic constraints. Technology-enabled coaching is convenient, flexible, time and cost effective.

Here are five aspects of coaching that can be enhanced through effective use of technology.

Coach Selection

Coach matching is part science, part art. Research has shown that the quality of the relationship between the coach and coachee is one of the biggest factors in the effectiveness of a coaching engagement. To get that great relationship, there needs to be a good match.

Many companies use variables such as geographic location, the coach’s knowledge of the client’s industry and the extent of the coach’s experience to match coaches and clients. With the right technology, coaches and client organizations can use a more systematic approach to matching similar to an online dating website.

The right interface can also help organizations collect data on what variables are most essential in a successful coach match. A great matching platform could pull in assessment data or other variables to allow users to track what variables are most useful in matching coaches and clients.          

Business Management

Managing coaching engagements can require great attention to detail and spreadsheet skills. Coaching engagements include a number of different activities like contracting, coach matching, scheduling, goal planning, surveying for satisfaction, impact and billing.

Although spreadsheets are useful for many tasks, they are inadequate to manage the variety of activities and moving parts associated with coaching.

Jeremy Stover, head of coaching at LinkedIn Corp., said that as organizations scale the use of coaching, it becomes necessary to have an integrated management platform to enhance its efficiency.

This is done to provide standardized tools that coaches and coachees can use to make the engagement more successful and to get as close as possible to an accurate return on investment measurement.

Ideally, coaching management technologies provides an opportunity to enhance transparency and accountability, while protecting confidentiality and privacy.

These platforms can help organizations centralize coaching practices and help in achieving the objective of making coaching a one-on-one initiative that produces measurable organizational success.

Supplement Face-to-Face

Coaches can supplement traditional practice with technology in many ways. Most coaches rely heavily on email and texting to correspond with clients, and many coaches embrace online tools that simplify the administration of their practice, such as online scheduling tools.

In addition to these administrative applications, many coaches also incorporate online media, such as providing online articles or links to videos or TED Talks as additional resources to help clients learn outside of regular coaching sessions.

Other options exist for more in-depth and engaging technology uses between coaching sessions. Technology company CEB, for instance, recently launched its online “DevelopmentCoach,” which enables on-the-job experiential learning (Editor’s note: One of the authors works at CEB).

DevelopmentCoach provides clear guidance on how to develop and practice skills on the job. Coaches can assign “homework” to their clients using DevelopmentCoach so clients get additional guidance and support in developing skills in between coaching sessions.

Additionally, services like The Institute of Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California’s “SimCoach” offers participants access to a virtual “human” that can conduct assessments and lead participants through exercises.

Coaches can incorporate virtual services like DevelopmentCoach and SimCoach into a traditional coaching engagement to ensure that growth and development are maximized between coaching sessions.

Replace Face-to-Face 

Options also exist for technology to replace face-to-face coaching. This can alleviate limitations stemming from geography, cost and availability by using virtual collaboration tools.

In addition to the phone, coaches can use tools like Skype, FaceTime and other video applications to conduct virtual coaching sessions that still allow for a degree of face-to-face interaction.

What to Ask

Technology makes evaluation easy to set up, administer and analyze. What technology does not do, however, is determine the right questions to ask. Coaches, clients and client organizations need to ensure they are asking the right questions to get the kind of data that they need.

Here are things to consider when strategizing how technology might support your coaching initiatives:

  • How will you ensure virtual coaching relationships are as effective as face-to-face?
  • How will you ensure coaches and coachees are proficient with the selected technology?
  • What level of technology is your organization able to support? Skype, videoconferencing or telephone?
  • What risks does our selected technology pose for confidentiality and data security?

—Jane Brodie Gregory, Alex Pascal and Maggie Sass

Using technology in this way increases a coach’s geographic reach — if a coach lives in New York, for example, he or she can coach clients in San Francisco without taking on travel costs — and increases the network of coaches available to potential clients.

“It’s crucial that we leverage a coaching model that is both cost-effective and that delivers sustainable results,” said Josh Rogers, executive coaching practice leader at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. “Blending in-person and virtual coaching sessions allows us to use the best coaches available, regardless of geography, while maintaining a low-cost model.”

Of course, the big issue is that virtual coaching under these conditions remains effective. A 2001 study by Li-Bin Wang and Tim Wentling at World Bank of Asia found that coaching used in conjunction with a training program led to significantly higher transfer of training.

A similar 2009 study by Caroline Cornelius, Gabriela Schumann and Margarete Boos of the University of Göttingen in Germany found that when given access to a virtual coach, participants had better work-life balance and were more effective at managing their priorities even three months after theconclusion of the program.

Evaluation

Evaluation is a critical component of coaching. “Organizations want to know that the time and money they invest in coaching will pay off,” said Marly Franke, an executive coach based in San Diego. “As coaches, we need to get feedback and data on our effectiveness in helping our clients achieve their goals and experience meaningful behavior change.”

Clients, too, need a way to collect feedback to gauge their progress and influence on others. Fortunately, technology and evaluation make great bedfellows. Online survey tools such as SurveyMonkey and Qualtrics offer accessible methods for collecting data and feedback.

Moreover, the leadership development and research firm Center for Creative Leadership has developed a “Coaching Evaluation Assessment” designed to help organizations and individuals determine the impact of coaching engagements (Editor’s note: Two of the authors work at CCL).

The online tool allows coaches and clients to assess change resulting from the coaching engagement, such as progress toward goals, behavior change and the effect of that behavior change on others.

Historically, coaching evaluation has focused disproportionately on the coaching process and satisfaction rather than impact or actual behavior changes of the client.

Typical coaching evaluations are self-report scales that ask about coach competence, enjoyment and overall usefulness of the coaching engagement, with items such as “Rate your level of satisfaction of the coaching engagement” and “Indicate how likely you would be to recommend your coach to another employee in your organization.”

Measuring behavior change — and measuring what matters, not just what can be measured — is difficult, which is probably why most coaching evaluation has focused on process and satisfaction rather than impact. Once coaches and clients determine the right questions to ask, technology can help them gather data and feedback from the right people to assess coaching.

Effective use of technology in a coaching practice offers new opportunities for more streamlined management, access to more coaches, cost savings, ongoing learning and development, and increased rigor and continuous improvement through evaluation. But there are trade-offs and considerations for using technology in coaching.

When considering virtual coaching, coaches and clients need to consider whether effectiveness is being compromised for the sake of efficiency. The convenience and cost effectiveness of virtual coaching offer great benefits, but without the appropriate level of client commitment and engagement in the session, the coaching engagement will not be set up for success.

Both coach and client need to be familiar and comfortable with their chosen technology platform and be committed to full engagement during the session. Just because you aren’t in the same room doesn’t mean you should multitask or be otherwise distracted from the conversation.

Another important consideration is security and legality. Coaching conversations often focus on sensitive personal and business topics. When using technology both coach and client has a responsibility to ensure that data are secure, protected and confidential.

 When used appropriately, technology offers many advantages for enhancing coaching practices, particularly coach selection, business management for the coaching engagement, supplementing face-to-face coaching, replacing face-to-face coaching and coach evaluation.