There’s growing interest in the topic of e-coaching. I’ve spent the past few years conducting research and building a software package in this area, so I thought I’d share my observations and experiences.
I was working as a Product Manager in a software company when I decided to formally study the psychology of personal development. I enrolled in a part-time doctoral-level program, and I took an interest in Positive Psychology, and more specifically, the movement toward Evidence-Based Coaching.
During that time, I kept returning to a few key observations:
- We know a great deal about the psychology of optimal human functioning, but judging from how our organizations operate, you’d never know it.
- Technology has revolutionized almost every aspect of our lives – the way we work, travel, shop, communicate, etc. – but there are painfully few examples of how this ubiquitous technology has helped increase the effectiveness and availability of coaching.
- Coaching has a sort of distribution problem where a relatively small number of expert coaches (say 10,000 or so) pales in comparison to the number of people who need their expertise (say 100,000,000 or so). As a result, coaching isn’t getting to those who need it most, and in organizations, its high price tag often keeps it relegated to the most senior roles.
I decided that my dissertation would contribute to the field by determining whether an Evidence-Based Coaching program could be effective when delivered exclusively online. In my study, a professional coach led asynchronous individual and group online discussions along a series of structured coaching exercises.
The results were encouraging. Study participants who received online coaching were found to have a significantly higher level of success than a control group who did not receive the coaching. The experimental group scored higher in terms of goal attainment, subjective well-being, and level of hopefulness – each highly desirable coaching outcomes.
Unfortunately, the off-the-shelf software package I used for the program was incredibly limited. It became apparent that e-coaching needed a purpose-built software platform to achieve the objectives of being efficient, effective, consistent, scalable, and affordable. After completing my PhD, I set out to create such an e-coaching software platform.
Covocative was born.
When I thought about the specific design objectives for the Covocative e-coaching software, I decided that I wanted it to:
- Make expert coaches more scalable
- Help managers become better on-the-job coaches to their direct reports
- Get coaching to places where it’s needed but not making it today
- Support multiple coaching formats including self-coaching, peer coaching, coaching by the manager, and expert coaching delivered by professional coaches
Let’s take a look at some of the major elements of the Covocative e-coaching software.
Focus Areas are major themed areas of skills or capabilities related to a given coaching program. They provide structure to the supporting content of the coaching package and directions for future development and growth. When coaching is used as training reinforcement, learning units or topics often make for natural Focus Areas.
In a traditional coaching interaction, the coach provides the structure and manages coaching conversations and topics in real-time. In a technology-supported system – particularly one that relies on asynchronous communication – an explicit structure is much more important. This is similar to an educational setting where an expert lecturer may not need more than a few notes to facilitate a lively session in a classroom, but a structured curriculum is essential to an e-learning system that seeks to present the same subject matter.
Assessments help establish a baseline for current proficiency and provide important context for subsequent coaching conversations. In the Covocative software, these assessments are directly related to the Focus Areas for a given role. As a part of the onboarding process, each new user provides a self-rating for each Focus Area on a scale of 1-10 using a series of “sliders” in the software. This is analogous to the popular “Wheel of Life” used by many coaches. Coaches often observe that this simple but powerful tool can help individuals think about areas they might want to improve and what actions they might take to make that positive change.
After the coachee completes the self-assessment, the coach or manager can ask probing questions about the self-report, such as “What made you score this area a five instead of a four?” or “What would it take for this rating to become a six?” This information is also used by the coachee to select the Focus Areas they’d like to work on improving alongside his or her coach and/or manager. At any time, coaches and managers can view each coachee’s scores through the Assessments tab of the coachee’s profile.
Goal planning and follow-through are critical to the success of any coaching process. The psychology of goal attainment is incredibly robust with contributions from Dweck, Latham, Locke, Halvorson, and Sheldon to name a few. Even so, very few workers are regularly and properly setting behavioral goals and following through to their successful achievement.
To make matters worse, many individuals find it difficult to set appropriate and relevant goals without first being given a template to guide their planning and execution. Using the Covocative software, a coach or subject matter expert can design a simple set of “starter goals” that align with each Focus Area. These are behavior-based goals, and they help individuals focus on setting and pursuing goals as a healthy habit. The software is “intelligent” in the sense that it recommends starter goals based on the area of focus chosen by the coachee. The software also supports self-defined goals as a coachee gets more comfortable with the practice of setting goals and tracking progress.
Exercises reinforce the critical thinking and behavioral follow-through required for successful development. Coaching exercises typically present a scenario, a small number of tips, techniques, or thought-provoking questions in a given developmental area. To complete an exercise, the coachee is asked to develop a response to the question (thinking) or take some specific action (doing) noting the results as a response to the exercise. The coachee submits the exercise response, and the coach or manager can provide feedback virtually or they can review the response live as part of a larger coaching session.
Covocative exercises have been centered on specific behaviors that encourage the coach and or manager to follow up with the coachee after he or she has completed the specific action. In this way, coaching exercises are a fantastic way to reinforce training concepts and to support organizational change. The exercises can include embedded multimedia content such as video, audio, or graphics. Another great use of an exercise is to include coaching-style exploration around job aids or other content and materials.
One of the most surprising findings in my research was the nature of social support that took place in the online group coaching platform. Participants suggested that they benefitted both from the shared experience of pursuing personal development alongside others as well as a type of “helper therapy” where offering suggestions and support to others bolstered their wellbeing and performance.
Collaboration and social support are fostered through the Covocative software using coaching discussions. Discussions are most often open-ended questions that are posed to a larger group of participants for open exploration and discussion. The questions are intended to allow group members to contribute to the collective peer coaching process. In this way, the coaching has several benefits: it creates a positive culture of mutual support, it offers opportunities for peer learning and feedback, and it allows managers and supervisors to tap into the collective wisdom and input from the broader group.
Online Community Handbook
There is a great deal of work being done in the area of “gamification” and creating incentives for online participation and follow-through. In the Covocative software, coachees receive a point every time they complete a coaching activity using the system. Setting a goal, updating goal progress, completing a coaching exercise, and “liking” another user’s discussion response are each coaching activities that add to the coachee’s total score.
The leaderboard creates an atmosphere of friendly competition in the spirit of professional development and mutual support. It also allows a coachee to see the goals and activities their peers are pursuing. Some coachees may find that this type of measurement and recognition is motivating, while others will be either self-motivated or more motivated by the opportunities for social connection and support.
The Covocative software allows coaches, managers, and coachees to log and share notes related to the coaching conversations, pre-session prep work, homework assignments, and more. This simple note-taking system provides a consistent cadence to the coaching conversations within an organization and is a major improvement over current practices in most organizations. Notes can be shared or marked as private depending on their subject matter. An expert coach can also use this visibility and system to provide coaching recommendations for managers in their work with direct reports.
Using the Notes module, the coach or manager has a central system of record for the ongoing development of the coachee. Often, an annual performance review strikes panic in a manager who can’t recall conversations beyond a month ago. The Notes allow the manager to review conversation topics, achieved goals, changes in assessment scores, completed exercises, and more.
The Future of Software and of E-Coaching
Over time, I expect to see innovative examples of how software can enhance and extend the availability and delivery of coaching inside organizations and beyond. I have every confidence that as the methods of human communication continues to evolve, so too will coaching because at its heart, coaching is about a purposeful conversation.
If I were to create a “wish list” of research to support e-coaching, I’d include studies that address questions such as:
- How does the effectiveness of e-coaching compare to that of face-to-face and telephone-based interventions?
- What are the observed differences in attitudes and perceptions of e-coaching across generations and roles in the workforce?
- To what extent to coaching diads comprised (say of new/experienced employees or high proficiency/low proficiency employees) impact long-term performance and retention?
- What are the subjective experiences of coachees participating in an exclusively e-coaching format?
When considering the future of e-coaching, I often ask myself one of the most powerful questions in a coach’s toolkit: “What’s possible?” Considering what behavioral scientists have discovered about human performance and what computer scientists have already accomplished in so many non-coaching domains, I can’t help but feel that we have some catching up to do.
In an effort to help us collectively answer these and other important e-coaching questions, I’m happy to donate my software, expertise, insight, and support to any researcher or practitioner who’s interested in conducting a quality coaching study or implementation in an organizational context.