Adapt to our digital world… or it’s the end for traditional coaches and mentors

By Andrew Jackson, Tammy Tawadros and David Tinker

The digitalisation of our culture and our psyches provides new challenges for coaches and mentors, who must re-think traditional practices or face a bleak future.

Our always-on society and the digitalisation of most aspects of our lives mean we live in a state known as ‘cyberbeing’. Millennials and centennials certainly feel a need to be constantly accessible and connected.

The rise of e-learning and e-coaching is revealed in the CIPD’s Learning and Development 2015 report, which states that three-quarters of organisations are using learning technologies, rising to 88% in the public sector. The biggest technology game changer so far has been Skype, but this market is moving fast, with virtual worlds, for instance, creating valuable immersive coaching experiences.

Add to this trend the understanding of neuroscience and cyber-psychology and we see why technology is transforming coaching.

The industry must now embrace this disruptive paradigm shift, which puts the client in charge. They can have a coach in their pocket via a smartphone for when they need support and advice. A coach can be only an email or instant message away. Technology also enables the client to describe their needs in different ways, using video for example, to boost storytelling.

The challenge for organisations is how to harness the benefits of technology to engage digital natives entering the workplace.

The coach who fails to ‘go digital’ has a bleak future. Don’t get left behind!


Personal digitalisation

By necessity, desire and peer pressure, we’ve been drawn into a world of digitalisation, which impacts how we think and what we do.

Smartphones are in the pockets of two-thirds (66%) of UK adults, up from 39% in 2012 (Ofcom Communications Market Report, 2015). They’ve changed how we travel, shop, find entertainment and connect with friends.

Personalisation is a reality. Our devices know more about us than our friends and family. They know what we like to read and wear, our fitness routine and who all our social connections are.

In 2015, 62% of people surveyed felt anxious without an internet connection (Tata Communications report: ‘Connected World II’).


Impact on generations

One of the challenges in this digitalised world is how to close the generation gap between coach and client. If the younger generation are your clients, you must adapt traditional methods and keep pace with their emerging behaviours and expectations, which impact how they learn.

For example, attention span may be lower than you expect. In 2000, the average attention span of a young person was 12 seconds and by 2015 this had reduced to 8.25 seconds (Attention Spans, Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada, spring 2015).

Social media is changing the way young brains work. Even in the workplace, millennials are replacing email with other forms of instant communication such as WhatsApp.

The impact of social media on businesses means the integration of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter is essential to any marketing and coaching strategy.

Many readers will have already checked out the LinkedIn profiles of the authors of this article while some will tweet comments.

Traditional coaches must realise the opportunities from adopting instant messaging apps, sharing images and working with virtual worlds.

To work with all ages – as well as enable working across different time zones – today’s coach or mentor must be dextrous, flexible and engage fully with technology.


Corporate digitalisation

According to technology researcher Gartner, digitalisation is the use of technology to change business models and provide new revenue streams and added-value opportunities.

The pace of change is too fast for some companies that complain of a lack of talent to use the technology, while innovation can be thwarted by a culture of risk aversion. Meanwhile, some workers are frustrated because they are more digitally advanced than their employers.


The world of learning

Digitalisation is bringing information, education and learning, not to mention personal growth and development, psychological and social support, to people across the globe.

More people in less developed nations have access to cheap mobile technology, creating new possibilities to coach anywhere.

Technology enables the world to find the smartest brains wherever they are. Whether someone is using their PC at home in the US or are on a mobile device on a farm in India, everyone can learn, thanks to technology.

They can learn functional skills, watch a TED talk, take a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), get a qualification, counselling or coaching, join a discussion forum, collaborate in a community of learning, take part in or conduct research, tweet, chat to friends or simply check a fact using an online search engine.

The digital revolution in learning means specialist coaches are just a few clicks away, while a coach can help learners locate the information, research and knowledge they need.

Group learning is also being helped by technology. Coaches and mentors can work with groups remotely using a Skype connection or with individuals based in different locations who are each using their own Skype app.

Organisations are using technology to minimise social issues associated with apprehension, comprehension, and ‘groupthink’, to arrive at more creative and productive decisions and solutions.

ProReal worked with a senior team from IT service management company Atos to help members get a better understanding of each other’s roles and the challenges they were facing around a particular project. A visual representation was used to show how power and responsibility across the senior team was distributed and this helped the organisation to reach its objectives.


Neuroscience behind learning

Every coach will perform more effectively if they have a thorough understanding of how the human brain has evolved and how it learns.

The brain has advanced as a ‘social’ organ. We’re designed to learn through shared experiences and we do our best learning when someone around us shows us that they care, can demonstrate an interest, provide a feeling of safety and help us to understand.

Methods of interactive discovery help to create the stories that shape and support memories of what is
being learned.

The brain changes in response to our experiences. This ‘plasticity’ alters the brain’s chemistry and architecture. The role of a coach is to support ‘brain-altering learning’ or facilitate self-directed neuroplasticity.

We know that a moderate level of arousal increases the production of neurotransmitters and neural growth hormones. A good coach creates a climate of high attention, empathy and well-being without causing anxiety or distress.

The brain learns best when working with both thoughts and feelings. This strengthens the connections between the executive/decision-making system (mainly the orbitofrontal cortex) and the emotional producing structures (limbic system).

In practice this means a coach will spend time calming the client, focusing their processing, supporting self-reflection, helping them to use their intellect and thinking and integrating this with their emotional and physiological experiences.

Emotional labelling is a particularly important part of this because it supports the regulation of the threat response and helps clients gain new insights and explore alternative thinking patterns.

One of the keys to helping the brain learn is the use of narratives. A coach can help the client to create dynamic, co-created stories to make sense of the complex world they experience.


Science and digital learning

Virtual worlds allow coaches to adapt to people’s learning style, whether that is more theory- or experience-based. This leads to more engaging coaching because a coach can use visualisation and modifiable imagery and symbolic thought and metaphor. Gaming technologies can also boost learning because they enhance the senses.

Learners can feel immersed in a virtual environment and this promotes a subjective experience of meaning and relevance (Kirwan, 2016), and helps to bring greater self-awareness and self-insight.

This way of learning is more efficient because of the cyclical processes of doing, reflecting on action and applying new learning, often immediately and at considerable speed. This is a reference to Kolb’s Experiential Learning theory.

In addition, the social inhibitions people can feel during face-to-face communication are removed when interacting online (Suler, 2004).

The increased openness is something coaches must be aware of. They should stress to the client that the environment is confidential, and bear in mind ethical considerations when people are disclosing more than they might during a face-to-face session.

One major positive of this form of learning is that people understand and explore their character and personality as they work through problems. They find new ways of working and use their talents and fulfil their potential.

They learn more about their own story and who they are, and this journey of self-discovery makes coaching more effective and improvements happen faster.

There is also the aspect of asynchronous coaching, where the anonymity and time for reflection, plus the written expression, all improve the learning process. Clients have the space and time to consider things more deeply. Yet an element of human contact is vital in any coaching to avoid people dropping out.

Technology is part of the solution for employees facing pressure at work and seeking help from their coach. It can remove the need for those difficult-to-arrange face-to-face coaching sessions. A coach can be present in learning moments that most suit the client.



Digitalisation is reshaping our expectations and experiences at work and home.

Coaches require knowledge of neuroscience and cyber-psychology to understand how virtual environments can enhance and transform coaching.

This awareness will help practitioners from an older generation to engage with younger clients so they make a significant contribution to their learning and psychological growth and development.

Coaches and mentors who do not react and adapt to technology could be in terminal decline.


  • Andrew Jackson is chief executive, Tammy Tawadros is an associate and David Tinker is development director, all at ProReal



IBM case study

IBM used ProReal software to increase coaching access to a broader range of employees across Europe

A pilot study involved nine volunteer leaders from consultant and learning teams from eight countries. Participants had three, one-hour sessions conducted remotely using the ProReal virtual world and voice (phone or VoIP) with a coach.

Participants said the technology enabled them to talk more freely, take stock of different perspectives and be clearer in their thinking.

The evaluation carried out by an independent organisation discovered that 80% of participants found the coaching to be very or extremely valuable, with one coaching client describing it as life-changing.


What coaches say about using digital technology and virtual worlds

“My clients were initially sceptical about immersive technologies, while I was a firm believer that the best coaching happens face-to-face. In fact, people were given new perspectives and insights on their coaching challenge. I now have a more trusting relationship with my coachees than in some of my face-to-face sessions, and I did not expect this to be the case.”

Liz Credé, co-founder, Levati Learning


“Working within the ProReal world makes the coaching process more interactive and playful and I am able to reach the core of the problem more naturally and quickly. Once I enter the virtual world with the client and set up his or her world, I quickly develop a strong association with the coachee, who feels emotionally connected inside their world.”

Luit van Iterson, health care psychologist, Interapy BV


TOP TIPS: Working digitally

  1. Just get started. It’s not as scary as you think and clients will be supportive
  1. Recognise that it takes time and practice. Don’t assume everything is just the same but online
  1. Invest in good kit. This means having good Wi-Fi at home, buying decent headphones and subscribing to safe and secure software
  1. Pay attention to ethics – being aware that clients may be more open in a virtual setting than face-to-face
  1. If you’re using technology, eg, Skype for group work, limit the group number to 10
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