Coaching powered by Artificial Intelligence – is this the dawn of the democratisation of coaching or a distant technological horizon, asks Kevin Ellis-Brush
Considering the pace of innovative Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered applications, when will the tipping point come when the coaching field universally embraces these forms of technology, to further democratise the profession?
Chatbots are one such manifestation of AI, presenting artificial social actors to the coaching field as a transformational technology with the potential to advance the helping profession. So where are we on this journey? How far away is the tipping point?
To date, the coaching field has generally adopted technological innovations in its stride. Virtual coaching, employing increasingly sophisticated technological mediums, is now the new normal. The past tumultuous year has accelerated this trend. No doubt, your practice currently uses digital machines and advanced software platforms that enhance efficiency and efficacy. It’s an inevitability that technology will advance further into the sphere of coaching.
One such technological advancement is AI – an umbrella term that incorporates sophisticated digital components: language processing, robotics, deep and machine learning, among an ever-expanding list. It will soon offer coaches the option of incorporating digitally augmented processes into their practice, replacing routine activities and allowing one-to-one client contact time to be focused on higher-value transformational assignments.
This article doesn’t argue that all coaching genres will be deliverable by digital technology any time soon, however. Indeed, the majority of technologists consider that AI will be unable to create a nuanced, contextually aware conversation, as found between coach and coachee, much before 2050 (Grace et al, 2018). Rather, I’m suggesting that AI-powered technology coaching innovations are near a point where coaches may start to consider how these forms of advanced technology can be leveraged to enhance their practice to a larger audience and further augment their service offering.
My own doctoral research has revealed some intriguing results and possibly identified how the coaching field can adopt further technological innovations (Ellis-Brush, 2020).
Forty-eight volunteers were given access to a coaching chatbot app over eight weeks. The results from a mixed-methods quasi-experimental design identified that the majority of participants showed an increase in their self-resilience. The study further revealed some unexpected experiences of the clients using the smartphone app. Users reported that interactions with the chatbot provided a safe environment where they could explore and reflect on their feelings and emotions in real time.
The technology engaged with the users in a transactional way, asking open questions and seeking responses that were played back over subsequent sessions. Users described an echo-chamber-like experience. The app encouraged coachees, by a series of open questions, to reflect on their emotions. During these periods of self-reflection, individuals self-analysed their perceptions and were asked to reconsider them from alternative perspectives.
While users found the dialogue with the artificial agent somewhat limited, with shallow content that lacked contextual awareness, there was a recognition that the technology, through playful engagement, provided a 24/7 approach to a coaching-like process. The app’s lack of contextual understanding was considered by volunteers as the technology’s most limiting aspect. However, users were forgiving, appreciating that the app’s responses would improve over time. They were aware that every interaction with a chatbot from multiple sectors of society further adds to databanks. This data is growing exponentially, providing numerous mines for AI programmes to search for ever more meaningful responses to users.
Next gen apps
The degree to which our conversations are recorded, logged and further analysed by machines, may well alarm some readers. I suggest this doesn’t paint a dystopian pre-determined coaching future but rather a critical moment where technologists and coaches can work collaboratively to create the next generation of self-help coaching apps to democratise coaching.
The study suggests that chatbots can engage coachees in a virtual safe space where they can reflect on issues in a non-judgemental environment. One could envisage that coaches could assign activities and tasks to clients, asking them to log them with the chatbot. As tested in this study, the technology already has the functionality to register these actions and periodically remind the client to reflect on how their conduct is aligned with those recommendations.
The coaching field is presented with a future where harnessing these forms of digital platforms to perform complementary functions may enhance a coaching assignment’s quality and improve the coachee’s positive outcomes. Further, a coach could assign tasks through the use of an app for the coachee to work on particular skills between coaching sessions. As technology improves with an ever-greater capacity to engage users in more expansive concepts, the human coach can focus on the coaching assignment’s transformational aspects.
In adopting these forms of new technologies, the coaching field would follow counselling and therapy neighbouring fields. Research in the medical field suggests that a computer-generated humanoid ( virtual human) that interacts with patients using ‘natural language’ can overcome psychological barriers that might otherwise prevent honest conversations (Lucas et al, 2014). Related medical professions continue to investigate the efficacy and application of AI-powered software programmes that alter individuals’ psychological behaviours.
The domain of psychological therapy is one field where there has been a concerted effort to enable Computer-guided Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CCBT). The main focus is to facilitate interactions between therapist and client using technology to guide practitioners’ dialogues. In a meta-analysis of 49 randomised control trials, the effectiveness of CCBT over other therapeutic interventions indicated that the technology was equally effective, in some cases more so, in helping treat common mental health disorders over traditional methods (Grist & Cavanagh, 2013). This is a significant opportunity for the coaching community.
The big question: is the technology capable yet? On the balance of currently available applications, not quite. Are we close? Undoubtedly, yes.
About the author
- Dr Kevin Ellis-Brush is an executive coach at the School of Babel, focused on helping corporates democratise coaching. He is an experienced business coach and commercial director. His doctorate is on coaching in a digital age.
- K Ellis-Brush, Coaching in a Digital Age. Can a Working Alliance Form Between Coachee and Coaching App? PhD, Oxford Brookes University, 2020
- K Grace, J Salvatier, A Dafoe, B Zhang and O Evans, ‘When will AI exceed human performance? Evidence from AI experts’, Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research, 62, 729-754, 2018
- R Grist, and K Cavanagh, ‘Computerised cognitive behavioural therapy for common mental health disorders, what works, for whom under what circumstances? A systematic review and meta-analysis’, Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy : On the Cutting Edge of Modern Developments in Psychotherapy, 43(4), 243-251, 2013. doi: 10.1007/s10879-013-9243-y
- G M Lucas, J Gratch, A King, and L-P Morency, ‘It’s only a computer: Virtual humans increase willingness to disclose’, Computers in Human Behavior, 37, 94-100, 2014. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.04.043