Sunday, January 29, 2023

Can Technology Boost Coaching and Performance?

Everyone believes in coaching. They want their managers to do it and their employees to have it. Occurring in a world committed to informal learning, with expectations for self-directed effort in the workplace, coaching is a big piece of the glue. But when we admit to real practices, the coaching and the self-direction isn’t there. Might technology help?

Let’s look into coaching first. In my work, I parse coaching into three concepts: train, integrate, and motivate. Training is, as we know, many things, especially shared goals, demonstration of expected performance, related content, prompts for action, effort, and knowledge of results, with practices spread over time and place.

Integration helps a person get a sense of the life beyond the job. It’s who we are when we are a real estate agent or a retirement specialist. In this aspect of the role, the coach shares community, conversations, and connections. It’s the opportunity to point to where roofers go to grab a cup of coffee and discuss the housing market, the cost of lumber, and who had a baby. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Brown and Duguid described the value that comes from learning in funky groups. Their example came from Julian Orr’s work at Xerox. Orr noted the divergence between the formal descriptions of work processes and the tacit improvisations involved in handling unforeseen problems with equipment. How did inexperienced reps learn, if the formal processes enshrined in policies and training were not accurate? Orr pointed to the informal aspects of their lives, elements that contribute to getting the job done. For example, the reps ate breakfast together. During the meal, they collaborated on problems and shared war stories, which probably corrected what they had been taught.

Coaches should take some responsibility for motivation. Motivation happens when coaches share reasons for the effort and how they maintain confidence. How does an oncologist carry on, even when patients die? What of a realtor who fails to get a desirable listing? What if it happens all week long and the next week too? Coaches share how they wrap their heads around gnarly realities.

Few organizations are satisfied with their coaching programs. I know. I hear from them from time to time. They rarely reach out to brag.

Might technology help it happen?

Train.   Let’s start with training, or what many call e-learning. What better way to present goals, talk about them, and then qualify people for their readiness for a program? I did it in a program for instructional designers in a government agency. Here are a series of statements. Check all those that describe you. The program then pointed respondents to options that matched their self-reported experience level and priorities.

Consider how blended online learning relies on and serves up options for growth, offers ways to see demonstrations repeatedly, at various speeds, perhaps even through heads up displays. How about watching demonstrations online on the job, just before tackling a product installation. Or consider an approach we used for real estate sales training and support. In the car, via audio, just before presenting to the homeowner, coaches delivered targeted messages relevant to getting a listing or negotiating a price.

Technology can blur the distinction between training in a classroom and useful lessons and information delivered closer to where the work gets done. Nobody brings people into the physical classroom for 15 minutes. But online, they might. Or for 5 minutes, or to look up an example or information linked to the challenge.

Ready to practice the ability to do medical diagnosis? Distribute graduated practices over time, and watch speed and accuracy grow. Look at results and consider if they are sufficient for a diagnosis. Eager to keep track of progress on this task or related tasks? The learner studied the new product four days ago. The coach thinks you are ready to tackle it again, but this time providing customer support for a more complicated question.

Integrate.   Computers help people connect to others who do what they do or what they aspire to do. Getting ready to go into the field to do the job? How about early morning chats with the coach and the two others in the office who are also working new to that challenge? When you commit to certifying as a retirement specialist, there’s a lot to worry about. Wouldn’t it be better if you were online regularly with others who are also preparing to test with curated content and cases to discuss with the coach.

Zoom looks cold, but it isn’t when 14 new teachers are gathered to talk about how it went when an irate parent complained about a student’s grade. If the Assistant Superintendent of Schools thinks of herself as a coach, she should gather new teachers. They need her and each other.

Motivate.   Motivation is more than rah-rah. Motivation is derived from appreciation for the value of these efforts and belief in the ability to grow and get it done. Online, in regular reminders and personal meetings, the coach details tangible reasons to look under the hood of a new product or to practice an approach until fluent on it. Coaches should use online meetings to anticipate where the work gets hard, where newbies struggle, and to reiterate expectations. Point to videos with examples of excellence and with reflections on the uphill struggles and monotony that might accompany the effort. Share testimonials from the people who benefited when the work is done well. Results, in the words or patients or homeowners, are motivating.

Coaching is popular with leaders because it makes good sense. What I’m encouraging is careful explication of the nature of coaching and the potential for delivering training, integration and motivation via the technology that already occupies your desk, lap or pocket.