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Cut Through Coaching Technology Confusion

November 03, 2021 Learning and Development
Dani Johnson cofounder and principal analyst RedThread Research
By Dani Johnson

Coaching is a hot topic right now. Not surprisingly, more organizations are leveraging coaching to engage employees, personalize development and manage change. 

And, as organizations have developed a larger appetite for coaching, the coaching tech space has exploded. In fact, our vendor database has grown to over 45 vendors who say they have some sort of coaching functionality. We’re seeing that growth in both stand-alone coaching tools and add-on functionality to other learning and performance tools. 

Much of this growth is due to vendors who seem to be redefining what coaching is by adding different functionality. Earlier coaching technology focused on streamlining administrative tasks associated with coaching, such as finding and paying coaches, facilitating conversations between coaches and coachees, and matching coaches to coachees.

Newer tech goes beyond those traditional functions to include aspects of artificial intelligence, machine delivery of coaching with minimal human interaction, integrations with other aspects of work technology, behavioral nudges, and integration of data to make coaching algorithms better. 

But what does it all mean for organizations? 

Cutting Through the Coaching Technology Confusion

While much of this new functionality is exciting, it can also be confusing. The myriad choices offered have left many leaders confused about what they need and how to find it. Even as industry analysts, we found it to be difficult and struggled to come up with a way to classify the different solutions.  

In our latest report, we found that coaching technologies fall somewhere along each of two axes:

  1. Resources: Does the technology use internal or external resources to provide coaching? 
  2. Philosophy: Does the technology rely mainly on humans or machines to provide coaching?

When we plot those two factors against each other, we get a helpful 4-quadrant diagram to classify coaching tech solutions (Figure 1). These four quadrants can vastly narrow the search for coaching tech, depending on what goals leaders have. 

Coaching Technology Landscape Graphic by RedThread Research
Figure 1: The Coaching Technology LandscapePHOTO: RedThread Research, 2021

The Four Quadrants of Coaching Tech

Quadrant 1: Human Coaches, External Resources

Coaching tech services in this quadrant match external (usually professional) coaches with internal coachees, and provide tools and a platform to support the coaching relationship. They also often provide externally developed models and metrics for defining success.

Vendors in this quadrant can vet, train and provide external coaches. They also often have their own models, philosophy and programs that can be leveraged by organizations they serve. This is the most traditional kind of coaching tech, and also likely the least scalable.

These types of services and products are well suited for:

  • Providing a human touch, often more important in times of remote work.
  • Offloading administrative tasks associated with coaching initiatives.
  • Ensuring high quality coaches and coaching experience.

Quadrant 2: Human Coaches, Internal Resources

Coaching tech in this quadrant matches internal coaches with internal coachees and provide tools to support the coaching relationship. These tools leverage existing resources and, most often, internal models to develop employees through coaching.

Vendors in this space can provide organizations with a platform, nudges and dashboards to help organizations encourage more frequent engagement with coaches. Flexibility in platforms and the use of internal coaches also mean this group of tech is probably the most flexible — allowing organizations to customize.

These types of solutions are well suited for organizations who are:

  • Upskilling managers with coaching skills.
  • Building a coaching culture.
  • Scaling the coaching experience to more employees.

Quadrant 3: Machine Coaches, Internal Resources

Coaching tech vendors in this quadrant leverage organization-supplied data, often from other work systems, or provide tools to help coachees guide themselves by delivering insights, nudges and other aids, often without the involvement of a human coach.

In this quadrant, we see coaching tech products that leverage AI, machine learning, natural language processing and data analysis to provide personal development experiences. 

These types of solutions are well suited for organizations that are:

  • Building "in the moment" awareness in employees that will lead to larger behavior change.
  • Supporting larger development or business initiatives with continued touch points and follow-up content.

Quadrant 4: Machine Coaches, External Resources

Vendors in this quadrant provide machine-delivered coaching based on their own frameworks or programs and offer up insights, nudges and other aids as needed.

These vendors use newer technologies, like AI, natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning. They also often leverage their own models and benchmark data to help with behavior change. Tech in this quadrant probably provides the greatest ability to scale coaching to the organization.

These types of solutions are well suited for organizations that are:

  • Focusing on universal but important initiatives, such as diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) or wellness.
  • Standardizing behavior across the organization and providing coaching more broadly.
  • Experimenting with new ways to develop employees.

The coaching tech space can be complicated, and it can be intimidating. Hopefully this model will provide some order and direction for how leaders can make meaningful decisions about this growing technology category.

About the Author

Dani Johnson is co-founder and principal analyst for RedThread Research, and has spent the majority of her career writing about, researching and consulting on human capital practices and technology.

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