Digital transformation for coaching

How artificial intelligence (AI) could enhance the reach of coaching and change its economics

A few weeks back I reported from an event where experts talked about the trends for artificial intelligence. I’m still very much intrigued what artificial intelligence could mean for businesses and societies. Although it is very clear that the algorithms currently developed for artificial intelligence will still have their limitations in terms of emulating the whole spectrum of human behaviour and thinking, I am convinced AI has the power to change our way of living and working dramatically.

AI can play part in the future of coaching

Having been in the coaching business for more than 14 years now I started to reflect on what AI could bring to the way coaches work in future. I can clearly see certain segments of the coaching market being replaced by systems based on artificial intelligence. This would obviously have the benefit to enhance the reach of coaching deeper into our societies. In addition, it also has the clear potential to change the cost for coaching services of a segment of coaching which I will describe further on.
Some may be horrified by this thought, but I consider it a great potential benefit. What makes me believe this?


Future capabilities of AI

According to the experts mentioned above, systems like Alexa are already using artificial intelligence and will soon be able to have a meaningful conversation with a real human being. Today it is easy to recognise voices, and algorithms are already able to identify moods and emotions in people’s way of speaking.
Having a meaningful conversation involves a reasonable level of complexity in the underlying thought processes, though, and for AI to deal with that requires access to vast amounts of data. Such systems will require enormous processing power which currently is hardly affordable or even available in the mass market. However, recent announcements about quantum computing are changing this picture completely, considering that quantum computing can be more than a million times faster than the fastest computers we have today. Based on this, for me it is easy to imagine that within the next 5 to 10 years we will have systems based on artificial intelligence that are able to ask meaningful questions and create a reflective conversation.


The coaching model

In order to explain why I am convinced that coaching can be partially replaced by artificial intelligence I need to describe briefly a foundational model for different types of coaching. This model is based on the metaphor of an iceberg representing our personality. As with an iceberg a certain part is visible which is equivalent to our behaviour. At the first layer below the surface is the level of thinking and feelingl which influences our behaviour.

The iceberg concept

Reflecting a change of behaviours driven from these levels, thinking and feeling are limited in their complexity. Such a coaching interaction is widely described as transactional. For example if one wants to get better organised and needs to reflect on how to adapt a time management process to his/her own context.

The deeper levels of our personality influencing behaviour are beliefs and value systems as well as needs and fears, or our purpose in life. Connecting change of thinking and behaving with these levels involves a much higher level of complexity in the reflective process of coaching. This is usually described as transformational.


AI based coaching

As mentioned before, artificial intelligence can already deal with a reasonable level of complexity. However, from what I took out from experts of the afore mentioned event, AI has its limitations for the foreseeable future when it has to deal in real time with many non-linear cross-linked interactions.  Such a complexity is at the heart of transformational coaching. I believe therefore, that artificial intelligence could take over transactional coaching activities as they have a limited level of complexity in the reflective process but will not be able to do it for transformational coaching in the foreseeable future.
Imagine how this would change the cost structure of some segments of the coaching market, thus making it much more accessible to many more people in our societies. I appreciate it would also potentially mean lost business for coaches and the rest of the market will probably be even more competitive than it already is now. This could still be of great benefit for many individuals and societies as a whole. And coaching will become a more specialist’s business.
On the other hand, this wouldn’t be the first time in history that even experts underestimate the signs and power of change. We all know about the predictions about multicoloured cars for everyone, the “unwanted” use of PCs, the need for a maximum of 5 computers globally, who would want and use the Internet, etc.

At this point, I can even imagine an AI-based systems working hand-in-hand with a professional human coach. It could easily take over the intake and the initial exploration. It then hands over clients when the complexity reaches a level outside its system’s capabilities.


The end is nigh?

I don’t think that AI will be able to replace the human-to-human interaction in highly complex and deep reflections during coaching conversations. I am convinced, however, that the whole coaching market will experience massive disruption in the coming decade as other industries have already experienced. For me it is a matter of being prepared and open to change in order to redefine the way coaching is being offered prepared and delivered. In that way it will find its place in a new ecosystem of social interaction and personal growth.

Of course, all ultimately depends on the person who is seeking coaching whether he/she is prepared to interact with an AI based system rather than a human being!

Yet, to some degree the situation is not too different to what we have faced and are still facing today with the attitude towards virtual coaching via telephone or videoconferencing systems. Many people still feel this doesn’t work while others already successfully use it.

To me, AI will just be the next step.

Feel inspired to discuss this subject further? Great, leave a comment below or feel free to get in touch with me.



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