Stanley Kubrick launched 2001: A Space Odyssey and its talking, lip-reading computer, HAL 9000, in 1968. When I first watched the cult classic in the 1980s, the year 2000 still seemed so far away. The future possibilities of technology were nothing less than mind-boggling. Reality, however, turned out to be different. By the turn of the century, we didn’t have any sentient-like technology, and it took until 2011 before Apple introduced its virtual assistant, Siri, to the market. But when change did eventually happen, it arrived fast.
OpenAI launched ChatGPT to the public on November 30, 2022. Within two months, it had 100 million active users. People are now engaging with ChatGPT daily, and it’s pulling in vast swathes of information in a fraction of a second. While this seemingly overnight development has turned everyone’s focus to machine learning and generative AI, one use case deserves more attention for its accessibility and potential impact: AI coaching.
Natural-language processing allows AI to learn contextually and give very specific feedback. As a coaching agent, AI can target the specific weaknesses of the learner and engage them in conversation while leveraging massive training sets for a high level of coaching. Its affordability means AI can be used to coach team members from the bottom up. No matter their role, no one misses out. As an organization, if you already have an amazing ROI from top-down coaching, AI coaching could further facilitate this.
MAKING COACHING AVAILABLE TO EVERYONE
The International Coaching Federation found that organizations that invested in executive coaching showed a 70% increase in individual performance, and a Metrix Global study concluded that executive coaching amounted to a 788% return on investment.
The average rate of an executive coach in the U.S. ranges from $200 to $600 an hour. Engagement coaching costs between $12,000 and $20,000 for one person over six months. To give a rough estimate, offering everyone in a 1,000-head company half a year’s worth of coaching at an average of $15,000 would cost $15 million. Yet, the costs are understandable.
Executive coaches use their deep understanding of the challenges of leadership to listen, analyze, pose insightful questions, and send reports back to management without breaking confidentiality. If you are not an executive, what do you typically get by way of coaching? E-learning without feedback or generic classroom training. It is precisely where these modules fail that AI coaching can succeed.
Not only that, AI coaching across the board can generate insights on organization and culture only dreamt of by engagement surveys and behavioral assessment, whilst accelerating the trend towards agility and self-management.
THE EVER-PRESENT COACH
AI coaching is direct. Learners do not have to wade through three to four classes before finding a relevant lesson. A short, targeted approach called mico-coaching also tends to be much more affordable and attainable for companies of all sizes. Artificial intelligence (AI) can help mass produce micro-coaching so teams can benefit from its five main advantages:
- Customized Guidance: In micro-coaching, the AI agent engages in a conversation that narrows down the employee’s areas of concern. This is its singular beauty: When an employee owns the learning process, they feel empowered.
- Root Cause: Natural-language processing allows the AI agent to ask highly nuanced questions and give feedback to get to the root cause of whatever issue the client is facing. It will also assign useful homework assignments. The ongoing dialogue continues to refine what works and what does not.
- Accountability: An AI agent simulates the dynamics of a real professional relationship. By attaching to internal communications channels, agents schedule the cadence of meetings, provide reminders, and help create a sense of accountability.
- Anonymity: AI coaching can analyze massive numbers of individual coaching conversations but still maintain individual anonymity. It also allows people to be vulnerable because they do not have to share their experiences in front of a classroom.
- Eliminating Bias: In HR, AI applications are already eliminating hiring bias, and the same capacity may be used to reveal the blind spots that prevent people from reaching their fullest potential.
UNPRECEDENTED ORGANIZATIONAL INSIGHTS
In my 30-year career, I have never seen technology move faster than AI. Business leaders who are not looking at AI coaching intensely run the risk of being left behind. There is a caveat, however: A Harvard Business Review analysis found that people are more likely to trust working with AI and overcome “algorithm aversion” if their managers have already established a sense of psychological safety.
Buy-in is crucial because the amount of data points per second AI can pull compared to a human brain is so superior that it promises to reshape industries. The more data you feed AI, the more it learns. The difference between AI and predictive analytics is that the latter will make a projection based on more limited data sets, whereas machine learning and generative AI can provide rich insights with a great deal of utility.
If an organization adopts coaching across the board, it will be able to analyze trends to show how culture is evolving and the overall needs for employee development. While personalized learning has already been proven to drive staff happiness and retention, these organization-level insights promise to leverage data for engagement at a whole new level.
THE FUTURE HAS ARRIVED
Although the need for a seasoned executive coach to provide feedback to a senior leader will not be replaced, I envisage that AI micro-coaching can at least be made complementary to classroom training and e-learning for non-executive staff. The high cost of coaching has helped turn it into a $2.9 billion global industry, but AI is now making this form of learning more accessible to everyone. The idea is certainly not as futuristic as Kubrick’s fictional computer was in 1968. The future has already arrived, and the exciting potential of AI coaching will only grow from here.
Robert Newland is CEO of Newland Associates & HRfrenzy. He’s an expert consultant and public speaker on executive search and talent strategy.