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Democratisation vs Commoditisation: Online Coaching Platforms

News views and events from Leadenhall

Democratisation vs Commoditisation: Online Coaching Platforms

by Chris Woodman

Coaching online is now very much part of the coaching landscape. Online coaching platforms, where people are matched with coaches, then book and undertake coaching sessions have been with us for a few years and new ones are being developed and launched regularly.  We developed our proprietary platform, Coaching on Demand in 2019 which has been operating with clients since April 2020.

A big debate in the world of coaching has been whether platforms are leading the democratisation of coaching or it’s commoditisation.  Democratisation is seen as ‘good’ and ‘commoditisation’ is seen as bad but of course, they are two sides of the same coin.

On the ‘democratic’ side, more and more people have access to coaching and it is no longer the preserve of the upper echelons of organisations, some firms even offer coaching to all of their employees, which is truly democratic.

On the ‘commodity’ side of the equation, some platforms offer low rates of pay to their coaches and standardised coaching packages reliant on technology to deliver coaching at scale.    You could argue that the coaching industry is having its ‘Model T Ford’ moment, the time when cars began to be accessible to the broader population.

Of course, it was Henry Ford who said at the time, people could buy any colour, as long as it’s black.  The implication is that the mass production of cars created a degree of standardisation.  And, of course, there is an element of this in the world of platform coaching.

The ‘Rolls Royce’ of executive coaching assignments (if we can continue the car analogy) normally involves an investment in the purpose of the coaching, with a tripartite meeting with the manager and the coachee.  The goals and objectives of the assignment are considered before the coaching takes place.  The process might be supported by a personality questionnaire and 360 feedback process.  The coaching normally takes place over a six-month period and involves coaching sessions of up to two hours in which the coachee and coach explore issues in depth.  Often the coach is available for support between meetings and progress on the coaching is review at the midpoint or conclusion of the assignment.  The coach themselves needs to be credible to the manager and the coachee to operate at senior levels.

Coaching has become much more than the ‘classic’ coaching assignment described above, particularly with specialisms around careers, parental transition, onboarding, wellbeing, women in leadership and diversity and inclusion.  Then there is also team and group coaching which are growing in popularity.

So, is the coaching provided by platforms the same coaching that has been delivered historically – whether it be face to face, by phone or video conferencing?  Up to a point.  Coaching is a process of listening, questioning and reflection.  Coaches who deliver their services through platforms will be bring their skills and experience to support the coachees.  However, depending on the platform, the extent to which the coaching can move up the value chain will be a reflection on the quality of the coaches, the functionality of the platform and the degree to which the platform provider can tailor programmes to your needs.

These are our thoughts on how you might approach assessing a coaching platform – we have a platform – so we are biased but we have learned a few things about the market over the last three years.

So how do you choose a coaching platform provider?  We think your decision will boil down to five main areas:

Coaching Strategy:  You may not have a written strategy but what part does coaching play in your organisation and what specifically are you looking to achieve through an investment in coaching?  Leadership Development?  Career Coaching?  Parental Leave Coaching?  Wellbeing Support?  All of the above?   Who would you be providing coaching for?  All employees?  A specific cohort?  The C Suite?   We have found that you can use a coaching platform for all levels in the organisation providing it is introduced well with clear communication, good coach matching and all expectations managed.  As a coaching practice we provide full service individual coaching (which can blend online support with in person support), team coaching and platform coaching to meet the different needs in an organisation.

Quality of Coaching:  Sometimes the focus with platform coaching becomes technology or price.  But as one client said to me ‘love your technology but other firms have platforms, tell me about your coaches’.  All providers will make claims about the quality of their coaches and their qualifications.  Some platforms are not paying coaches very much and are relying on more newly qualified coaches.  Can you choose the coaches, do you know who is coaching your people, does that matter to you?  We work with clients to enable them to choose a coaching panel for their organisation and then they choose those coaches that are best matched to the coachees.

Technology:  It is worth seeing a demonstration of the platform before you use it.  Is it simple to use?  Does it offer flexibility of session times?  Are managers able to input their guidance to the coachee via the platform?  What information is available to you as client?  Are you able to see feedback on the quality of the coaching?  Are confidentialities appropriately observed and GDPR adhered to?  Is the platform customisable and in what way?  How does the platform balance human judgement with algorithms?

Service: Is the service being delivered by the platform provider flexible?   Are there different packages, does the provider offer the ability to meet regularly to review the progress of the programme and give insights on the organisation based on observations from the coaches (without breaking confidentiality)?

Pricing Structure:  What business model is the provider using?  Technology companies love the SAAS model, it is scalable, and based on the subscription model?  This can superficially appear cheap on a per person basis.  However, a £1000 per person for six months coaching for 100 people is suddenly £100,000.  Do all the coachees assigned to a subscription take advantage of the coaching?  (not everyone goes to the gym!). Can the subscription be transferred to someone else if the person does not use it or use it much?   What happens after six months?  Our experience of open coaching, where all employees are offered coaching is that about 60% choose to be coached, some are slow to start their coaching (particularly if they are busy) and so we found that the coaching is best made available over a longer period for those people than a six-month window.  We transfer unused coaching that’s been paid for to other coachees (if someone leaves, for example).

In summary, coaching is becoming democratised and commoditised.  If you believe coaching is the right solution for the support and development of your people, then it is worth developing a clear strategy and making sure that the coaching solutions matches the specific needs of your business.  If you use a platform, it is worth conducting some due diligence to ensure that it is the right fit for your needs.


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