Experts in coach tech take a coaching approach to examine both optimistic and pessimistic predictions for coaching technology, helping to anticipate challenges and chart the best possible future.
Technology is disrupting the coaching industry, creating uncertainty about the future
Coaches can anticipate technology pitfalls and solutions to help shape the future of coach tech
Ethical and effective coach tech can maximize human coaching while scaling coaching access
Mapping best and worst futures prepares individuals for adversity while remaining open to possibility
Industries are undergoing rapid transformation as AI generative technologies and language models streamline administrative and creative tasks. While these technologies offer opportunities to simplify work and address labor shortages, some fear that AI will replace human workers, leading to economic disruption. AI programs can replicate basic conversations, write short reports, and ask thought-provoking questions. Already here, AI coaching tools support goal attainment, guide reflection, and prompt behavior change. As these tools evolve, the future of coaching technology (coach tech) presents both promise and potential risks.
How will coach tech disrupt the future of coaching?
While predictions of the future are not guaranteed, coaches can use perspective to forecast challenges and identify opportunities. The practice of futures thinking can help individuals find clarity and create networks of support to overcome barriers. This approach invites curiosity and new perspectives into future predictions, assisting individuals in navigating complex emotions while challenging assumptions about the value of “the best” or “the worst” outcomes. Ultimately, the future usually falls somewhere between optimistic and pessimistic predictions. When individuals are prepared to face multiple scenarios, they have a greater capacity to tap into personal strengths and connect with other resources.
Working through future scenarios for coaching technology empowers coaches to experiment with new tools, voice concerns about potential threats, and guide conversations among peers and professional organizations. This process also equips coaches to drive industry-level action to avoid adverse outcomes and shape the best possible future. To enter this space, coaches can ask themselves the following questions:
- In the next ten years, what is the best possible outcome for the future of technology and coaching?
- What will it take for coaches to move closer to this optimistic outcome?
- In the next ten years, what is the worst possible outcome for the future of technology and coaching?
- How can the coaching industry avoid this pessimistic future?
Working towards futures that promote access to coaching and human development
One of the major goals of coaching platforms is to increase access to coaching services. The 2023 ICF Global Coaching Study reports that 56% of coaching clients are managers or executives. While scaling one-on-one coaching to all levels of an organization can be costly, technology can streamline specific tasks, enabling coaches to take on more clients. Wisdom Weaver Mara Gerstein reflects that as a human development strategy, coaching plays an essential role in supporting both employee performance and well-being. She projects, “In 10 years, optimistically, I hope everybody has a coach. Economic pressures, distributed work, and lack of access to high-quality feedback make it so hard for people to get what they need to grow just from their work environment.” By extending coaching to every level of an organization, coaches, managers, and HR leaders can enhance organizational performance, internal resilience, and employee growth.
“An optimistic future is one where AI helps us solve the huge problem of unmet needs. AI has the potential to augment coaching and to augment the number of coach interactions to reach a greater diversity of members that we currently can’t meet.”
Wisdom Weaver Jeff Hancock shares an optimistic outlook where AI assists in addressing unmet needs and increasing coaching accessibility. He sees these tools supporting working parents, clients from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, and people with varied communication preferences. Citing research from a BetterUp survey, Jeff shares, “For folks that will not see a coach because they are embarrassed and experience stigma, how can we develop tools for them to feel welcome in the coaching community? In our data, about 20% of our survey group are unwilling to see a human coach but would talk to an AI.”
How can coach tech serve unemployed or underemployed individuals? How can coaches offer services to clients with little means to pay and maintain a viable business? Coach tech leaders are evaluating how coaching can be scaled to support new client types. For example, how can coaching be expanded to serve students? Beyond pro-bono and social impact coaching, Wisdom Weaver Alex Haitoglou notes that individual coaching prices will remain inaccessible to low-income individuals. To address this need, Alex underscores the opportunity for coaches to use AI as a supplement to human coaching interactions or offer AI coach bots to clients who might be unable to afford traditional coaching services. Although some concerns exist that low-fee coach bots will eventually replace human coaches, Alex believes that human coaches will retain a majority of the market because AI cannot replace human elements of coaching, such as presence, empathy, and social connection.
Avoiding a future where coach bots replace human coaches
Coach bots already serve as cost-effective support to traditional coaching. The fear is that organizations might replace human coaches with cheaper coach bot alternatives. Reflecting on the potential value of coach bots to supplement human coaching, Alex believes, “The pessimistic scenario is that we end up in a space where we focus on fast and cheap technology without measuring quality. We need curiosity and flexibility to reach a future where AI enhances coaching practice. We need to unlearn how we’ve always done things and revisit some of the dogma.” He suggests coaches consider how AI technologies might augment the length of coaching sessions, create new client touchpoints, support on-demand coaching needs, or reinforce coaching objectives through micro-learning opportunities. Coaches who can demonstrate how AI coaching enhances human coaching impact by developing new hybrid coaching models will retain a place in the market.
Sharing a philosopher’s perspective, Wisdom Weaver Gloria Origgi believes that coaches will play an active role in helping people adapt to new realities of tech-driven work. “The worst scenario is one where machines grow exponentially, and we face a major disruption in the job market as machines replace humans. The best case is we see cooperation between humans and machines that allows us to benefit from the enormous amount of information we have around the world and on the internet. Machine assistance can help us perform tasks and learn in a way that requires big data.”
Examining the potential for human-AI collaboration, Gloria notes that while AI can process large amounts of data, these tools do not understand nuance. AI makes decisions based on rigid rules, meaning it cannot accurately process humor or sarcasm, emotionally charged language, or human ethics. With these limitations in mind, humans will be needed to guide AI decision-making and engage with people on competing priorities, complex emotions, and values-based actions. Coaches can learn to apply data-driven insights from AI tools during coaching sessions. This skill set will also help coaches prepare their clients for the future of tech-infused work.
Avoiding a market saturated with low-quality coaching
While researching tech disruption and the future of coaching, Wisdom Weavers Jonathan Passmore and Rosie Evans-Krimme compared the evolution of coaching to transformation in the fashion industry. Rosie explains that while automation and data-processing tools can scale coaching services to new audiences, the coaching industry will need to avoid a “fast-fashion” version of coaching. Jonathan shares, “I can see a rosy future where AI and technology complement and support coaching, and coaching continues to spread and becomes part of every human conversation. But I can also imagine a dystopian future where coaching is unethical, uncontrolled, and unregulated.” If unethical and ineffective technologies are marketed as coaching tools, these low-cost tools could drive human coaches out of the market while damaging the reputation of coaching for potential clients.
“My biggest fear is the deterioration of trust for all sides involved. With a breakdown of trust, the integrity and credibility of the craft and/or the profession can be diluted”
To avoid a possible future of “unethical and uncontrolled” coach bots, Wisdom Weaver Jacinta Jiménez highlights the importance of collaboration between digital coaching platforms, researchers, and coaching bodies. Part of that collaboration centers on creating clear guidelines for the ethical use of AI that is trustworthy, unbiased, safe, and impactful for both coaches and clients. Jonathan echoes this sentiment, urgently proposing more structured guidelines for coaching professionals. As an unregulated field, coaches voluntarily adhere to coaching ethics guidelines, and individuals can advertise coaching services without formal credentials. He explains, “To get to that rosy future, we need to set ethical standards around AI, recognizing that coach assessment and coach ethics need to radically change by Christmas 2023. ICF, along with other training and development professional bodies, need to work with governments, regulators, and AI developers to ensure the legislation and regulation are put in place, to ensure AI serves humanity, not the individual.”
Technology prompts new conversations about coach training and professional development
As the Vice President of Research and Data Science for the International Coaching Federation (ICF), Wisdom Weaver Joel DiGirolamo sees great potential for AI to enhance coaching impact and science. In a 2021 call to action, coaching researchers emphasized the need for validated coaching competencies and new measures to objectively show coaching impact. Joel believes, “There is going to be a profound shift in the profession itself, where technology will help us take the idea or the concept of coaching and make it more concrete. So, when we say, ‘the use of coaching skills,’ those will be better defined, and that can enhance the profession.”
Validating coaching competencies and coaching approaches will provide clarity to coach trainees, help enhance coaching quality and impact, and provide greater evidence for return on investment for organizational clients. Early-career coaches will also be able to use this data to prioritize skills development as they work toward more advanced PCC or MCC certification. Another potential impact of data-validated competencies is that coaches will have more information on how strategies should be adapted for different client contexts.
Alternatively, coach tech founder and Wisdom Weaver Anke Paulick sees a potential risk of AI coaching tools eliminating growth opportunities in the industry. While she agrees that AI can help process data that informs effective coaching practice, she wonders how coach bots might also disrupt the market for beginner coaches. “AI coaching can coach on the beginners level. The downside is that it will be much more difficult for new coaches to gain experience. Collecting coaching hours toward certification will be harder because all of that will be done with AI coaching. Coaching at the MCC level will remain human. But how do you get there if you are not exposed to enough coaching clients and hours?” Anke proposes that coaching bodies and training organizations will need to educate coaches about the potential benefits and threats related to coaching technology. She suggests that more work can be done to secure avenues for professional development in the industry.
A Call to Action for Coaches
As the coaching industry navigates digital transformation, coaches can approach the unknown by leaning into their coach training—embracing curiosity and openness. By mapping out scenarios for both optimistic and pessimistic futures of coaching and technology, coaches can gain valuable insights into the skills and resources needed to adapt to challenges or seize new opportunities. This process empowers coaches to actively participate in industry-level dialogue on training needs, coaching ethics, and regulation in the field. By staying informed, engaged, and proactive, coaches can shape the best possible future for coaching and technology, creating outcomes that benefit coaches, clients, and the world at large. We invite you to imagine the best possible future for coaching and technology.
Learn more about how coach tech is shaping the future of coaching:
- Wisdom Weaver Jonathan Passmore explores the emergence and limitations of AI coaching chat bots
- ICF Coaching Snapshot: Future of Coaching Report reveals global perspectives on AI and technology in the future of coaching
- Association for Coaching podcast series on Technology and Innovation in Coaching invites experts in coaching and technology to discuss ongoing developments in coach tech
- Institute for the Future’s collection on People + Technology outlines trends and predictions for the future of technological innovation and society
- TLI Workshop at ICF Converge 2023: How Coaching and Artificial Intelligence Can Collaborate