Would you trust big work-life decisions to an AI coach?

AI looks like a natural and inevitable fit for business coaching — but some humans are wary. Here are the pros and cons.

The coaching industry has been growing fast in recent years. The success of online coaching platform CoachHub — which has raised $333.5 million since its launch in 2018 — shows that tech investors agree it’s a sector worth paying attention to.

Coaching — a form of professional development that focuses on improving skills in areas like critical thinking, problem-solving and leadership skills — typically relies on an experienced coach talking directly with individuals or groups. But those human coaches are seeing the first signs of disruption by the emerging generative AI revolution. Apps like Rocky.ai and Wave point towards a world where business professionals hone their skills by talking with an AI rather than a person.

Even CoachHub, which is focused on working with human coaches, is testing AIMY, which it bills as “a prototype of the world’s first conversational AI coach.” There’s an obvious advantage to an AI coach. It can support many more people than any individual human coach can, potentially opening up the benefits of coaching to far more people.

So should human coaches fear for this vision of the future? Dr. Nicky Terblanche, an associate professor at the Stellenbosch Business School in South Africa and specialist in the development of coaching programs, believes the future of AI in the space is far more nuanced. Terblanche sees potential roles for AI in both replacing a human coach and supporting them in their work. He believes it can also be used to train human coaches and improve their work, as well as potentially having a role in analyzing existing coaching data to improve client outcomes.

What do we mean by ‘coaching’?

To understand AI’s potential role in the future of coaching, we first need to understand exactly what we mean by the term “coaching.” Terblanche breaks the coaching landscape into a number of layers. At the lowest is “skills coaching,” where someone is taught how to do something. The next level is “performance coaching” or “transactional coaching,” where people are taken through a structured process of checkpoints to help them achieve specific goals.

The highest level of coaching is “developmental coaching,” which is far more focused on the individual. “That is when you move into the complex world of the client, and there’s no set agenda. It’s about making them self-aware and helping them grow, overcoming certain psychological obstacles or mental obstacles, and changing behavior,” Terblanche explains.

Can AI really replace human coaches?

So where does AI fit into this established coaching ecosystem? If you’ve ever used ChatGPT or similar apps for long, you’ll likely have encountered occasions when it “hallucinates” and mixes falsehoods in with facts. It’s a serious flaw in the reliability of generative AI in some contexts. Is coaching one of them?

Terblanche doesn’t believe so, if it is deployed in the right way. For example, he doesn’t believe AI is anywhere near being able to replace humans for developmental coaching. “AI is not there yet, and I don’t see it being able to, unless we have artificial general intelligence,” he says.

But until the point when AI is powerful enough to match or surpass human intelligence, it can still have a role in coaching. “What I found through my research is that AI, in the middle layer of transactional coaching and performance coaching, can be very effective. If you have coaches that are not well trained, and that follow a very mechanistic process, then my research has shown that AI can actually perform as well as a human coach.”

Terblanche has seen the evolution of coaching software first-hand. Equipped with a masters degree in artificial intelligence and a PhD in leadership coaching, he built a structured, scripted coaching chatbot as a research tool, in the days before generative AI. After a 10-month study, Terblanche and his fellow researchers found that the chatbot could not improve users’ stress resilience and wellbeing. However, he says, it can help people achieve their goals at double the rate using the chatbot compared with not getting coached at all. The team then studied how their AI coaching compared to the effectiveness of human coaching and found they were largely aligned. “That was proof that an AI chatbot, if it follows a very structured process, can be as good or better than a human coach,” Terblanche says.

Meanwhile, AI might be able to make a human coach better at their jobs. Ovida is an app that analyzes recordings of coaching sessions to provide feedback on the way coaches communicate both verbally and non-verbally. The same software is also being sold as a solution for training salespeople and financial advisers.

The future of AI-assisted coaching

Discussion of the impact of AI on the future of coaching began long before the emergence of ChatGPT put the field at the front of minds across the world. A 2021 white paper from the International Coaching Federation predicted this would lead to a blended approach combining human coaching with AI assistance.

This, the paper said, could “provide the best of both worlds, where coaches can offload low value coaching activities such as brief questions, assessment, and journaling — and keep the high value work of complex, transformational coaching in the human-to-human domain.”

“An AI chatbot, if it follows a very structured process, can be as good or better than a human coach.”

Dr. Nicky Terblanche, Stellenbosch Business School

Terblanche agrees, highlighting initial onboarding of a new client and additional coaching support between human sessions as areas of opportunity for technology. And he has more than an academic interest in AI’s acceptance in the coaching industry. The chatbot he built for research purposes has been updated to support generative AI, and commercialized as a product called Coach Vici. The chatbot is designed to scale coaching to be available to thousands of employees across an organization.

It seems inevitable that the role of AI will grow in the coaching sector. However, there could be some friction between what clients and coaches see as the value in AI coaching. A 2024 study by Terblanche found that while clients were keen to use a chatbot if their coach endorsed it, coaches themselves were more skeptical. The coaches worried that the technology might interfere with the client-coach relationship.

“Coach education is lacking,” he says. “We need to educate coaches about the benefits of AI.”

This article was reprinted with permission of Big Think, where it was originally published.

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