Smart coaching

David Marshall outlines the impact of technology on the coaching and mentoring process

Mobile technology continues to advance at a lightning pace. There are now more smartphones sold worldwide than ever before. Apple sells 575 iPhones a minute every day and has sold more than one billion devices since the introduction of the iPhone. There are more than 1.2million apps available and “there’s now an app for everything” has become a common phrase.

This rise in smartphone technology and app development has meant that technology has impacted several areas of the training, HR and management professions, including the coaching and mentoring process.

The benefits that modern technology, such as apps, has brought to the coaching and mentoring process are numerous. Coaching and mentoring apps allow learning on the go without the need to be at a laptop or desk to learn. It also allows you to tap into the generation of people who are using smartphones or tablets on a frequent basis; allows learning at a time that is convenient to the coach or mentee and allows the learner to learn what they want to learn when they want to learn in a more effective way than through books or face-to-face training alone.

One example of a company using apps to boost the impact of its coaching and mentoring programmes is MBNA, a credit card company based in Chester, who built an app to assist its managerial leadership mentoring scheme.

As well as having the usual training workshops and mentoring sessions, each of the participants of the coaching course had an app that taught them the key skills they’d need. The app was designed to augment their learning in the classroom and let them learn ‘on the go’.

MBNA have been running their leadership development programme for three years. Part of that programme is built around a mentoring culture, with middle managers mentoring frontline managers, developed in partnership with 10Eighty.

MBNA takes a ‘speed dating’ approach to mentoring, where the mentors and mentees get together in a room, taking five minutes each to talk about what they want from the mentoring relationship and how the mentee thinks the mentor can help them. At end of session, the mentees select or rate the mentors they’ve met and decide who they want as a mentor, much like a speed dating event.

 As part of the mentoring programme, a workshop was run for people who wanted to be mentors. This takes a strength-based psychological approach, it involves getting the manager to identify their own strengths and what strengths they can bring to the mentoring relationship.

As an aid for the mentors, MBNA decided to build an app that would help the programme’s participants build on the strength-based psychological approach and guide them through the mentoring relationship.

The app has a Treasure Island theme, dividing the app into chapters that correspond with the parts of the mentoring programme, such as ‘An introduction to mentoring’, ‘Mentoring skills’, ‘Listening skills’ and ‘Do’s and don’ts of the mentoring relationship’.

Users of the app work through the chapters as they work through the mentoring programme, with the app complementing the normal training workshops and mentoring meetings. With each chapter, the aim is to try to find a diamond, which represents the skills that the mentoring relationship is trying to unveil as part of the programme. Completing the ‘Listening skills’ chapter will unlock the listening diamond, a key skill in the development of MBNA leaders.

The interactive approach that the technology unlocks has become a key part of the wider mentoring culture within MBNA and provides digital learning at leaders’ fingertips.

The leadership mentoring network within MBNA is part of the company’s Explore Employee Engagement Experience initiative and it has seen a rise in employee engagement from 52 per cent to 82 per cent in the last three years. Providing new and innovative learning experiences aligned to business strategy and current transformation has been key to the organisation’s success.

Another success story is Glasgow City College who launched its first ever mobile learning app. Since its launch in July 2014, the Equality and Diversity Coaching Course has been taken by more than 2,500 registered students, all using their own tablets and smartphones.

To date, the feedback from students has shown that the course has been “very well received”, prompting the college to measure the impact of the training in the months ahead. 

As part of Glasgow City College’s ongoing commitment to promote equality and diversity among the student population, the college’s equality and diversity manager, Graeme Brewster, commissioned the coaching course that would run on both mobile and desktop platforms. “With equality and diversity being such an issue at the moment for universities and colleges around the country, we decided to commission a course with Marshall ACM.” Brewster added: “We noted that an exponential number of College Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) student sign-ins are being done on mobile devices. Also, the College has a big drive on accessibility, and digitisation contributed to the decision to create a mobile-friendly package.”

To ensure the course could reach as large an audience as possible, the app was designed to be compatible across platforms, so students could take the course whether they use an iPhone, Android or Windows device.

The app needed to contain all the core messages and interactions of the desktop version, but in smaller, more manageable chunks. There was also a redesigned interface that reflects the way people navigate on mobile.

The success of the College’s equality and diversity coaching programme has been highlighted by Education Scotland in the annual report which states: “The emphasis placed by the College on diversity and equality issues has a positive influence on staff, with staff identifying that this impacts positively on learning and teaching ‘every day and in every lesson’. Staff and learners also appreciated the personal and curricular benefits of working and learning within a very diverse environment.”

The diversity of the College environment and the focus on equalities good practice has had a significant impact on the culture of the College. One member of staff said that: “equality and diversity has moved from a tick box exercise to be embedded within the culture – it doesn’t feel like an added extra any more”.

Glasgow City College’s approach to its training shows that areas of coaching and mentoring that might not normally be considered to be of relevance to technology can now be enhanced with things like apps, meaning that coaching and mentoring schemes can be brought to life beyond formal training with learning on the go and between lessons, at the coach’s or mentee’s convenience.

There are other more general apps that coaching and mentoring programmes can draw on, such as Peak, a brain training app for executives and coaches that helps improve various aspects of mental agility.

Peak was launched in September 2014 by London-based start-up Brainbow. It gathers data in the daily mental exercises that could shine a light on how we use our brains in our professional lives.

Peak mimics the way fitness apps let you set daily goals and has daily workouts for your grey matter, focusing on games to improve language skills, mental agility, problem-solving, focus and memory. It also lets you set up training reminders at specific times on each day of the week.

Beyond finding out if you’re smarter than your colleagues, the possibilities for using the data produced by users are impressive. Brainbow is at the early stages of trying to identify patterns by profession that could eventually be used for coaching and mentoring for improvement in those different professions.

So impressive are the results that the app gets for its users, Apple hand­picked Peak’s brain training app as one of the top apps in over 20 countries in 2014. This might just be the ‘peak’ app for the coaching and mentoring process.

But there are downsides to relying on technology to deliver in coaching and mentoring programmes. If you’re used to smartphone technology, it’s easy. But some people, even if they have a smartphone, might find it difficult to use an app as part of their coaching or
mentoring programme.

Building an app, whether for apps or smartphones, takes more time than you might at first think. Each coaching or mentoring programme is different, they are run by different types of companies with different cultures and training needs, and those companies are comprised of individual managers and executives who have different learning needs and styles. Designing and building an app to meet all of these criteria and ensuring that the app will be actively used takes lots of user research, time to design and time to pull all learnings together into the final app.

Once the first version of the app is finished, it may well need to be iterated as further unexpected challenges come up until it all comes together at a certain point. And before anyone can even get their hand on the app, legal issues and getting the content signed off by the client can take longer than expected.

Lastly, by its very nature, coaching and mentoring benefits hugely from building personal relationships and face-to-face interaction – an aspect that technology is unlikely to replace.

As technological changes continues to accelerate in the sector, we need to ensure that it augments training, not replaces it. The technology we’ve looked at today is designed to augment the coaching and mentoring relationship, not replace it.

Ultimately, the sensitive nature of coaching and mentoring means that workshops and private meetings between the mentor and mentee will always take precedence.


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