The benefits of coaching are clear. This development tool improves performance, employee retention, learning retention, employee engagement and behavior change. It can even help eliminate the gender leadership gap.

As Alan Fine, founder and president of InsideOut Development, wrote for Training Industry Magazine:

“If we were contemplating piano or math lessons for our children, we would not send them for three hours of training and expect their performance to improve. We would, however, send them for ongoing coaching over a period of months, because we know that repetition and feedback over time make a difference. It’s no different in the workplace.”

Most training programs, especially online training programs, “are really focused on knowledge acquisition,” says Doug Seifert, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Syandus. But “to achieve performance, knowing’s not enough.” Learners must practice making decisions in real-life scenarios. Coaching fills performance gaps by using experts to guide learners when they practice those new skills. In fact, “it’s becoming a must-have.”

When compared with other types of training, adds Jon Luckett, client director at Bigrock, coaching is more engaging, personalized and relevant. It can support the learning and application of skills in areas including leadership, people and performance management, customer service, pitching and presenting, negotiation, and others. And it provides a “dynamic, personalized and targeted learning experience … that fits around modern life.”

While in-person coaching is invaluable, it does present challenges, especially when organizations want to use it for a large number of employees. It can be expensive, and it’s not always available in the moment of need. Coaching “is really hard to do one-on-one,” says Seifert. “Often, it’s pushed to managers that lack the interest or acumen or time to coach enough.”

Automating Coaching

Virtual coaching can help solve these problems. Bigrock, for example, recently launched Coachical, which Luckett says is “built to mirror a traditional coaching experience, with the key difference being that you work with a digital ‘robo-coach.’” The robo-coach diagnoses learners’ strengths and areas for improvement and then builds “a dynamic and personalized coaching plan,” along with reminder notifications.

Similarly, Syandus’ AliveSim is a virtual practice and coaching platform designed to provide “the missing piece between training and top performance,” according to Seifert. The platform uses gaming and cognitive science to immerse learners into realistic scenarios with virtual humans. With the help of coaching, they begin to recognize “the patterns of optimal decision-making,” which they can then use on the job.

With this type of virtual coaching, learners are dropped into scenarios and asked, “What would you do?” They role-play the situation and receive feedback from the virtual coach. That feedback helps them build an expert mental model, which then becomes their actual behavior “IRL” (in real life).

Measuring Success

Technology also enables organizations to measure progress automatically. For example, Coachical’s “dynamic coaching plan adapts to show [learners’] improved capability, as does their overall score.” Organizations can use analytics to see how employees are using the tool; compare skills at the team and individual levels; and track organizational, team and individual progress.

Seifert says AliveSim users measure success by looking at employee performance improvement and learning outcomes. For example, are employees performing better and more quickly? Did coaching fill performance gaps? How much coaching was required? Where do learners need additional support? “Often, in live coaching, [organizations] don’t get that sort of objective data,” Seifert says. With automated data collection and analytics, organizations receive actionable information they can use right away.

Certainly, no technology – at least no technology we’ve been able to develop yet – can replace a one-on-one conversation with an expert coach. But when it comes to making sure large numbers of learners are able to get the practice they need to really integrate their new skills, and supporting that skill-building with coaching, technology can certainly provide a more efficient option.