Digital Coaches

Over at Seth's Blog: A shortage of digital coaches Seth points out something that I have often considered and think has some merit.

As an IT literate guy I frequently find myself explaining to others how even the simplest IT things can be done more efficiently (or effectively) with small changes in behaviour or thinking. Often these things are as straight forward as, "You can copy and paste using Control-C and V" or "There are better tools than Excel for collecting this information." Some people take these things and run with them, and others revert to type within minutes but this rarely leads to the sky falling in. This level of individual coaching, however, is not going to attract work at $100/hr.

Sometimes more complex offerings involve the other party rethinking how they approach what they are doing in order to facilitate the types of efficiency gains that Seth refers to. This poses quite an obstacle in large project/organisations. A common scenario is a project sub-team that is focussed on how the output of a process looks, e.g. a report in given format, and considers that the only way to do it is to collate information, in isolation from others, into that output format. This, IMHO, is rarely the most efficient way to do it even in the unlikely event that their outputs are independent of all others in related tasks. However, addressing any IT efficiencies in this process are almost always focussed, by the client, on ways of collating information in that output format and not on a more holistic approach to the problem(s). My experience of several large Defence and commercial projects is that the larger the project the greater this inertia of thinking becomes. Of course, large projects are often supported by IT teams that should be guiding the project's computing directions: in practice I think they are often marginalized by the project management (outside of IT projects they're running) or organisational issues. Complex environments also dictate a longer required (non-productive) period by the coach to assess the most effective changes; creating a financial barrier that feeds the thought inertia. Whether an external digital coach would have any effect in this environment is debatable.

I am sure that Seth's notion of 'digital coaches' will work in some circles. It has a greatly improved chance of success in smaller settings where the coach is requested, respected, and has the ear of someone with the desire and capacity to enforce/ensure adoption of change. It seems to me essential that the coach can grasp the situation in a reasonably small time and start making productive suggestions: after all the customer does not want to be paying $100/hr for two weeks to see some result. Seth's example of a restaurant or small business seems to be about right. Dave Saunders commented, "I love the idea of a digital coach. I sure wouldn't want to do it though." I agree: at least until I've tried it in a small business. I've already tried it in large organisations, and the best I could say is that it's often demoralising and usually ineffective. Maybe that's an indictment of my own abilities rather than the concept.