The past, present, and future of employee development

Coach leading employee development seminar

Not to get all Seinfeld on you, but what’s the deal with employee development?

Of course, we know it’s crucial to retaining top talent – especially in the younger workforce. Recent Gallup research found that 87 per cent of millennials say development is important in a job, and 59 per cent say that “opportunities to learn and grow” are extremely important to them when applying for a job.

But where did this all come from? How did employee development and coaching become such a crucial part of the modern workforce?

To learn more, we spoke with Mike Morrison of U.K. consulting firm RapidBI. As a passionate learning and organizational development specialist (and somewhat of a coaching historian), Morrison offered up valuable insights on where employee development came from – and where it’s headed.

Workopolis: To start with, can you tell me what a learning and organizational development specialist does?

M.M. I’m a freelance consultant who is brought in to work with individuals and teams to help them perform better. So, sometimes that may involve doing one-to-one coaching, sometimes it may involve running training workshops, sometimes it may be working with management teams to review processes. It really is a range of things aiming to align people, skills, and behaviors with business performance.

So, that’s what you do now. But let’s go back in time a bit. In a post you wrote on the history of coaching, you pinpoint its origin to 1830 – what happened?

If you look at the origins of the term coaching, it came out of Oxford. It was a tutor that carried one of their students when the student wasn’t performing.

And that understanding really moved into sports where somebody had been there, done it, had a career, but physically couldn’t really do it anymore. So, they were there to share their experiences in that space, and to coach them in the technical skills of what it took to be a successful hurdler, soccer, football, or baseball player, whatever.

They really were a person of knowledge sharing their experiences. A bit like a mentor but really specific around skills. So coaching was really about “I’ve been there, I’ve done it, I’ve got some stuff I’m going to share with you and I’m going to build your skills.”

And that’s one flavor of coaching that tends not to exist in the professional world anymore.

So how did professional coaching continue to develop from there?

If you go back into the 1960s, the only people that were really advising businesses in those days were a number of consultants, and there weren’t that many of them.

But there were the accountancy firms that the companies worked with. They were originally doing tax and returns, and they slowly realized over time that businesses also needed consulting in the broader sense. They needed knowledge and manpower that they didn’t want on their books. And that’s where a lot of the big international consultancies sprung up.

And then as you got toward the early ‘80s, sprung out of that consulting world there were people called business advisors. And those business advisors generally were a cross between a mentor and a consultant. Quite often these people had been in business or finance, they’ve taken redundancy or early retirement, because they could afford to, but they still wanted something to do. And there were businesses out there that didn’t have the skills and wanted a different view.

So there were people that were being brought in really for their knowledge and short-term commitment to a business.

More recently, how have these roles changed?

In the last 10 to 15 years, those roles have basically gone. Business advisors seem to have disappeared or are now under the umbrella of big coaching groups running business advice services. These are under the banner of coaching, but they tend to follow their franchise model of “Oh this is where you are, there’s the problem, this is what we’re going to do for you.” Which I don’t think is that healthy either but you know that’s the problem of scale.

What’s also changed is that over 20 to 25 years, the employment market has literally flipped from most people being in big business to now most people being in very small business. And while on the surface that might not make that much difference, it makes a massive difference to coaching or learning and development.

And we’ll get more into that in an upcoming post. So, what’s coaching like now?

I think there’s been a bit of a divergence. Look at sports. They have the traditional technical skills coach, but they also have what you could loosely call a mental coach. And the mental coach is there to help them with their attitude and their inner game.

When you’re very good, the difference between two people is not skill, it’s mental attitude. But you’ve got to be competent in order to do that. You can’t just have somebody coach your mental head if you don’t have the physical skills in the first place. So the two things go hand in hand.

So in sports they go hand in hand, but in business they’re diverging?  

So coaching I think is falling between two things.

Life coaching assumes that the individual has all the skills that they need already. This is one of the reasons why I believe a lot of life coaching has failed – because actually the people don’t have the skills but they’re paying somebody to basically say, “Yes you can do it!”

But in the world of learning development, businesses have reduced their budgets and there are more what you might class as one-to-one trainers out there now that are doing things like basic management skills, time management, report writing – stuff that they’re calling coaching, which is really just one-on-one training.

So sometimes you might hire a coach with the idea of learning some skills, but the coach’s view is, “I’m just going to motivate you to do it because I think you’ve got the skill.” And that to me is a worry.

Which one do you do?

I’d like to think that I float across both. Because I’ve got a fairly broad toolset.

So what about the future? Where do you think the people development industry is headed in the next 50 years?

One of the things that hasn’t happened yet is the fusion of technology and people.

We’ve had a vast number of people not going to training courses any more, and doing more and more eLearning. And I think that the bubble is starting to burst on that, and the people are realizing that there’s a component missing – it isn’t just about knowledge, it’s about engagement.

I think what we’ll start to see is people facilitating others doing online learning a lot more. So rather than you just sign up for it for a little workshop online, there will be someone that helps to provide the interaction, the discussion, the collaboration between people that are basically doing the same stuff. Because we learn better socially.

Where that hybrid can come in will be really interesting. I think that some of the stuff that is happening around artificial intelligence is really going to build on that.

AI could, in fact, pretend to be a co-learner. So you could be in a chat room with two or three other AIs and you wouldn’t necessarily know that they’re AIs, they’re just other students to you. And by bouncing ideas around the room between two, three, four, five people in a chat type environment, that can really accelerate learning in a way that is truly just in time.

See also:
How to be a good boss: 7 tips from an executive coach
Big league tips: are you a disciplinarian or a players’ coach?


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