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Where’s the Evidence? First Steps into the Literature By Dr. Annette Fillery-Travis

Research: Let's take a minute to reflect upon what that word means for us as coaches. Do we think of it as remote from practice, constrained by a set of rules and 'paradigms' that leave us cold, or is it a wonderful opportunity to explore, update and deepen our practice?

As a professional researcher and coach, I have supervised many coaching practitioners during their Masters degrees. Most have started their research with some trepidation and a sense that they were entering into another world, with a new vocabulary and a set of rules about which they knew little. It seems that we, as researchers, have done a good job of mystifying our trade!

Yet, as the coaching profession develops, we are becoming increasingly aware that we need to delineate coaching from other offers in the market; identify the real value we can bring to our clients; and be able to advise the buyers of coaching on which coaching interventions are fit for their purpose. To do this we need to have evidence of what works and how. In effect, we need a thorough grounding in both the theory and practice of what we do and the research which underpins it.

We should be happy therefore that the number of studies and research papers on coaching is steadily increasing. The first research article, which looked at 'coaching' as a discrete activity, was written in the 1930s and focused on coaching in a sales force. Publications then averaged one or two per decade until the 1980s when interest picked up. Since then, there has been a near exponential increase in publications. We now have specific journals for general interest coaching articles and research papers. There has also been a corresponding increase in Doctorate theses on coaching-related subjects. This does not, of course, include the vast range of books on coaching that draw heavily from the research. Although they are of great use to their readers, they generally do not report new research, but draw upon the established research literature. As a consequence, I have not included them in the figures. Within this wealth of text, the most popular type of article is descriptive reporting of a coaching intervention and single case studies, although there is a move to more empirical evaluations of case and group studies.

But are they of equal value and how do we know what is good research and what is not so good? How do we know what should influence our practice and our advice to clients?

One place to start when considering these issues is to identify the research question being asked and whether the evidence presented would convince you enough to change what you do, i.e., what is the purpose of the enquiry/research and the perspective from which it is being asked?

This is not a trivial question so it is worth working with an example. If I was to ask: Does coaching improve the performance of executives?

Then, assuming we are all agreed on what constitutes coaching (which may be a big assumption!), there are still two words in the question that have a variety of meanings depending upon your perspective—these are 'improve' and 'performance.'

From the perspective of an HR professional managing the coaching intervention 'improved performance' may mean:
a) An increase in the scores of the executives on 360 degree feedback
For the manager of the coachee, it may mean:
b) A 10 percent increase in sales
And from the viewpoint of the coach it may be:
c) The perceived satisfaction of the executives that they have addressed the issues identified in the coaching contract

Just from consideration of these three perspectives, I can identify three different ways of conducting this enquiry. For (a) I may consider 360 degree feedback before and after a coaching intervention; for (b) I may look at sales figure before and after; whereas for (c) a series of interviews with coaches after coaching would be one way of hearing their views. For the sales manager, the interviews with the coachees will be of limited value whereas the coach will find them highly informative.

Obviously these are simplifications, but they illustrate just how the particular perspective of the researcher and the end user will define the value of the answer and whether the research has fulfilled its purpose.

In a similar manner, a single case study can provide a rich picture of a particular intervention allowing a deep exploration of the context, attitudes and outcomes for the individuals concerned. But the purpose and perspective of the intervention may be highly specific to the case under investigation and have little to offer another organization in another context.

A reflection on the purpose and perspective of the research we access will often sort the wheat from the chaff and identify what has real value for us in our individual practice. It will nearly always also reveal a wealth of further questions. The old adage in this case is true—our answers only provide for further questions. It is at this point that many of us consider entering the field of enquiry ourselves and undertaking practitioner research. In my next column, I will talk about the real benefits both to practice and the profession of practitioner research.

If you would like to add your comments on this piece or would like to share your favorite research study (we do all have them) then please send them in, and I will be happy to add them to the 'Worth Reading List' below, which will be a consistent feature of this column.

Worth Reading
To get a general overview of the research into coaching and how it has evolved over the years, reading the following article is an excellent start. It is a free download from the web address included here.

Grant, Anthony M., and Michael J. Cavanagh. 2004. "Toward a Profession of Coaching: Sixty-five Years of Progress and Challenges for the Future." International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring): 1.
http://www.brookes.ac.uk/schools/education/ijebcm/home.html

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (February 2008, Volume 4, Issue 1). Copyright © 2011 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.