“We have a relatively young workforce,” says HR Director, Marc Van Hoecke. “Overall, we have 950 people working for us in Belgium and the average age is around 30. 67 percent of our people can be classed as ‘Generation Y’.”
Also known as the ‘millennial generation’, members of the Y demographic are often characterized in terms of their readiness to embrace and adapt to new communication technologies. As Marc points out, this is often apparent in the workplace. “What we see are people who don’t even use email very much,” he says. “They communicate via messaging, iPhones and social networks.”
Supporting the next generation
The requirements and expectations of this youthful and techno-literate generation were very much at the forefront of Marc’s mind when he developed his Virtual Coach system to sit alongside KPMG’s more traditional people development and evaluation methods.
KPMG in Belgium currently has about 250 coaches, and, as Marc stresses, the arrival of the Virtual Coach is not intended to replace them or in any way reduce the importance of their role. However, by introducing an online coaching tool, Marc and his colleagues have opened a new channel through which to engage with KPMG people and deliver on the organization’s development goals.
“The Virtual Coach is currently deployed to help those with about three or four years’ seniority,” says Marc. “What the tool does is help people at that stage of their career answer some key questions. Who am I? What do I want? Who will support me in my career?”
Virtual coaching in action
This tool is based on 4 tactics. Participants are asked to assess their own personal qualities, particularly their strengths and weaknesses. Next, they answer a series of questions about the skills required in the workplace at KPMG. What skills do they have? What skills do they need to acquire and how do they intend to acquire them? What is their own particular learning style (based on Kolb). The third section of the Virtual Coach focuses on ‘career anchors’ (Schein), those personal characteristics and drivers that help define the progress of an individual through the organization.
Finally, participants are asked about their futures and what they would like to achieve within KPMG in the years to come and how to build and use their network. “The whole thing takes about three hours to complete, but employees have around a month to fill it in.” says Marc.
A plan for the future
As Marc explains, ‘virtual coaching’ is more than just an exercise in self-assessment or information-gathering by HR. Virtual Coach is a launch pad for a personalized development program. “The results are fed back to the individuals and at that point they come to HR. On the basis of the results, we work out a personal development plan,” says Marc.
In terms of successful personal development, the plan must be fully implemented and it’s here that KPMG in Belgium’s flesh-and-blood coaches play a crucial role as enablers and evaluators of progress. “Virtual coaching isn’t a free ride,” says Marc. “We do ensure that participants work toward the goals in their individual plan and their coach is able to monitor their progress.”
In addition to facilitating personal development, the Virtual Coach provides HR with valuable insights into the ambitions and aspirations of their workforce. It can also help underline some of the problems that may result in valued staff members choosing to leave.
Marc cites an example of career progress. “Generation Y people are very ambitious,” he says. “One of the things we’ve seen is that, in some cases, the timescales that the organization has in place for promotions are out of step with the expectations of individuals who would want to move up more quickly.” Equally important, the processes provide a forum for discussions on mobility within the firm. For instance, a participant may express a desire to move to another practice, and as Marc points out, “This can be discussed and managed.”
A greater understanding
Marc believes virtual coaching enables a review of the ‘psychological contract’ between the firm and the individual. In all organizations, there are unwritten and often unspoken understandings between employer and staff based on perceptions of what each can expect from the other. If one party feels that the other is somehow not delivering on these contracts there can be a certain amount of friction, often leading to higher staff turnover. Through the Virtual Coach, HR can quickly identify such problems. To date, the results of virtual coaching have been promising. “Staff turnover is down from about 22 percent to 18 percent,” says Marc.
As Marc has pointed out, the Virtual Coach complements rather than diminishes the role of the HR department. Virtual coaching can help facilitate positive change among employees by providing both coaches and management with the information they need to improve the organization’s effectiveness.
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