William Bergquist and William Carrier
We need to know more about what we are doing as professional coaches working in a complex and highly dynamic environment. This third issue of The Future of Coaching (like the second issue) is devoted to addressing questions associated with this knowledge gap.
The challenge is significant. Using a term that Donald Schon applied many years ago, valid and useful research on professional coaching will inevitably be “messy.” We can’t do tidy, controlled experiments in a university laboratory when seeking to find out what makes professional coaching work (and not work). We don’t get to run multiple trials in clean rooms to see what makes particular coaching strategies effective (or ineffective) in addressing specific issues that are being presented by a coaching client. Life and business—and the need to provide first for the client, not the research—don’t work like that. Together, we need to make a mess—but a purposeful, organized mess, the kind of mess that, in accumulation, actually clears things up.
Ample research has been conducted on professional coaching – as evident in the extensive list of publications cited by Lew Stern and Sunny Stout-Rostron in the second issue of The Future of Coaching. Their list contains only those articles and reports that are peer reviewed and published in major journals. There are many more that have been published in other journals, in books and on many websites. The problem (and challenge) that we are pointing out is not in the quantity of publications. It is not even in the individual quality of the work involved (which, of course, ranges broadly). It is the collective quality of work being done in producing the results being reported.
This is not meant as a critique of the work that has been done to date, for as mentioned above, we are facing the challenge of “messy” research that is being conducted in the field rather than in a laboratory. To exaggerate the problem in metaphor (which is likely a literary double-murder): It’s as if we are trying to complete a picture in a connect-the-dots book—but we keep turning pages every time we connect a pair of dots. We’re making headway, sure, but never on any one picture enough to resolve it to an image that makes sense. As one of us [WB] noted in an essay published in a previous issue of The Future of Coaching, the challenge is even more nuanced and complex. Who is determining the type of study being conducted, the nature of the evidence being collected, the criteria for determining effectiveness or motivation? The answers to these questions in turn shape the research questions themselves. To push our metaphor even farther—sometimes we aren’t even using the same book.