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Robot Coaches: New Model for Leadership Training?

Can artificial intelligence be used to coach managers on leadership and soft skills? One tech company CEO thinks so.

Despite growing interest in soft skills training, courses to teach them haven’t seen much innovation in how they are developed and delivered. While much of the industry has been focused on creating self-paced microlearning content, leadership courses and other soft skills are still mostly taught in classrooms via coaches or in live online environments.

“You can’t teach soft skills in a 10-minute YouTube video,” said Deloitte’s Leslie Knowlton. “To get good, you have to practice these skills in a real-world setting.”

One artificial intelligence software company is challenging that assumption. Butterfly.ai, based in New York, has developed and automated a tool for young managers in need of on-the-spot coaching. The app features a self-learning bot named Felix, who delivers custom tips and content and provides short, iterative feedback directly to managers.

“Traditional coaching takes time and money so companies don’t do it very often,” said David Mendlewicz, CEO and co-founder of Butterfly.ai. That often leaves novice leaders figuring out how to manage on their own through trial and error.

David Mendlewicz, CEO and co-founder, Butterfly.ai

That’s where Butterfly.ai steps in, providing tips based on real-time feedback from the manager’s team. It can also be programmed to alert managers and HR if they are in need of additional support.

“It flips the traditional management training model on its head,” Mendlewicz said.

Eventually, companies will be able to use the data they capture to identify high performers and to better fit leaders to teams. Mendlewicz sees this function as a natural iteration of data analytics in workforce planning.

“We are going to optimize talent management using soft skills data,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue as a sidebar to the feature article “Soft Is the New Strong.”

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