This thesis addresses the lack of empirical clarity about what coaches do, what works and what constitutes research evidence in coaching, as well as the lack of explicit theoretical perspectives upon which current coaching and its research are based. It establishes that contemporary coaching takes place in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, and that there is need for a contextualist-coaching approach.
In a review of the literature, Pepper’s (1942) four world hypotheses are used as a lens of analysis for identifying implicit assumptions currently in use in coaching and its associated activities. Distinguishing between the systems-thinking concepts of closed, partially open, and open systems, Pepper’s lens reveals that current definitions and theoretical approaches to coaching implicitly assume formistic and mechanistic closed systems. While some coaching approaches are linked to the partially open systems assumptions of organicism, no approaches uncovered in the academic literature review align to the open systems assumptions of contextualism. The implications of these findings for coaching, the industry and the way that coaching research is conducted are discussed.
Similarly, a review of the coaching industry literature reveals that the open system principles espoused by industry organisations are in contradiction to the implicit closed system assumptions of formism and mechanism belied by their governance practices, standards and approaches to accreditation and credentialing. That is, industry bodies have developed practices that operate under the assumption that the external environment is static and all variables are identifiable and controllable.
To address these problems identified in the academic and practitioner literature on coaching, a research strategy involving Peirce’s triadic system of inferential logic (Hartshorne & Weiss 1935) within an analysis and synthesis dialectic framework is justified as a suitable process for forming hypotheses appropriate to the epistemic circumstances of the problem. An initial analysis and synthesis dialectic, commenced through the analysis conducted using Pepper’s world hypotheses during the literature review, is completed through a process of synthesis using abduction to formulate a hypothesis of best inference.
It is hypothesised that the incompatibility between the open system environment within which coaching occurs and the closed and partially open system assumptions upon which coaching practice and theory are currently based could be addressed with a coaching approach that adopts the open system assumptions of Pepper’s meta-theory of contextualism. Such a contextualist-coaching framework might be more effective than current coaching approaches within the open system external environment. Given that no contextualist-coaching approach currently exists, the following research question is formulated:
Research question: How can the researcher-practitioner coach within the assumptions of a contextualist world hypothesis?
An action research methodology is justified as appropriate for addressing this research question. Utilising three strategies, referred to in the thesis as the Business Action Research Cohort (BARC), the Hub and Spoke (H&S) and the Coach Training Cohort (CTC), various iterations of a contextualist-coaching approach emerge. It is argued that a strong theory base for coaching comes out of research that aligns with the assumptions of Pepper’s (1942) contextualism; namely, done in the field and with others. Lynham and McDonald’s (2011) model and Checkland and Holwell’s (1998) FMA framework are both used to link and report the synergism between theory, research and practice. In this way, a theoretical framework is developed that represents the salient features of a contextualist-coaching approach, whereby others judge the emergent categories as sufficiently recoverable.
The strength of contextualism as a lens through which to understand coaching in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world is that it accepts that the knowledge coaches attain will remain relative and incomplete. An argument is put forward that a contextualist-coaching approach, aligned to contextualism’s radical emphasis on change, represents a needed shift in thinking.