Virtual reality: The soft skills training secret weapon

Todd Martin

Todd Martin

Date: January 21, 2020

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Originally published on Medium.com

A growing list of organisations are implementing Virtual Reality (VR) technology for workplace training. Most L&D practitioners will know about or have seen VR used for high risk training scenarios, however, what is less clear is how the technology can help solve interpersonal skills needs (leadership, coaching, critical conversations etc). This article explores the rationale behind such an approach and outlines the unique value proposition of VR for interpersonal skills training in an Australian context.

What are the benefits of VR for workplace training?

There are some obvious benefits of using VR for workplace training. Firstly, engagement and immersion with training content. Every training designer and facilitator knows how hard it is to create engaging learning opportunities that hold peoples’ attention and translate into real behaviour change. When wearing a headset, the visual and auditory senses of a user are almost completely taken over by the virtual content, this level of immersion far surpasses the engagement potential of traditional media formats (e.g. reading, screen-based content).

Secondly, such immersive experiences can be delivered at scale without the complexity and cost of creating real-life simulations and/or using face-face tuition. Once the content has been created it can be delivered and consumed anywhere in the world where there is a headset and an internet connection; thus, offering scalability similar to the eLearning modality but with greater engagement and realism.

Thirdly, beyond the cost of scaling, VR also offers the ability to create environments and learning situations which would be impossible or very unsafe to recreate in real life, even with very large budget. Consequently, practicing high-risk/low frequency events has been a main use case for VR for some time now, especially in industries such as military, law enforcement, aviation, medical, resources/energy sector.

However, there is now a growing interest in leveraging the high fidelity and immersion of VR to recreate and practice high risk/low frequency interpersonal situations. For example, critical public announcements, important safety conversations, key negotiations, and performance management conversations. These interactions may not be perceived as high a risk as a threat to physical safety/infrastructure, most people reading this will understand the ‘risk’ (and organisational costs) of poor interpersonal skills of leaders and key people. One only has to look at the average annual spend on leadership/culture development in organisations to see the value that is put on such skills.

What do such use cases look like in practice?

The below two examples outline how VR technology is being used for such ‘soft-skills’ use cases.

Use Case 1: Large dispersed workforce with diverse learning requirements

The first example involves a large health services provider who provides primary health care services across a large geographic area including several very remote sites. The L&D function is required to support thousands of employees with a training remit encompassing a wide variety of interpersonal skills, ranging from customer service/reception skills, communicating with patients, through to negotiation and coaching skills of senior practitioners and leaders.

Additionally, the organisation wants to transition to a ‘bottom-up’, employee driven learning culture and thus the L&D team are keen to provide appealing and engaging opportunities to all employees. Furthermore, there is a strong drive to provide equitable access to such learning opportunities across the whole organisation, which means reaching remote employees in a cost-effective manner with quality learning experiences.

The L&D challenge & VR benefits

In order to achieve the aims outlined for this example, overcoming the geographic dispersion of the workforce is key. In person training is costly and inflexible, which means it is challenging to provide equitable access across the entire workforce (remote employees often miss out on in person sessions).

The benefit of VR training is clear in that it provides a mechanism for reaching dispersed/remote employees more efficiently than live/in person training; all that is required is a headset and an internet connection. Whilst eLearning-based training also solves the geographic dispersion issues, this training modality is well known for lacking realism and being of limited appeal.

The other main challenge in the example: to provide a learning opportunity which employees actually want to engage in, something that is fun, interactive, and realistic. The realistic and interactive aspects of interpersonal skills training is especially difficult to achieve without real people. Well-developed VR lessons can provide a very high level of realism by using 360-degree video content. In this content, the learner is fully immersed in an interaction or conversation and can literally feel the emotions of the scene. Interactivity can be added by creating video-based simulations which are a series of videos linked by choices which then show consequences of actions which are a very powerful learning tool. Additionally, some VR platforms offer virtual role play functions, whereby the learner based in a remote location can practice interpersonal interactions with an expert or coach located anywhere in the world.

So, in this dispersed workforce example, VR training especially for interpersonal skills has the potential to add significant value by reducing costs, increasing quality and engagement and reducing the regional / metro gap that exists in so many organisations with dispersed workforces.

Use Case 2: Professional Services firm

In the second example the organisation is a national professional services firm providing a wide range of management consulting and human resource services. One of the main challenges for the L&D team here is to onboard and train junior consultants in various specialist knowledge portfolios quickly and efficiently. Traditionally this has been approached through a combination of self-paced eLearning material and mentoring sessions from more experienced consultants. There are clear limitations of this approach however, such as taking time away from senior consultants and the limited engagement and realism of the eLearning modality.

The L&D challenge & VR benefits

The business need here was clear, provide an engaging way to onboard junior consultants, getting them to a standardised level of competence faster whilst tying up as little as senior consultant time as possible. Additionally, there was a strong drive within the organisation to capture the expertise of senior consultants who have developed high levels of proficiency in certain areas of practice or market segments, as part of broader succession planning.

One of the main benefits of VR for this use case was the greater realism offered relative to eLearning modality. Highly effective interpersonal skills are a real differentiator in a service provision business such as consulting, as such the realism of the training was a major consideration. Again, VR and 360 video simulations in particular, offered the greatest level of realism currently available without using a face-face modality. The solution chosen involved developing an immersive soft skills induction package which was complemented by a reduced amount of face-face mentoring. The induction package involved capturing the expertise of senior consultants in various domains from all around the nation mainly in 360-degree video format and developing a series of short immersive lessons around this.

Whilst this example was based on a professional services firm, the approach is a good example of technology driven expertise capture for nuanced but vital workplace skills. The VR modality can capture existing expertise in areas as subtle as interpersonal skills, and transfer these with a high level of fidelity to learners, and to do so in a cost effective and scalable manner.

Summary

Whilst VR will not replace high quality face-face interactions, these two examples illustrate the unique value VR can bring to the soft skills training agenda. Given that a large part of a positive workplace culture and high productivity is related to the human interactions that take place on a daily basis, the level of realism and interactivity that VR offers means it can be a cost-effective method to improve these aspects and re-shape the way soft skills training is done in organisations.

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