As learning becomes more and more immersive, the potential of new technologies in Learning and Development programmes is palpable. One of the biggest opportunities in the upcoming decade for disrupting and energising L&D, and soft skills development in particular, is offered by virtual reality (VR) training.
Tech innovators and forward-looking business leaders believe that technology – and its ability to simulate real-world scenarios in a controlled but highly realistic environment – holds the key to the future of learning.
Can VR enhance soft skills?
Before virtual reality, or even e-learning opportunities, the corporate classroom was the only environment that could provide soft skills training. The classroom facilitates direct contact between employees and instructors through role-play exercises and a “learning by doing” approach. But face-to-face role play is not always applicable to a large number of employees in a short amount of time.
“From a Learning & Development perspective, VR combines the scaling potential of e-learning with the experiential impact of face-to-face training,” says Alice Bonasio, VR and Digital Transformation Consultant. The experiential element is triggered because our brains do not distinguish between the virtual environment and the real one. Although on a conscious level we see the difference, we absorb the information as if it were a real-life experience, according to Derek Belch, Founder and CEO of the VR training provider Strivr.
Because it offers on-demand access and trains employees faster, developers of this technology say that VR is also more easily scalable than traditional learning methods for soft skills. A 2020 study by PwC, which reviewed the effectiveness of its own VR headset, found that virtual reality enables training which is four times faster than in the classroom.
How does it work in practice?
Virtual reality has been a buzzword in the corporate world for a long time now. Can it really be applied efficiently in a Learning and Development setting?
Dean Slawson, Co-founder and CEO of VRAINIUM, believes that speech technology is one of the major sources of insight and data about the VR learning process. Learners receive feedback on how much they talk compared to how much they listen or how often they ask questions, Slawson explains.
Similarly, eye-tracking and head-tracking technology will measure how the learner maintains eye contact and whether they are displaying active listening behaviours. With these analytics, L&D experts can connect patterns in communication and review them in the context of their company training needs.
The name itself already hints at one of the greatest technical strengths of virtual reality. It allows users to enter an unlimited range of simulated environments. “You can literally do anything in VR. You can have a meeting at the MIT Lab and talk about innovation as a team […]. You could go to the moon and have a conversation about where future resources are going to come from,” highlights Ryan Heinl, Director of Product Management at DDI Labs. Leaders and executives in L&D who are considering the implementation of VR for soft skills training should keep this in mind before deciding to recreate their own office environment in the simulation, Heinl says.
Less bias, more inclusivity
If the latest technology can help organisations analyse and improve employee communication and other soft skills, could its potential extend even further? Researchers at Dell Technologies say that it can. Their 2018 study of companies across 40+ countries and 12 industries found that 67% of business leaders expect to use new technologies to create equal opportunities by removing human bias in decision-making.
“A beneficial side product of the immersive learning experience is the collection of metadata users generate, which can be analysed to expose behavioural patterns and bias,” agrees Venci Lukanov, XR Director at ImmerseFX. “Enterprises that manage to leverage this human-machine symbiotic collaboration can reveal and use authentic insights to boost the awareness of self and others and accomplish new levels of inclusivity and empathy among employees,” he adds.
Although VR providers are working to enhance the technology’s capabilities, it has a long way to go to address topics such as inclusive decision-making and unconscious bias. And when it does, L&D leaders will need to distinguish the fine line between trying to change how employees think and guiding them towards the right behaviours. “The goal isn’t somehow to make people unbiased, which I don’t think is possible; the goal is to make you aware of your biases,” Learning Technologies professor Chris Dede emphasises for NPR.
There are real-life cases in which companies have already implemented VR to encourage inclusive and empathic behaviours. The financial services corporation Fidelity Investments has started an empathy training programme for its call centre staff. The training is powered by the Google Daydream headset, says Forbes, and it helps employees get to know the homes of Fidelity’s customers. By witnessing “stacks of medical bills on a counter or a customer with medical crutches by her side”, employees are encouraged to demonstrate empathy and provide personalised support.
How to introduce VR training in L&D
Available data on the performance and effectiveness of VR for soft skills training is growing. But as we learn more about its role in L&D, it also becomes clear that the real value lies in combining different learning approaches. PwC’s latest study, which reviewed its own VR tech, also emphasises that the ideal training programme has a blended format. A balanced mix of classroom, online, and VR courses should bring positive results, as long as it is tailored to the training goals, content, and budget.
Companies should be prepared for potential technical difficulties in the initial phases of using VR for soft skills training. Even if the technology performs perfectly, some learners may still feel uncomfortable or experience nausea when wearing a VR headset – this is a common issue with the current generation of headsets, shares Dragana Beara, Global Messaging Director, Augmentation & Immersive Technologies at Dell, in a MERIT interview. L&D leaders should anticipate this scenario and be ready with content in other formats so that everyone is able to participate in the training.
Whether it is an experimental L&D initiative or part of a bigger blended learning programme, it seems VR can offer a novel, out-of-the-box method for delivering soft skills training. Leaders who are open to exploring VR features for their own learning needs will be able to test its full potential.
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By Zornitsa Licheva