Diana Barea is MD of Accenture’s Talent and Organisation practice, and a keen advocate of VR’s potential for experience-based learning and new learning practices. Alison Morgan, recruitment lead for Accenture, views VR as a major opportunity for recruitment and capability development. We asked them to tell us what an effective VR learning experience looks like, and what the future holds for virtual training in the workplace.
Immerse Learning: Let’s start with the status quo. What challenges do workplace trainers face today, with regards to traditional learning?
Diana Barea: From what I’ve seen with my clients, and the research that we’ve done in the future space, learners are becoming more like consumers of content. As tech users and learners, the kind of content we’re expecting is a very short video which somebody else – somebody who is a similar user or learner to us – has created and posted on YouTube, or talked about at a conference. We have slightly shorter attention spans than ever before, and we’re looking for learning in a contextualised situation, and in a bite-sized chunk – a couple of minutes when we need it, rather than a couple of hours.
As such, people aren’t seizing traditional learning in the way they used to because their expectations have changed. They want on-demand. They want to learn from others. They want the content to be interactive and highly relevant to the context they’re in.
“AS SUCH, PEOPLE AREN’T SEIZING TRADITIONAL LEARNING IN THE WAY THEY USED TO BECAUSE THEIR EXPECTATIONS HAVE CHANGED.”
That said, the learners also want to be around other learners. They want to interact and form networks, be part of a community of peers who share their learning needs, or have other sets of knowledge which the community can draw on. That doesn’t have to take place in a classroom, though: in fact, most of the time it won’t. The pace of communication and the number of channels we work through nowadays mean we’re more attached to our work spaces and more able to form communities there.
Alison Morgan: For the clients I’ve worked with, the key challenges have been keeping learning fresh and updated. They also want learning to unfold at a reasonable pace. Sometimes content has to be delivered in small nuggets, simply because people don’t have hours and hours to invest in e-learning. In some cases, organisations need to spend time on something bespoke. In some cases they need to use something off the shelf.
IL: How does VR solve those challenges?
DB: I think it meets the challenges in many ways. It’s the embodiment of all of those things that we’ve just talked about. It’s contextualised; it can be accessed in bite-sized chunks; it’s in people’s own space, and it has a community aspect.
“PEOPLE DO MOST OF THEIR LEARNING AND CHANGE THEIR BEHAVIOURS THROUGH EXPERIENCES AND MEMORIES. IN VR THEY’RE CREATING RICHER MEMORIES AND FORMING STRONGER HABITS BECAUSE THEY’VE HAD A MULTI-SENSORY EXPERIENCE.”
Most importantly, it lets a learner feel they are having an experience. People do most of their learning and change their behaviours through experiences that form new neural pathways and create memories. In VR they’re creating richer memories and forming stronger habits because they’ve had a multi-sensory experience. They’re not merely listening to somebody explain how to do maintenance on a piece of kit. They have to take part in it and they do so without the risk and the cost to the organisation of the learning curve – specifically the damage that people do when they’re not skilled yet.
AM: Virtual reality can account for everything. Think about barriers around language issues, and trying to convey information clearly. Giving somebody for whom English is not a first language a massive raft of text is not helpful. The cost of translating that and getting it done accurately, particularly if it’s something like a safety procedure which you have to get right, is a significant issue. With VR you’re able to present something more visual and get people to experience it. That’s helpful where there are concerns about letting people use particular equipment or work in a particular scenario without any preparation.
IL: What do you think makes an effective VR learning or VR training experience? What does a tutor need to do to get the most out of the technology for their students?
DB: Learning is a behaviour change. People often over-focus on what the learners are going to do and how they are going to do it, but from my experience with clients you’ve got to get the why in there. Why is this going to make a difference to you as an individual? To you as a learner? To you as part of this organisation?
“ANY TIME WE OVERCOME SOMETHING THAT CANNOT BE OVERCOME IN THE REAL WORLD IS A MASSIVE “THAT’S WHY” FOR VR.”
I think the why of VR is powerful, because it’s having an experience in something which is otherwise impossible. It’s impossible for people to work in conditions which are hazardous to their bodies. You can’t have people in toxic environments where they wouldn’t be able to survive. Any time we overcome something that cannot be overcome in the real world is a massive “that’s why” for VR.
IL: Where does VR fit into your roles at Accenture?
AM: There are some elements of assessment centres that need to feel particularly realistic and offer a more visual experience. In those situations, VR helps people get a feel for what their experience might be like at work, and it means recruiters can put people in real life situations where they can demonstrate their skills.
DB: Right now, we have some great practitioners who are helping our clients solve their challenges and identify their learning strategy. I think VR has the potential to be so broad, and not just be labelled as a learning technology. I think it’s a way of testing and innovating. It’s a vehicle to bring innovation to the forefront of the organisation because it lets you try, experiment and fail fast. It does all the things that we talk about – move into digital organisations, agile ways of working, making businesses truly flexible and responsive, and disruptive rather than being disrupted. I think it’s part of the “future of work” toolkit.
IL: You’ve hit on the question of innovation and disruption. What kind of innovations and disruptions do you see in the global economy, or certain industries, which have made this the right time for VR to take off?
AM: Organisations now feel that it’s more within reach and affordable, and it’s become part of the content strategy that they consider for some key roles.
What a lot of organisations want to see is the business case benefits. Anything that you can present in terms of “delivers X amount of sales capability uplift”, anything that translates to a certain amount of money, or to this many safety incidents, or reducing time to competence by X amount. You have to convey the quantitative benefits rather than the more qualitative outcomes. As providers work with more clients, they will be able to articulate the quantitative benefits, and that gives organisations more confidence.
DB: Why now? Speaking as a forty-something, I see my children, who are six and eight, expecting everything to behave like an iPhone. I think that’s started to change the workforce’s expectations, now that they see the youngest generation not having the sorts of boundaries that they had.
“IF THE EXPECTATION OF LOOKING AT A PENCIL CASE IS THAT THE PENCIL CASE HAS TO MOVE AND BE REAL, LEARNING HAS TO BE A MULTI-SENSORY EXPERIENCE. THE YOUNGEST GENERATION ARE NOT GOING TO ACCEPT ANYTHING LESS THAN THAT.”
For example, my son was looking at a website of a high street retailer that sells pencil cases and rucksacks, clocks and watches. He only wanted to look at ones that showed the rucksack moving around and things moving around, a pencil case jumping into it and it zipping itself closed. When you look at products in that way, you expect virtual reality in all the media that you experience. If the expectation of looking at a pencil case is that the pencil case has to move and be real, learning has to be a multi-sensory experience. The youngest generation is not going to accept anything less than that.
Jumping pencil cases: For some, virtual reality is now expected across all media
The VR experience we have in our consumer lives, what we see in the cinema or when gaming, is so realistic – it’s just beyond what reality would permit. That means virtual reality is becoming the norm.
IL: Which industries do you think will see major VR training growth next?
AM: I think it mostly depends on cost, and how much a given business needs the technology. If you think about the oil industry, which I’ve worked in, VR could be incorporated for the downstream workforce. Rather than going through a series of exercises and lessons, you could use VR to expose them to a more realistic environment, test people’s capability and then work to address skills gaps. You’d reduce the time spent training by being more targeted in your approach.
“YOU COULD USE VR TO EXPOSE THEM TO THE MORE REALISTIC ENVIRONMENT, TEST PEOPLE’S CAPABILITY AND THEN WORK TO ADDRESS SKILLS GAPS. YOU’D REDUCE THE TIME SPENT TRAINING COMPETENCIES THAT ARE ALREADY THERE.”
DB: For me, high-tech industries where they’re using robotics. Energy, mining, pharmaceuticals and manufacturing, where they are equipping their people to handle this kit.
I personally see the opportunity in leadership development, too. VR has a lot to offer in terms of diversity scenarios. I talked about VR letting us do what is otherwise impossible – currently, going inside a machine and looking from the inside out is impossible in ‘real life’, but so is changing your demographic identity – your age, your gender, your ethnicity – in an instant. We can do that in VR. Changing the diversity parameters, and experiencing what it means to be a different ethnicity or age or gender, means that leaders can experience what it feels like to interact from a different viewpoint. That understanding would help them lead their people with impact, in a way that is authentic and inspiring. I think VR has a lot to offer there.
IL: Can you give us an example of a diversity scenario?
DB: For example, let’s say you’ve got the VR scenario of a team meeting and the leader is looking around the table. Let’s take a stereotype scenario – a white, male, fiftysomething leader in an organisation that’s trying to support and promote the inclusion of people from a whole range of ethnicities and age groups, to get more women into senior roles, to enhance the support they give to people with enablement challenges.
If the leader looks around the table and sees people that look like them, in their own body, they’re going to maintain their idea of how the world works and what everyone else is like: they’ll assume people see the world the way they see the world. Now let’s change the leader so that they look down and they see themselves as female, black, aged 65, expected to retire but they don’t want to because they still have a whole lot to contribute. Now the other people in that meeting space interact with their avatar in a very different way. People are speaking to them as if they’re a different person. That might be the first time that leader has truly understood what it means to be in someone else’s shoes.
In an actual training scenario, you’d want them switching into lots of different shoes and experiencing differences one dimension at a time. Start by making them 20 years older or 30 years younger; then they can be the other gender; then they can have different ethnicities; and with each change they can see and feel what the interaction is like with the white, male, fifty-somethings at the table. They’d rotate around the mould and broaden their perspective one step at a time.
I think that could unlock the diversity conundrum that organisations are facing right now. We have leaders who are often hiring in their own image and promoting their own image, and make judgements about their colleagues’ ability based on what they value. VR I think, has got the key to this.
IL: Closing thoughts?
DB: I would like VR to be far more accessible, so that more organisations use it for developing their leaders. Once the leaders have had a taste of it, that’s when all the other use cases will come to the forefront. They’ll realise their business problem could be solved, or better understood, if their people could really get on the inside of a machine or into a new scenario of their operating model, by creating it without moving the business until they’ve tried it out as they are. It’s a safe playground – the safest playground there is – and it’s rich in opportunities for real and deep learning.