Emerging best practices from organisations using virtual reality to train.
Read this article to learn how to:
- Decide whether VR is the right training medium for your organisational needs
- Choose the right training or technology partner based on your needs
- Collaborate with developers, learners and facilitators for maximum impact
- Harness the technology to design practical, thought-provoking experiences
Virtual reality is not a futuristic possibility for corporate training. No longer being used exclusively to train in the military, aviation and heavy industries, VR training is being tested and deployed today by a diverse group of organisations from the Royal London Hospital and BT Openreach to McDonald’s and the National Academy for Rail.
The expectations are high that the training medium will become more widely adopted. The VR training market is predicted to generate $216 million (£160.5) in 2018 and grow to $6.3 billion (£4.7) in 2022, according to ABI Research, a leader in emerging technology intelligence.
We spoke with companies developing the technology as well as companies using it for training to help you begin thinking about how your organisation might use VR for employee training in the future. Mining their experiences to look for best practice commonalities, we delve into deciding how VR can be helpful, what to look for in a technology partner, how to develop content for this new medium, conducting a successful roll-out, evaluating your success and how it can complement rather than replace existing training.
How are companies using VR for employee training?
Companies are finding new applications for virtual reality at a rapid pace, and as the technology further develops, the limits of your L&D imagination become the only ceiling. Here are just some of the examples of how virtual reality is entering the corporate training environment.
“VR has given us an opportunity to replicate some of the more experiential learning activity in the classroom environment.”
— Helen Caughey, the Met Office
Creating a Safe Space for Employee Training
Although VR has long been used to prepare professionals to perform in hazardous environments, more and more industries are making use of the technology in new ways. Thames Water worked with Igloo, a company specialised in designing group VR experiences, to create a VR onboarding programme that takes their employees on a virtual team tour of the sewer systems.
“It’s kind of a chicken and egg situation because they can’t send people down to real life sewers unless they’ve been trained and it’s difficult to train them on the hazards they will encounter as a team without actually putting them in sewers together,” says Peter Halliday, Director of Communications.
The Met Office has begun developing and testing VR training to simulate weather conditions. “As with other industries, providing genuinely authentic activities for our learners can be difficult, expensive and in some cases dangerous, so VR has given us an opportunity to replicate some of the more experiential learning activities in the classroom environment,” said Helen Caughey, International Learning Consultant and Operational Meteorologist at the Met Office.
Creating a safe environment for training isn’t limited to physically hazardous situations.
Companies are also seeing the value in using VR to give learners the emotional security to slow down, make mistakes and ask questions to achieve deeper learning. Fidelity Investments, who developed a VR training programme to develop empathy for their call centre associates, chose the medium because they wanted to “create a safe space to provide these experiences,” said Adam Schouela who leads Emerging Technology at Fidelity Labs.
Developing Critical Thinking Skills
When developed and administered with the goal of developing critical thinking, virtual reality can be a powerful tool. By transporting learners to the physical space where they will later apply theoretical knowledge, and pairing them with a facilitator who can guide them through that experience, Farmers Insurance has found an ideal recipe to prompt critical thinking around the decisions that claims adjusters make in their role, before they’ve entered a customer’s home.
“[Learners] really appreciated the opportunity to be able to slow down, think a little more about the decisions that they were making, and also be able to ask questions in the moment...That was something that we were really happy to hear, that this module was helping them with that critical thinking process,” says Jessica DeCanio, Head of the University of Farmers – Claims who worked to develop their pilot VR
Bringing theoretical knowledge to life was always a challenge for the Met Office, whose Operational Meteorology team needed to apply deep theoretical knowledge in a tight timeframe to forecast emerging weather conditions.
“Providing activities that authentically reflect the operational environment helps us to provide some context and situate the theoretical stuff for our students,” says Caughey.
Designing for Practical Experiences
The most common training need triggering the use of VR in the companies we spoke with was the need to expose learners to a large range of realistic experiences before they began a new role.
Farmers Insurance chose their claims adjusters team as their first training audience to experience VR. The logic behind the decision was based on feedback that one of the biggest training challenges is seeing enough property damage scenarios to recognise and respond to them on the job.
“Technology has finally reached a point where we’re able to help that process with virtual reality... they’re getting much more of a collection of experiences before they ever go out into a customer’s home,” says DeCanio.
The Met Office turned to VR for similar reasons. Previously, their L&D department had to depend on a notoriously unreliable training event – the weather – to train employees experientially in different weather conditions.
Now, they’re simulating those weather conditions and exposing “learners to a wider range of meteorological conditions at the touch of a button,” says Caughey.
For L&D professionals worried that technology might take professionals out of the real world, it’s important to consider how much or how little classroom or e-learning gives employees the freedom to practice applying practical skills as they learn. “We’ve heard the analogy that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything so when you think about corporate learning, one of the biggest elements that’s often missing is the ability to practice.
We don’t often give trainees the ability to practice what they’re being taught to develop that new skill,” says Jeff Baumohl, Vice President of Product Marketing & Alliances at TalentQuest. Allowing learners to practice in a realistic environment can also make the job of assessment easier and more accurate.
“We’re not just talking about training. We’re talking about improving job performance and we’re looking at it not just from the context in what they’re being taught but also a more true-tolife picture of how people will actually perform,” says Baumohl, who has worked with companies to help them more precisely define individual training needs to calibrate their VR learning experience.
Virtual reality has huge potential for building empathy and reducing bias by offering the opportunity to step into someone else’s skin and live their experience. Alzheimer’s Research U.K. received help from Google and Visyon to develop an app that would act as a public awareness tool to convey a greater range of the many cognitive symptoms that people affected with dementia experience.
“We wanted to build a simple, engaging, kind of cool approach to help drive awareness and understanding of dementia,” says Timothy Perry, Director of Communications & Brand at Alzheimers Research U.K. “We didn’t really see it as a formal learning tool in the traditional sense... But what we found when we put it out there is that, while loads of members of the public were indeed using it, we were also seeing more of professional bodies, companies, and organisations approaching us saying: Look we found out about this thing. Can we get a load of Google cardboard sets from you so we can use this app a bit more meaningfully?” says Perry.
The organisation is now partnering with a leading U.K. university to develop the app further as a training resource. Essex County Council Social Care Academy used the application as a supplement to another VR training product, the Virtual Dementia tour.
“The feedback from this type of experiential learning is extremely positive and we know that staff not only respond well to this type of learning but also retain more knowledge and are more successful in bringing that knowledge to their role and changing their practice, compared with more traditional classroom-based training. We have already gathered data which shows how practice has changed for Dementia support,” says Will Chaney, Workforce Capability Team Manager.
Developing empathy is, of course, not limited to the not-for-profit and public sectors. Fidelity Investments chose empathy-building as their first employee training VR programme.
“Can we create an empathy training module for our call centre associates and really have them understand and get some rational compassion for what our customers are going through?” was the central question of their use-case according to Schouela.
In the training, employees are transported from the contact centre to the caller’s surroundings, seeing the environment, facial expressions and personal perspective of the voice behind the line.
How do you get started with VR training?
Diving into a new training format is difficult. Most companies we spoke with expressed that they were surprised by how much the price point has lowered over the last years due to technological developments and a larger market. Depending on the equipment and how interactive and custom-built the content is, the initial investment can be substantial enough to make you carefully think through your launch.
Understand the right reasons for doing it
Although fear of missing out may drive many companies to begin experimenting with VR employee training, it’s not the right attitude to have when deciding how you will use VR to train.
Halliday, of Igloo, recommends not thinking about how your company will be left behind by not seizing on the technology, but instead considering what training challenges you can now solve by the permeation of VR technology.
Companies are only ready to launch a VR programme when they have a specific training problem and recognise how VR can help them address it, according to Baumohl whose company, TalentQuest, only begins developing material when their clients have hit on a solid training application of the technology.
Choosing a VR Supplier
Once L&D professionals have decided on the right training application of VR, it’s important to consider what’s most important from a supplier. As an L&D professional, DeCanio of Farmers Insurance was most concerned about a realistic virtual environment, a supplier who would take the time and resources to learn about the complex claims decisionmaking process the programme would need to support, and a sustainable platform that can evolve as technology moves forward.
Working with a supplier who has developed a programme that closely matches what you’re looking to achieve may be impossible as VR is still an emerging technology for most corporate training. However, you can look for a supplier who has done work in the same vein of training for the outcome you’re looking to achieve. Schouela from Fidelity Labs tried a bias training programme from STRIVR, who had developed training on reducing bias for the NFL.
“Trying it made a huge difference when choosing a partner for this type of technology,” according to Schouela. When you’re shopping for a VR training supplier, it’s critical to experience their work first-hand.
“Virtual reality is actually a perfect case for this where it’s really hard to understand what the impact of virtual reality is on training by just reading about it – it’s a completely different thing when you actually try it to experience it,” according to Schouela.
Developing and deploying VR training
Developing content for VR training will be a unique and challenging experience. Each step of the process – from planning, to writing, to filming – demands a different mode of thinking.
“You’re creating experiences as opposed to creating content... There are a lot more things that you have to take into account when you’re creating an experience as opposed to creating content for someone to consume digitally. It’s new, it’s different, and so you have to think about it in a little bit of a different way,” says Schouela.
Collaboration is key
Part of that difference includes as tight a collaboration as possible between L&D teams, the developers and the people who live the experience that you’re trying to recreate. In the case of Alzheimer’s Research U.K., they engaged with people affected by dementia to ensure their app was creating a true-to-life experience.
“[Learners] really appreciated the opportunity to be able to slow down, think a little more about the decisions that they were making, and also be able to ask questions in the moment...”
— Jessica DeCanio, Farmers Insurance
“We developed this programme with the trainers and we brought in instructors, and
potential trainees, to get feedback from the beginning even as we were storyboarding the training to really understand what they were going through and see whether we could develop an experience that would fit within their context,” says Schouela.
If you’re developing a more game-based VR approach, establishing a feedback loop
between your technology supplier and target audience is critical to create a valuable training product. “It’s similar to a video game and so you have to think through every single scenario that learners might approach and if they make one decision how does that impact what happens next? We had to have our employees involved in that design process so that we made sure we got it as close to reality as possible,” according to DeCanio.
Carefully consider your filming
Filming the training setting is a crucial part of keeping the environment realistic. Fidelity Investments opted to begin their empathy training with a video shot in one of their contact centres to make the environment as specific and realistic to their employees as possible.
Filming in 360° will also be a new experience for professionals accustomed to creating more traditional video content.
“You can’t direct the shoot in the same way you could with a conventional camera, which is what I was used to. So you have to kind of give your actors their instructions and then you have to go to hide behind a bush – you have to get out of the scene completely,” says Timothy Parry, who directed scenes for Alzheimer’s Research U.K.’s Walk Through Dementia.
Don't forget the facilitators
As with any digital learning, virtual reality is not a replacement for instructors and facilitators. The Met Office uses VR simulations and e-learning as a lead-up to bringing groups of learners together to maximise the value of the time spent face-to-face.
According to DeCanio of Farmers, “It’s not a stand-alone where we’re just putting people in the headsets and saying: ‘Go learn!’ They still have someone facilitating the learning process. The facilitators have just been very excited about the ability to get into those deeper conversations about why you’re making the decisions that you’re making and to be able to answer more questions,” says DeCanio.
Evaluating the success of VR training
Two typical ways to show the financial return of introducing VR training is to shorten the learning curve while producing equally or more proficient employees as more traditional training, and improving the quality scores of employee work and results.
As with any training, keeping managers looped into the project will help you design for outcomes that will have a sought-after business impact. Conducting a pilot programme is a typical way to tightly monitor and measure the impact of VR instruction. “Since we’re just now piloting it, it’s a really great opportunity for us to look at those two different audiences in a really analytical way,” says DeCanio of Farmers
Insurance who are measuring the time reduction of successful onboarding and differences in quality scores of professionals receiving VR versus non-VR training.
Trailblazing for your organisation
Virtual reality can be an area where L&D professionals can impact their entire organisation in more ways than employee learning. “I personally think the sky’s really the limit,” says DeCanio, who added that other parts of the Farmers organisation are watching this pilot closely to see where else they can incorporate virtual reality to add value to the organisation.
The Met Office promoted their VR training throughout the workplace. “There was a lot of interest and suggestions for using it in a wide range of activities beyond the learning and development opportunities already identified,” says Caughey.
Developing cutting-edge training practices can also be used as a leg up on talent recruitment.
“As we look at bringing more and more millennials into our organisation, they’re becoming more and more used to this type of platform in their day-to-day life as virtual reality becomes more mainstream. We’re making sure that we develop more cuttingedge, innovative ways for employees to learn. I think that will be huge in attracting talent,” says DeCanio.
“There are a lot more things that you have to take into account when you’re creating an experience as opposed to creating content for someone to consume digitally.”
— Adam Schuola, Fidelity Investments
As industry leaders move towards VR training, it creates a possible future where smaller organisations fall behind. “The fundamental reality is that the kids that are going to be entering the workforce in the next five years will not tolerate the PowerPoint presentations turned into video recordings as training... So it’s going to be very eye-opening when organisations recognise that their traditional approach to training that they’ve been doing for years is just no longer going to work. Organisations who are progressive with technology, that’s going to be a recruiting tool,” says Baumohl.
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About the Author
Abby Guthrie works as the Communications Team Lead for findcourses.co.uk with a mission of connecting learning leaders with the data and information they need to provide the best training possible for their people.
Originally from Indianapolis in the U.S., Abby studied her bachelor’s at Hanover College in Business and Literature and has worked for findcourses since 2015. She is passionate about corporate learning and works internally to help organise Learning at Work Week within findcourses.co.uk's company of 165 team members, and provide and source external training in content creation as an in-house expert.
Abby is also the creator and editor of the UK L&D Report which interviews and surveys L&D leaders from top UK companies to help uncover data-driven best practice and easy-to-implement advice.