Virtual reality (VR) has travelled a long and winding road from the R&D lab to popular acceptance – but there are signs that it is likely to have a less fruitful future in domestic gaming than it will in workplace training scenarios.
In a recent article at online journal HR Dive,  food-processing firm Tyson Foods reveals that, by using VR technology in hazard-awareness training, it saw a reduction in occupational injuries and illnesses of more than 20% during 2017 – beating an initial target of 15%. The firm’s associate director, safety analytics, health and safety, Amy Vinson says: “We are already seeing the far-reaching benefits of VR technology, and believe it will be an effective tool for influencing safe behaviour of our team members.”
She explains: “The trainer is able to better understand the task at hand, while the employee is learning new skills for safety and better work quality.” In addition, the article points out, the firm is “able to collect data on how team members are responding to a certain process, allowing managers to adjust their approach.” Vinson notes: “Without this data from the technology, these insights would not be possible.”
On 20 September, retail giant Walmart announced  that it is deploying more than 17,000 Oculus headsets throughout its stores, with the aim of using VR to train 1 million of its shop-floor associates. Walmart US Academies senior director Andy Trainor said: “The great thing about VR is its ability to make learning experiential. When you watch a module through the headset, your brain feels like you actually experienced a situation.”
He added: “We’ve also seen [from trials] that VR training boosts confidence and retention, while improving test scores 10% to 15% – even those associates who simply watched others experience the training saw the same retention boosts.”
What do these accounts reveal about the need for leaders to watch out for new trends in training so their programmes never get stale?
Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “As a proponent of experiential learning, reports of how effective these sorts of training initiatives are make total sense to me. It stands to reason that you learn from doing, rather than from listening or watching. That said, listening and watching are important contributing factors, too, as they help learners prepare for – and reflect upon – the learning exercises they undertake, which will add momentum to the ‘doing’ part.”
Cooper points out: “VR’s ability to simulate scenarios and place learners right in the middle of them is a particularly useful development, because it offers a safe space: you can afford to make mistakes, and the consequences are not real. That can really help to break through the reluctance that some learners have to immersing themselves in experiential learning. At the Institute, we advocate learning of all sorts – but particularly models that take root in conversations within the workplace, where people feel inspired to discuss their ideas about the things they’ve learnt with the people around them. That helps learners make better sense of the material, and encourages them to share their learning.
“As a novel and exciting approach which is likely to become a talking point all by itself, VR could certainly spur those conversations.”
Cooper notes: “the potential for technology to assist all sorts of training by making it real, embedded and interesting – so it’s not just about scrolling through PowerPoint presentations – is vast. It’s encouraging your whole self to have an emotional engagement with, and response to, the learning. One potential drawback, though, is that depending upon which type of technology you are looking to adopt, it could prove expensive. And resistance to change is probably just as endemic among training professionals as it is within organisations on a macro level. Novel technologies are different, challenging and require an investment of time to learn how to maximise their effectiveness.
“In addition, there’s a shift in the power dynamic: you’re moving from an instructional style to a coaching one, and you’re not in control of the learning in the same way that one is with the use of more traditional methods. So there are clear forces both for and against.”
However, Cooper adds, managers and leaders should be reassured. “At a conference in Iceland last year,” she says, “I talked to experts in the field of artificial intelligence, and the consensus was that we are still some way from AI being able to mimic emotions. So, amid the rise of technology in training, that is where we still absolutely need people. Let training flourish in all the splendid, technology-supported ways it can – VR being a brilliant example. But bear in mind that people will always be required to introduce training technology to learners, and to help them absorb the insights it has provided.”
For further thoughts on learning, check out these resources from the Institute