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How VR Will Change Corporate Learning Forever

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Does VR offer a new solution to the 70:20:10 problem?

The ideal learning ratio has always been to learn mostly through experience (the 70 percent in 70:20:10). However, leaders haven't been able to realize that in terms of how they spend their time learning. More time has been spent in formal learning, through telling and some structured practice that often fails to translate back to leaders’ daily roles when leaders would benefit most from a combination of experience and formalized development.

Enter virtual reality.

Until recently, most virtual reality (VR) training has focused on the “hard skills.” For example, helping teach an airport ground crew how to guide a plane into the gate or surgeons how to train to perform a new procedure. The next frontier is almost certainly training leaders in how to better tackle some of the biggest challenges in the “soft skills” arena.

Virtual reality has tremendous potential to transform how leaders see the world and practice leadership. While the virtual world may not be real, the emotions you experience in VR are just as real as anything you experience in your day-to-day reality. The powerful emotions generated in VR scenarios help participants create understanding as well as form memories like those created by real experiences, especially for leaders.

An Empathy-Generating Machine for Leaders

As VR entrepreneur Chris Milk famously referred to it in his TED Talk, VR is known as the "ultimate empathy machine." Rather than trying to generate empathy by observing a situation, as would happen when watching a video or reading a story, VR puts the participant directly in another person's shoes, enabling them to really feel what it's like to experience life from another perspective.

Because empathy is the most important leadership skill, using VR to develop empathy in leaders is a powerful tool, particularly when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

Many of the issues around diversity and inclusion in the workplace come down to a struggle to relate to people who are different from ourselves. Most leaders, especially those at higher levels, understand the research connecting diversity to better business results. But for people who have often been part of the "in group," it's tough to understand what it's really like to feel left out in the workplace. In many cases, they may quietly wonder why people who are marginalized don't do more to try to avoid being left out.

VR aims to solve this problem, and we’ve seen tremendous results already. Going through an experience where the participant is purposely excluded has created a powerful reaction for many leaders, including corporate executives. For some, it was their first time ever experiencing exclusion at work, leaving them feeling angry and profoundly moved. We heard things like, "I've always been on the other side of the situation. Have I been making people feel this way all along?" In follow-up conversations, participants also commented that the experience often stayed with them for a long time, challenging their thinking about how they'd been approaching things.

For those who had experienced exclusion before, particularly women and people of color, the encounters tended to produce relief, as in, "Yes, that's exactly what I've been trying to explain about what it's like." At times, there were even tears shed. For them, the VR scenario became a tool to share their lived experiences to help others understand.

A Psychologically Safe Space for Soft-Skill Practice

Consider the tough coaching conversations that come up in leaders’ daily lives, whether helping an arrogant but brilliant employee become a better team player or engaging in tough salary negotiations. Leaders often dread these conversations, worrying about how the other person is going to react. What if the other person begins yelling? Or crying? Or refuses to accept the leader’s decision?

While strong leadership skills can help these conversations be successful, leaders often feel unprepared for them, particularly at the emotional level. That's why it's a defining feature of effective coaching programs that leaders take opportunities to practice using their new skills in real conversations and get feedback in the classroom before they attempt to apply them on the job. But while skill practice in a classroom setting can produce powerful results, there are some limits to their effectiveness.

First, success depends on whether leaders feel that they are in an environment of psychological safety, which means they feel comfortable taking risks and trying new things without fear of social or professional backlash. Ideally, people feel comfortable enough with their peers in the classroom to try out their new skills with one another, but it's also common for people to be fairly reserved in role-playing exercises for fear of making a mistake or seeming silly.

In a virtual environment, however, social fear quickly evaporates. While the person you're interacting with is real to you, there's no concern that what you say in a VR scenario will come back as teasing at the office holiday party. Participants are free to be creative and earnestly practice their skills, knowing that it's a safe environment to experiment.

A second issue with skill practice in the classroom is that it's typically a low-tension environment. While role-playing partners may challenge one another, it's rare to see someone break down in tears or express true anger, although those outbursts of emotion commonly happen in real life. In VR, however, people can test their skills in worst-case scenarios, which can help them feel more confident in real-life conversations.

There's also the problem of on-demand practice outside of the classroom. Many leaders find it helpful to practice with a colleague right before a tough conversation, which may not always be possible depending on the availability of a peer or the private nature of the conversation. Again, virtual reality offers something humans can't: constant availability and privacy.

There will always be a place for practicing skills with a real-life partner; however, virtual reality offers powerful possibilities to help leaders test their skills in ways that their peers can't. It also allows them to practice more often, when and where they want to, which will likely be a stronger need in the future with the increasing pace at which necessary work skills are changing.

Want to learn more about the possibilities of soft-skills training with VR and how you can get started? Join our session on February 4, 2020, at ATD TechKnowledge.

About the Author

Ryan Heinl is the director of product management and leader of DDI Labs, where he brings innovative leadership solutions to life. Ryan leads the charge on product strategy, development, and management for DDI's most cutting-edge products, including virtual reality, artificial intelligence, organizational analytics, and SaaS. With more than 20 years of experience delivering and developing products for global Fortune 500 companies, he has deep expertise in a wide variety of areas related to leadership assessment and development, including psychometric testing, talent management strategy, workforce analytics, business model strategy, and succession management. Ryan holds a master's degree in industrial-organizational psychology and applied quantitative methods, and certificates in data science and scrum product ownership.

About the Author

Stephanie Neal leads DDI's Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research, managing strategic market research and trend studies on leadership and talent in the workplace. She works with clients from a variety of industries to design and execute analytics initiatives that demonstrate the impact of assessment and development programs on leadership behavior and business outcomes. Stephanie is the co-author of several industry-leading research reports, including Women as Mentors: Does She or Doesn't She? A Global Study of Businesswomen and Mentoring and DDI's Global Leadership Forecast, a major trend research study providing deep and actionable insights on how organizations can optimize their management of leadership talent in alignment with strategic priorities.

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