How virtual environments can boost organisational learning and development
Global Diversity Practice has partnered with The FutureWork Institute to offer customers a wide range of virtual environments that boost diversity and inclusion by engaging employees across multiple locations. The partnership means businesses working with GDP will now be able to access FWI’s suite of five virtual e-learning platforms as part of their D&I programmes.
How do you know if these technologies could assist your organisation?
GDP spoke to The FutureWork Institute founder, Margaret Regan, to find out more about how to get the best from virtual learning solutions.
- Why are organisations exploring the role that virtual environments can play in enhancing learning and collaboration around diversity and inclusion?
Many global organisations move to virtual platforms for learning and development to reduce the expense, lost productivity and unpredictability of moving people around the world. One of our clients moved to one of our virtual platforms for their global diversity and inclusion summit during the 2008 recession. They estimated a savings of US$1.6 million in terms of travel for 900 managers, 7,200 missed office hours and eliminated 450,000 pounds of CO2 emissions. The company has found other new uses for the platform.
Other clients are looking to equalize the D&I learning experience by ensuring that everyone gets to participate in the same type of training. If live leadership sessions are sited at an organisation’s headquarters, then those in more remote locations receiving shorter virtual sessions feel there is an inequality.
One organisation moved to a virtual platform to harmonise training for all and were able to train 2,200 managers in simultaneous groups of 25-30 supported by a virtual networking lounge, exhibit hall, and resource centre, as well as an auditorium where the session was held. The collaboration before, during and after the session was unlike anything they had ever experienced.
Often, company D&I training is a “one and done” event. Virtual platforms allow for follow-up exercises and workgroups, D&I toolkits and practice sessions.
- What is the difference between virtual reality, augmented reality and other digital and online options?
We define the virtual options in five stages:
• current learning and collaboration platforms Off the shelf platforms such as WebEx, Skype for Business, Adobe Connect, Go-to-Meeting and Zoom are two-dimensional web-based programmes that allow people in different locations to view and discuss the same information while the session is live.
• virtual learning environments (VLEs) These 24/7 platforms make interactive learning accessible anywhere, anytime. Employees consume content as and when they choose with a combination of live and on-demand learning while providing the employer with engagement analytics so they can assess employee behaviour.
Informal learning is facilitated with group and webcam chats, and formal learning is enhanced with tools for social networking and gamification.
One client moved most of their on-going D&I sessions to this type of platform, using polling, videos, chat rooms and certification as well as integrating with their learning management system. When their employees enter the platform through a web link, they are greeted by a welcome message, explore seven D&I exhibits, download articles, videos and presentations into their electronic briefcase, chat with colleagues in the networking lounge and interact with them during the session in the auditorium. It is the closest thing to going to a conference and exploring the different rooms—all from their laptop or mobile device.
• immersive 360-degree virtual worlds Virtual reality (VR) implies a complete immersion experience that shuts out and replaces the physical world. Used widely by our university clients, these are often referred to as simulated live environments where learners and educators/experts interact with each other in real time using avatars. These avatars are three-dimensional representations of the participants in the learning exercises. They interact with each other in environments created to be realistic and familiar to the learners. Clients using these environments report that learners have a much deeper sense of commitment, often returning to exercises multiple times and helping each other understand what is being taught. This results in many more reported “aha” moments as the material comes to life for them.
A university teaching cellular structure used VR so students and faculty can walk through a giant cell with their avatars to help them visualise cell structure. A pharmaceutical company created a virtual campus to bring professional education to their clients more efficiently.
Another client asked us to create a virtual world environment for women’s groups around the world to meet and interact. They were able to attend sessions in the auditorium, sit by the pool and play a work/life game to determine the percentage of time they spent on personal vs. professional activities and use the “magic carpet” to rise above their island and teleport themselves to Paris and other locations of their choice for group mentoring sessions.
We have created nine D&I simulations on FutureWork Island in a virtual world. There are simulations around gender, race, LGBTQ, religion and other dimensions of diversity and a library of books on these topics that people can read on the island or take with them. Users can take different avatars so they can literally “walk in the shoes of others” from a variety of different groups. Wearing an “instant translator,” users can interact with people in their native language.
• augmented reality (AR) Augmented reality (AR) adds digital elements such as graphics, sounds, and touch feedback to a live view of your natural environment often by using the camera on a smartphone to create an enhanced user experience. Examples of augmented reality experiences include Snapchat lenses and the game Pokémon Go.
We have yet to see a D&I application for AR. Right now, AR is making inroads in medicine, tourism, retail, architecture and design, the military, warehousing, maintenance and repair, oil and gas, construction and manufacturing, etc.
• virtual reality (VR) Virtual reality is often confused with augmented reality (AR). To distinguish one from the other, virtual means something that doesn’t exist, or a simulation. Augment means to make something bigger or greater by adding to it. Clients using our D&I experience with VR glasses to learn about inclusive leadership and unconscious bias are transported into a meeting room where a group of professional actors are discussing a business problem. They are sitting at the table with them, observing every interaction, and are asked to tap the screen every time they observe an unconscious bias. Then the scene runs again and each of the instances of unconscious bias is pointed out. It is a great tool to reinforce learning on unconscious bias.
- How do I know if my organisation is ready for technology?
Every organisation is already using technology, so it makes sense to extend this to D&I learning and development. The question is which of these stages of adoption is the right one for them. Most clients are already using some form of internet-based technology so they come to us to move to a virtual learning environment or, if they already have this, to a more immersive 360-degree environments such as having us create a virtual world for them and help them customize their avatars. Clients who want to be on the leading edge are exploring D&I learning using VR glasses, but most are not there yet.
- What are some of the obstacles that organisations face when they try to introduce these technologies into the business?
There are a few obstacles organisations face with some of these technologies. A few clients need to “white list” our virtual learning environments to make sure all their employees have access. Restrictive corporate firewalls often prevent connections to the immersive 360-degree virtual worlds. Local computers may not be powerful enough to run virtual world software and poor internet connectivity in some regions can also be obstacles. Virtual reality glasses are becoming less expensive and more common.
Some employees may be sceptical of AR—or fearful that use of it could lead to their jobs being eliminated. Others may experience motion sickness or headaches from VR, especially if they jump on a roller-coaster ride, a popular way to try out the VR experience.
- To what extent do people have to understand technology in order to use the systems?
People do not need to be tech savvy to use these learning environments. Just as you can drive a car without knowing how to take an engine apart, you can enter these environments without understanding how they work. People should not be afraid to take the plunge. The results can be amazing, fun and effective!
- Do the development costs prohibit use by smaller organisations?
Many off-the-shelf solutions already exist that make virtual learning achievable for smaller and medium-sized businesses. Some of our clients use a “time-sharing” approach on the platforms we have already built. They reserve days for D&I training sessions instead of building their own platform.
Right now, AR is mostly used by large to medium-sized businesses that can afford the investment per employee and have multi-site organisations where a virtual approach brings enormous benefits. For larger organisations who want custom build solutions, the costs are offset by the savings in travel and productivity. For those who fear a takeover of the workplace by machines, we tell them that AR is intended to be an ally, not a threat. Rather than replacing workers, AR expands on human potential, allowing people and machines to function better together than either could alone.
- What is the best way to introduce technology to the business? Is it all or nothing or is a phased approach possible?
A phased approach is most common. Some take the leap from the beginning since their goal is to be a leader, not a follower, in this space. They recognize that AI machine learning and augmented and virtual reality will be the way we learn in the future, and they want to catch the wave, rather than be drowned in it.
- How do I measure the value or return that we are getting from the systems?
Any use of virtual learning technologies must be a part of an overall approach to D&I. More advanced virtual environments can have many more uses for organisations interested in a change management approach to learning. Designing these strategies includes a cost/benefit ratio. Most of these platforms have comprehensive measurement tools built into the platform so benefits can be monitored regularly.
- What are the key questions that I should ask the different technology providers?
Some of the questions that need to be answered include cost per user, scalability, 24/7 accessibility and measurement tools to determine return on the investment.
- Are there issues that are specific to global or multi-cultural organisations?
Global organisations need to ask about accessibility from all locations, language support, and 24/7 helpdesk support for the technology.
- Is there a risk of being locked in to technology that will soon be outdated?
Early adopters of cutting-edge technology always face that risk, but reliable platform providers generally use already-proven applications and update platforms regularly. That is why we use the staged approach and are honest with clients about what they are ready for now and what they need to do to get ready for the next leap in technology.