Virtual training just stepped up a gear

Marianne Schmid Mast looks to VR for better soft skills training.

Every year organisations invest billions of pounds on learning and development with much of that money being spent on developing interpersonal skills, partly because research suggests this type of training is relatively effective in terms of impact.

Traditionally, things like leadership, negotiation and communication skills have tended to be delivered face-to-face, most commonly in a role play format. Participants act out scenarios and practice skills with their trainee group and are given feedback.

However, as new technologies such as virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence and robotics start to make inroads into all aspects of organisational life, it looks as if interpersonal skills training is set to get a little less personal.

The reason that this transformation is underway is simple. If VR can be used in computer gaming to immerse gamers in interactive worlds, why not use Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR) technology to provide virtual humans as interpersonal skills training partners?

It’s important to remember that these virtual humans act as agents – their responses are restricted to whatever has been preprogrammed. 

Using a Head Mounted Display (HMD), participants can be immersed in a 3D world experienced from a first person perspective, where they encounter and interact with virtual humans, objects and environments. New technologies, such as the use of sensors, promise to enhance this experience still further by reflecting the movements, body language and even the expressions of participants.

What this means is that technology can now enable us to use virtual humans as training partners. But it’s important to remember that these virtual humans act as agents – their responses are restricted to whatever has been preprogrammed.

They are not avatars controlled by and responding in real-time according to the wishes of a real human. That said, a trainer can monitor the overall training experience, and may even select which preprogrammed responses the virtual training partner deploys.

IVR offers organisations a number of advantages over traditional training:

  1. Accessibility. As we all know, time and resource issues, such as cost, logistics, staff scheduling and availability can limit the effectiveness and accessibility of conventional training. Once programmed, however, virtual humans are available 24/7, do not need briefing or consulting, and are relatively cheap to run. They also enable frequent practice from almost anywhere – even from home – which should improve training success.
  2. Less stress, more learning. Existing applications show that people using IVR are able to form a sufficient psychological connection with virtual humans to have meaningful, purposeful, interactions. At the same time virtual humans are perceived as sufficiently artificial to alleviate the stress normally experienced in social evaluation situations. This means that trainees can practice in a relatively risk-free environment, potentially reducing anxiety, decreasing resistance to learning, and increasing training transfer. The simulation can also be modified to adjust stress levels to individual tolerances, providing more or less challenge, for example.
  3. Make training scenarios more relevant. A big problem with training is ensuring that learning and development gains are applied in the work context. IVR increases the likelihood of successful training transfer as it allows simulated training scenarios (and learning pathways) to be tailored to individual trainees and their real life work situations. The VR environment can replicate the work environment.  Virtual humans can be programmed with many different behaviors and characteristics. They can even be modelled to physically resemble a trainee’s manager or colleagues, for example.
  4. Create new experiences. IVR gives greater flexibility and scope for innovation than conventional training as it enables any situation to be simulated, imaginary or real. Raucous audiences can be created for public speaking scenarios, for example, to provide more challenge. It’s even possible to use doppelgangers – a virtual recreation of the trainee – to help coach and provide feedback. 
  5. More and better feedback. IVR allows greater choice over how to deliver feedback. Instead of the conventional post-training debrief, feedback can be given in real-time by the reactions of virtual training partners, or by giving additional information during the exercise depending on the trainee’s actions (signaling if they make a mistake, for example).

Feedback can be automated, triggered by sensors in the environment that monitor the trainee’s behavior, or prompted by the trainer.

Despite these potential benefits, it nevertheless is true that IVR is still in its infancy and that many questions remain. Does a trainee’s personality make a difference to benefit gained, for example? Might the technology – headset and IVR experience – discourage highly anxious trainees? How do older people react compared with younger trainees? 


Even in the absence of further research, though, IVR is likely to become an integral part of interpersonal skills development and other aspects of learning and development. Inevitably this will prove transformational, disrupting the delivery of services by many traditional providers.

I would argue, however, that IVR won’t entirely replace conventional training, but instead become part of a blended training approach. Virtual humans will make great training partners for practice purposes, but they won’t replace skilled human trainers.

Given the relentless progress of technologies such as AI and machine learning, however, that may not be much comfort for trainers as they contemplate what their industry will look like in years to come.


About the author

Marianne Schmid Mast is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at HEC Lausanne, the business school at the University of Lausanne. 


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