The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically shaped small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) globally and forced them rapidly become more technologically advanced and diverse. This is exemplified through the speedy adoption of virtual reality (VR) learning and development solutions in a wide range of industries. Virtual reality refers to a fully digital environment that is either computer-generated or filmed in 360 degree video and immerses users in the environment through a VR goggles headset or a computer screen. Virtual reality improves competitiveness of companies by offering limitless opportunities for continuous learning. Different ways of using virtual reality tools in continuous learning were benchmarked in the VIVA – Virtual Technologies Boost SME exports project.
In the current volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment, the so-called VUCA environment, sustainable growth requires continuous learning from SMEs. In the fast-paced age of innovation, new skills needs are constantly emerging also due to artificial intelligence, machine learning, block chains, 3D printing, cyber security threats and other digitalization phenomena. The importance of the skills that machines don’t master yet is also highlighted. In addition to digital skills, soft social and emotional skills are core skills for the future jobs. For its part, COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated change, and SMEs have identified serious skills gaps in both hard skills and soft skills. (Kallonen & Kuhmonen 2021, 143-146; Meeks 2017.)
In today’s world education and work are linked in the way that we work to learn, when earlier we used to learn to get to work. In the new age of enterprise training, learning must be personalized, essential, addressing immediate needs and at the same time producing sustainable solutions to the multidisciplinary skills needs of the workplace. This means that learning should be part of day-to-day work and happen in the flow of work, which creates a need for finding new ways and tools of learning. (Kallonen & Kuhmonen 2021, 143.)
The purpose of the VIVA project, funded by the Helsinki-Uusimaa Regional Council, is to provide SMEs with a new way to simulate and practice export trade interactions. The project encounters export trade, virtual reality and continuous learning. The aim is to develop sustainable export know-how of SMEs, reduce the vulnerability of companies in unexpected situations, improve their ability to change and support the green growth towards carbon neutrality. This is done by tackling critical skills gaps and anticipating future skills needs. At the same time digital skills of SMEs evolve.
Learning contents will be co-created using microlearning, which is suitable for VIVA target companies, because it enables learning regardless of time and place. Microlearning means brief learning modules, built in bite-sized chunks short enough to keep a learner focused. (www.vivaboost.fi.)
Why businesses use virtual reality training
VR is becoming increasingly common training tool not only for giant technology corporations, but also small and medium sized companies because of its increased affordability and proven ability to ensure effective learning outcomes. It enriches learning experiences, facilitates collaboration, stimulates interaction and brings a sense of presence that is lacking in Zoom and Teams. Studies show that our brain experience the virtual reality environment as real. (Kallonen & Kuhmonen 2021, 154-155.)
There are many benefits of harnessing VR in corporate learning that have been highlighted during the pandemic. Employers have had to embed innovative ways to support skills development of their remote or hybrid employees. Companies need to ensure employees’ success and growth in the current roles and in the future positions. (Arruda 2022; Dunn 2022; Likens & Eckert 2020.)
The VR environment enables learning in a shared environment without space constraints. Learners can join the same environment from anywhere, only a network connection is required. Learning is cost-effective to deploy. Travelling is reduced without compromising learning outcomes. Activities can be measured and tracked for monitoring and evaluation. The VR environment enables hands-on learning that would be expensive, dangerous or impossible in physical environments. (Ascott 2021; Kallonen & Kuhmonen 2021, 154-155; Navarrete 2021.)
In realistic VR environments employees get to practice scenarios that simulate real-life situations they face on the job. Demanding situations can be practiced in the safe environment, which offers the learners the possibility to try different paths to achieve better results. It enhances risk-free making of mistakes, learning from mistakes, course-correcting and trying again. Receiving detailed performance feedback is crucial for the continuous improvement and excellent learning outcome. A virtual avatar gives and repeats tirelessly and patiently feedback on what learners did wrong and where they can improve. (Bailenson 2020; Cizmeci 2021; Goldstein 2017; Likens & Eckert 2020; Kallonen & Kuhmonen 2021, 154; Mileva 2020; PWC 2020.)
VR helps employees better understand the job and instills the confidence that they need to best perform their tasks. Confidence improves quality, reduces mistakes and increases staff engagement. VR can promote individual accountability when workers can lead own improvement. In scenarios employees learn faster compared with classroom learners or e-learners since they are less distracted. There are no interruptions or no options to multitask, and the learning is thus concentrated. The VR environment is also immersive enough for people to take it seriously. Additionally, VR creates in learners an emotional bond to the learning content that leads to greater learning retention and more effective application of skills learned after training, and thus to lasting behavioral change or a mindset shift. (Ascott 2021; Bailenson 2020; Cizmeci 2021; Fade 2021; Likens & Eckert 2020; Navarrete 2021; PWC 2020; Zielinski 2021.)
In recent years, VR tools that help companies build VR scripts, storyline, scenarios and simulations themselves without custom coding skills have appeared in the market. In addition, VR content can be easily integrated into advanced learning management systems, which encourages companies to turn to VR training.
Power skills training in VR
In VIVA project, the benchmarking of good examples of VR trainings was implemented by Laurea’s experts and students after several individual needs analysis with SMEs participating in VIVA. The purpose was to stimulate SMEs to ideate how VR tools could be used for their needs in a rapidly changing global operating environment.
Our benchmarking results showed that until recently, companies have focused in VR trainings mostly on job skills simulation trainings, such as flight and surgery simulators, safety procedures, as well as equipment operation and maintenance and remote recruitment and onboarding. According to our observations, currently there is a growing trend to use VR tools especially for training employees in soft skills, like leadership, resilience, managing through change, teamwork, communication, conflict resolution, creativity and problem-solving skills. Since mastering soft skills is more and more required by employers as future working life skills, calling them soft skills doesn’t give a right picture about their importance. In this article soft skills are called power skills. (Bersin 2020; Campbell 2021; Casarella 2021; Fister Gale 2022; Gallo 2019; Likens & Eckert 2020; Marr 2021; Meeks 2017; Meister 2021; Thompson 2022; Zielinski 2021.)
Learning power skills requires a lot of practice and feedback, and VR offers great tool for this. A growing demand is seen also in training collaborative decision-making skills by interacting and brainstorming in multi-user VR sessions. In the VR environment power skills can be accurately measured and tangible feedback can be given using speech or eye-tracking technologies. (Bersin 2020; Campbell 2021; Casarella 2021; Fister Gale 2022; Gallo 2019; Likens & Eckert 2020; Marr 2021; Meeks 2017; Meister 2021; Thompson 2022; Zielinski 2021.)
Here are some examples of the power skills that are trained in VR:
- Customer service skills, such as empathy skills and active listening skills
- Leadership skills, such as handling difficult workplace conversations, for example giving emphatically feedback on employee (under)performance
- Inclusive leadership skills: diversity, equity and inclusion skills (DE&I)
- Negotiation skills
- Sales skills
- Resilience skills
- Coaching skills
- Public speaking skills
- Collaborative decision-making skills
The participants of VIVA project ideated various examples of using VR in training: practice of international trade agreement and financing negotiations, practice of sustainable supply chain management, onboarding of employees, implementing internal audits globally and presenting products and services. During the next phases of VIVA project, SMEs, experts of international trade and students apply design thinking in co-creation of training simulators in virtual reality environment based on some of the topics identified by the companies during the ideation phase. The processes will be agile and based on iterations, testing and continuous improvement.
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