Virtual reality (VR) has been a hot topic in the last decade. With the debut of the Oculus Rift VR headset in 2012 shortly followed by the much cheaper and more accessible Google Cardboard in 2015, what we have all been seeing in sci-fi movies since the 1980s (think Total Recall) came into the everyday household for many. It’s unsurprising that VR would quickly transition into a major player in the L&D space, with its potential to let students experience an environment, task, or situation while minimizing the cost and burden to provide an amazing opportunity for dynamic and meaningful learning experiences. Now, ExxonMobil is using VR for safety training, simulating loading of liquified natural gas into tankers. UPS is using VR for driver safety training, and even KFC is using VR to teach employees how to prepare the famous colonel’s recipe.
ConsiderationsNoting the current VR opportunities, the training team at Enercon Services (an engineering and environmental services firm with more than 1,200 employees in more than 20 offices) went down the path to explore how we could use VR as part of our engineering training. It’s important to note a few things upfront.
First, we do not have the resources that an ExxonMobile, UPS, or KFC have. We are a “lean and mean” L&D team of four. Next, our projects range widely in scope and scale, from exchanging a like-for-like valve at a manufacturing plant, all the way through redesigning a safety system at a nuclear power plant. The range can make it difficult to introduce all employees to all potential projects without an incredible burden on the student and organization.
In addition, from an age demographics perspective, our company similarly has a large range. We employ a lot of seasoned subject matter experts, many with 30 to 40 years of design engineering and environmental services experience and licensures to match. We also have a robust intern- and college-hire program, where we bring in new talent to help us innovate with the dynamic landscape of our industries. This age diversity certainly yields us many strengths, but it also comes with a challenge of the different generational learning preferences.
Finally, as with most companies in the pandemic world, we are challenged to find ways to get our staff trained in a mainly virtual environment. Even the common practice of having new staff take part in a “ride-along,” where they can observe field-based operations, can be challenging when you think of traveling with the six-foot barrier between employees, mask use, and so forth.
Getting StartedNoting these challenges and the opportunities that exist with the new technology, we set a goal of piloting a VR training solution for our power delivery division’s distribution engineering group. This group works on the design of new and existing power distribution lines (think of the power lines you see lining the highways or the streets of your community) for above and underground systems.
The first step in this project was to research vendors with a specific list of requirements, including affordability, flexibility of contract, and ease of design. We wanted to design the course without any complex computer coding or IT support. We chose LearnBrite as a vendor for those reasons.
We then set about scoping out our objective to define exactly what we were trying to build for our initial learning module. We settled on a course that would introduce our staff in that division to the components of a typical distribution pole and line setup.
Lessons LearnedThrough the implementation, we experienced many lessons learned that are likely transferrable to other companies going through a similar project.
- Management Expectations: The first hurdle we faced was explaining to our division management what we were trying to use and how it would work. Because the use of VR in our company training was such a new and exciting topic, we saw responses range from “Wow, I’m excited to see what we can do with this” to “Alright, so we’ll finally have the ability to do a virtual landscape of all of our client sites for our projects and we can interface with them like Tom Cruise in Minority Report.” Tempering expectations was important, as this was to be our first time with the software, and with VR training in general, and we didn’t want to oversell what we were trying to accomplish. We provided some of the demo videos from the vendor and explained our vision of what could be done with relative ease versus what would take more time and effort.
- Team Expectations: The next hurdle was setting the team expectations. Let’s face it—if you get a group of “training nerds” together and tell them they can use a new VR training platform, it’s like a shiny new toy to a bunch of toddlers. Everyone wanted their hands in it, and we all wanted to see what we could design. It was important to ensure that everyone understood the scope of our first module, who would take lead and who would provide support, and the timetable for development.
- The “Design Learning Curve”: In general, Learnbrite provided an easy interface for development. Our initial module used a backdrop of a series of panorama photos of distribution lines and poles, with the ability for the learner to navigate to different spots. There was a bit of a learning curve to identify how best to sequence the clickable areas, but other than that, it was not far off from creating a course in Storyline or Captivate.
- The “Student Learning Curve”: This was probably our biggest lesson learned. As this was our first course that we implemented using the VR technology, we wanted to ensure it had a positive first impression to our employee base. Again, noting the age diversity, we wanted to engage with a few of our more experienced employees to ensure they were comfortable with how to navigate the course. We’d learned if you do not engage with this group, there is a strong chance they will get frustrated and be resistant to the new technology. We selected a group of employees that we thought would be most challenged by the technology and engaged them early in the process while we were still designing the course. We let them see some of the inner workings of the software, how we intended to build the courses, and let them play with some of our early trials that we developed. We also asked them for their feedback to help us finalize the course design. This special attention allowed us to make them leaders in learning the new tool and helped us use them as advocates to share with their counterparts in the company. They turned out to be some of our best marketers of VR training.
Although we are still rolling out additional trainings using the software, the early indication is that our use of VR training has been a success. Our plan is to continue to focus on microlearning modules using the technology for the next several months and build our capabilities to develop more robust courses and simulations. Like with many other projects, we have found the keys to success being aligning expectations, understanding our audience, and taking it one step at a time.
To learn more, join me during ATD TechKnowledge 2021 for the session Leveraging Innovative Technology for an Age-Diverse Workforce.