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Virtual reality is gaining popularity in various HR arenas, and learning and development may be a particularly good fit for the technology because VR can, at times, provide more realistic training, which could improve employees' overall work performance.
Some organizations are finding VR better engages learners and simulates educational scenarios that would be impossible or irresponsible in the real world. However, drawbacks of using VR in L&D include some users' discomfort when experiencing VR and its relative newness, which results in a lack of available content.
Immersive learning can be impactful and help people retain what they learn, said Allan V. Cook, managing director at Deloitte Consulting LLP.
Companies may decide to adopt VR as they attempt to upgrade their learner experience.
Doing so is a focus for many organizations, according to the 2021 "Market Guide for Corporate Learning" by research firm Gartner, a research and consulting firm headquartered in Stamford, Conn
"Organizations continue to look for technologies to improve the learner experience," according to the Gartner report. "For the past two years, almost 80% of all Gartner learning inquiries reference or highlight the importance of learner experience."
Still, corporate adoption of VR for training and development is still low, according to the Gartner report, even if it is growing.
Most common VR uses in L&D
Companies can use virtual reality platforms to train new workers and to upskill current ones. Here are five of the most promising VR use cases for learning and development.
1. High-risk training
A number of training situations exist in which learners put others at risk or are themselves at risk as they learn new tasks. Learning simulations lowers those risks, and this is where VR's benefits shine. Pilots who learn to fly via flight simulations may be the most well-known example of this VR use case, but there are many others.
For example, doctors who need to learn complex or unusual surgeries can put others at risk, said Tuong H. Nguyen, senior principal analyst at Gartner. Virtual reality enables medical personnel to train without endangering real patients. VR also enables professional tradespeople to train in a safe environment. For example, utility and electrical workers can use VR to learn and practice skills without using live electrical wires.
Allan V. CookManaging director, Deloitte Consulting LLP
2. High-complexity training
Virtual reality also enables training for scenarios that would be almost impossible to recreate in the real world. Astronaut training is a good fit for virtual reality training for this reason, since carrying out more realistic training would be expensive.
"If it's too difficult, too expensive or too dangerous to do the training in the real world, immersive training is a good fit," Cook said.
3. Institutional knowledge transfer
Many organizations are struggling with how to record baby boomers' knowledge before that generation retires.
VR training could help organizations capture aging workers' institutional knowledge, Cook said.
While not traditional workplace L&D, virtual reality could also help with another type of knowledge transfer: teaching customers how to use a company's product.
Virtual reality could help teach a customer how to replace a refrigerator component, put in a new faucet or assemble a piece of furniture in a virtual space rather than through paper instructions or videos, Cook said.
4. Empathy lessons
VR can potentially help increase employees' empathy by immersing workers in situations they would otherwise be unable to experience. Employees can live through situations their customers may face, which could give the employees more empathy toward a customer calling with a problem.
For example, one VR program simulates a migraine headache for healthcare workers, complete with the condition's visual aura and auditory hallucinations, Nguyen said.
5. Soft skills training
Soft skills are an increasingly valued part of an employee's skill set, and virtual reality could help with learning related to those skills.
Because virtual reality can simulate real-life scenarios, complete with facial expressions and body expressions, the tech can help employees develop and practice soft skills, such as active listening, conflict resolution and negotiation, Nguyen said.
The downsides of using VR in L&D
Although VR is benefiting some organizations, some experts believe barriers to immersive technology adoption are preventing widespread use.
Many individuals have difficulty using virtual reality, Nguyen said. Vergence-accommodation conflict, or VAC, happens when a person's brain gets conflicting cues from how far away a virtual 3D object is and how their eyes must focus to see that object. It's a common VR response and is similar to motion sickness.
In addition, the lack of content libraries that organizations can use for training and development is also preventing wider adoption, Nguyen said. HR teams must typically invest in custom content development if they want to start using virtual reality for L&D, and organizations must also pay for the VR hardware and other technology requirements, such as integration work. Those expenses are causing many companies to forgo VR for now.
Some companies are wary of other aspects of VR as well.
Some organizations are concerned about potential data privacy and security issues, Cook said. Immersive systems often capture sensitive information, like an individual's biometric data.
If companies do decide to embrace VR for learning and development, the tech should merely make up one part of a bigger strategy.
"[VR is] not meant to replace other tools you use for learning and development," Nguyen said.