Disrupting human resource development: The impact of immersive virtual reality

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Interpersonal skills training is about to get a little less personal, it seems. A new paper from Marianne Schmid Mast and co-authors suggests that our role-playing training partners of the future may not be our colleagues or managers, but virtual humans instead.

5 min read

Marianne Schmid Mast is a professor of Organizational Behavior. Her research interests include social interactions, verbal and nonverbal communication and power hierarchies.
Manuel Bachmann, Head of Research
Benjamin Tur, Graduate Assistant
Emmanuelle P. Kleinlogel, Junior Lecturer

Every year organizations invest billions of dollars on learning and development activities. Much of that money is spent on developing interpersonal skills such as leadership, negotiation and communication skills. Partly because of high demand for interpersonal skills training, partly because research suggests this type of training is relatively effective in terms of impact.

Traditionally, interpersonal skills training has been 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 make in-roads into all aspects of organizational life, research by Marianne Schmid Mast and her co-authors suggests that interpersonal skills training is about to undergo a significant transformation.

If VR is 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? Using a Head Mounted Display (HMD), participants are 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 the experience further by reflecting the movements, body language, even expressions of the participants.

Schmid Mast and her co-authors focus on the use of virtual humans as training partners. 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 will often monitor the overall training experience, and may even select which preprogrammed responses the virtual training partner deploys.

IVR appears to offer a number of advantages over traditional role play training:

  1. Easily accessible. Resource issues, such as cost and logistics, e.g. providing an audience for public speaking role-play or interviewers for a panel interview, limit the availability of conventional training. Once programmed, however, virtual humans are available 24/7, do not need briefing or consulting, and are relatively low cost. They enable frequent practice, 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 (see #3). 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, unrealistic environments used to provide more challenge, doppelgangers, a virtual recreation of the trainee, introduced to help coach and provide feedback.
  5. More feedback delivery choice. IVR allows greater choice over how to deliver feedback. Instead of the conventional post-training debrief, feedback could be indicated in real-time by the reactions of virtual training partners, or by giving additional information during the exercise depending on the trainee’s actions, such as a signal if a mistake is made. It might be automated, triggered by sensors in the environment that monitor the trainee’s behavior, or prompted by the trainer.

Still in its infancy, more research is needed to provide evidence for the potential benefits and impact of IVR social skills training as 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? Schmid Mast offers ten hypotheses as a starting point for related research.

Even in the absence of further research, though, IVR is likely to become an integral part of interpersonal skills development and other aspects of HRD. Inevitably this will prove transformational, disrupting the delivery of HRD services by many traditional providers. Schmid Mast and her co-authors stress that they see IVR as part of a blended training approach complementing conventional role play. They advocate virtual humans as training partners for practice purposes, not as trainer replacements. Trainers are unlikely to take much comfort, however, given the relentless progress of technologies such as AI and machine learning.

Related research paper:

Schmid Mast, M., Kleinlogel, E. P., Tur, B., & Bachmann, M. (in press). The future of interpersonal skills development: Immersive virtual reality training with virtual humans. Human Resource Development Quarterly.

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