By Eric Vidal, Director of Product Marketing, Event Services Business Segment, InterCall
Long before military pilots are allowed into the cockpits of multi-million-dollar fighter jets, or commercial pilots are handed the keys to the latest jet liner, they log many hours in a flight simulator. These simulators create a virtual environment that gives budding pilots the opportunity to learn the operating procedures of the planes they will fly, the feeling of what it’s like to be in the air, how to handle difficulties and emergencies, and more in a safe environment. Most importantly, they allow flight candidates to make their mistakes on the ground, with no risk to themselves, other people, or the multi-million- dollar investments of their fellow citizens or companies.
For most of us in the corporate world, training doesn’t have such a life-or-death element. When we say a customer service rep crashed and burned on a call, we’re only speaking figuratively. Yet in our ultra-competitive world there is an urgency to making sure corporate employees receive the best possible training—an urgency based on the bottom line. This is where virtual environments excel.
Virtual environments for business take technologies such as collaboration and online learning and give them a human context. Consider the typical online partner training program from the participant’s point of view. You receive a link that takes you to a text-based list of available documents, audio and/or video files, with a few stock photos or logos inserted to break up the text a bit. Select one, and you’re in for an experience that feels like everything else you do in a day. It’s unlikely to capture your full attention.
But a virtual environment might take you to a sleek, futuristic-looking university campus with different classrooms for each topic. Enter the classroom and you could find yourself watching a presentation in a lecture hall, or sitting in a small discussion group, surrounded by other virtual students (some real, some just for atmosphere). Although the same information is being presented, the learning environment has been enhanced by taking you away from wherever you are in the real world and inserting you into a classroom in a completely different world. Essentially, it’s the difference between reading a textbook or watching a video about flying and actually sitting in a simulator that makes you feel like you’re in the air.
A virtual environment also differs from traditional binder-based training in that it allows organizations to gather data about where trainees go, how often they go to each room, what they view and/or download while they’re there, and more. By running a variety of reports, organizations can learn from their trainees and continue to improve the experience, adding the right content where consumption is high while eliminating information that no longer appears relevant. They also can assess which content needs to be revised or simplified based on how many times a trainee opens it and how much time is spent on each one. More opens generally equals less understanding.
While the technology for virtual environments has been around for a little while, what’s new are the ways it’s being applied. In the early days, the focus was more on the avatar; users seemed more interested in making them walk around, sit on a couch, or fly around the room than in absorbing information. Today’s virtual environments are much more focused on helping organizations break through barriers to learning in order to deliver superior training results. They’re also breaking the limits of what types of training are being offered; thanks to new, easier-to-use technologies, virtual environments now may be used for a variety of purposes inside and outside the enterprise. Here are three ways virtual environments are being used to augment training today.
1. New product rollouts/updates. Over the last 20 years, the pace of business has continued to accelerate at a rate that makes the visuals in flight simulators look like they’re in slow motion. Information has to be delivered quickly, both internally and externally, in order to gain or maintain a competitive advantage.
A virtual environment creates this mechanism. Organizations can have training centers for each product, tailored to each audience—their own sales force, partners, tech support, customer service, and more—that allow them to get in, get the specific knowledge they need, and get out without having to wade through information that is irrelevant to them. By incorporating collaboration technologies in the virtual environment, organizations also can give trainees the option to ask for more information or help from subject matter experts, schedule a meeting, or take some other action that advances the training process.
For internal knowledge sharing and collaboration, a virtual environment gives employees more personal access to peers, helping them develop relationships in a way e-mail or other technologies can’t. If they choose, organizations can even create a virtual water cooler to encourage the type of off-the-cuff exchanges that used to be so common (and valuable) before the workforce became so dispersed.
2. Keeping mobile/distant employees informed. Virtual environments not only make it easy for organizations to communicate and collaborate with their current audiences better, they also allow those organizations to keep mobile workers and those in remote offices up to date on the latest developments without the huge investment in time and money it normally takes.
A good example is a large technology company that was able to train 2,000 partners spread across 81 different countries using a virtual environment. Had it tried to do this in the physical world, the barriers would’ve been astronomical. The cost of travel (and personnel being out of the office) alone would have been exorbitant. The time factor to reach all of those partners country by country (or region by region) would have greatly slowed down the process, as well.
Instead, they used a virtual environment that included information in seven languages and chat translations for 50 languages, all available to everyone at the same time. The program was completed quickly, and the company was able to gather data on usage that will help it make the training even better as time goes on.
3. Extending the conversation before and after the training period. Sales meetings, classroom training, and other forms of face-to-face interaction tend to have a short shelf life. There is a lot of work and effort that goes into the preparation, making sure deadlines are met and the program has been properly vetted. But once the scheduled session is over, it becomes a memory—even if attendees are willing and ready to continue the conversation.
Adding a virtual environment to a live training program provides a place for organizations to keep the conversation going, and keep lessons learned top of mind. For department-specific training, it provides ample space for collaboration and interaction. For broader-based sessions, especially those done in collaboration with other organizations, it allows you to continue reaping the benefits of your huge investment of time and money, directing trainees to your materials and subject matter experts as the natural extension of what they just experienced during the session. Providing this virtual environment gives you the ability to take on or enhance a leadership position in your industry.
The military and commercial airlines make flight simulators a significant part of their training programs for one reason: They are effective. Placing inexperienced pilots (or experienced pilots moving to a new plane) in a simulator gives them the ability to test what they’ve learned in the context they’ll be using it before a mistake can be costly.
The same is true for organizations. Creating a virtual environment provides context and focus during training that is difficult to achieve using any other method. It’s your best bet for creating aces within your own organization.
Eric Vidal is the director of Product Marketing for the Event Services Business Segment at InterCall (http://www.intercall.com), a conferencing and collaboration services provider. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.