Developing better leaders in virtual reality

24 May 2022
How virtual reality is being used to develop immersive management training platforms

One of the prevailing trends in education over the past two years has been the rapid development of remote learning platforms to facilitate the continuity of teaching programmes despite the limitations introduced by pandemic-related restrictions on people’s movements.

As part of the learning process, various digital platforms have been explored, from the recreation of conventional classrooms in digital spaces, to the development of more interactive interfaces such as, most ambitiously, virtual reality (VR) learning spaces.

VR has long been an established tool in certain training environments. Flight simulators, for instance, are essentially an application of an early form of VR in an educational setting.

More modern uses include technical training for operators in heavy industrial settings, where safety is paramount.

In the training of a technical operator on an oil rig, for example, allowing the individual to operate a virtual oil rig offers huge benefits over the costs and risk that are involved in flying a trainee operator to a rig and having them learn on the job, supported by nothing but classroom theory.

In other areas of learning, while the same cost and risk implications do not necessarily apply, there are similarly a range of other benefits that can be drawn from the more interactive and immersive types of experience that can be provided in a VR setting.

VR in practice

One educator that is already fully invested in exploiting the advantages of VR is the business school Insead, which is developing VR experiences as part of its global executive MBA programme, alongside other VR platforms that are focused on team-building or behavioural training.

“After worldwide lockdowns forced us to pivot from physical to all-online training, we immediately saw the potential for VR,” says Ithai Stern, Insead professor of strategy and director for immersive learning. He notes the need to compensate for “Zoom fatigue” and other weaknesses of purely distance learning.

In addition to the greater interactivity that remote learning through VR presents, it can also allow participants to experience virtual emulations of realistic business settings or to relive real-world case studies.

After worldwide lockdowns forced us to pivot from physical to all-online training, we immediately saw the potential for VR
Ithai Stern, Insead 

For instance, Insead has developed boardroom meeting settings, where individual students can play the role of a department head pitching for company budget to meet an assigned set of objectives.

Other scenarios might be less about real-world applications than they are about testing and developing personal skills. One VR experience that Insead Abu Dhabi has developed is a virtual mission to Mars, where engine trouble requires the mission team to significantly cut its payload – a complex decision-making scenario that requires participants to act collaboratively in order to reach a solution.

The VR scenarios are also not just for leadership training; they can also be used for identifying potentially problematic behaviours among a company’s employees.

As Stern explains: “We have a board meeting scenario where people go in and there are some inappropriate behaviours that are happening, and some people do not see them, which by itself is very interesting. We can look at how status affects the boardroom.”

In many ways, virtual reality turns traditional management training on its head by replacing the traditionally static classroom case study-based approach – a teaching method that has been used for over a century – with what can be a dynamic, interactive and individualised experience.

“Through an immersive, three-dimensional simulation involving scripts and actors, participants can be plunged into a lifelike conference room setting with a debate in full swing, or a tense close-quarters negotiation with fraught power dynamics on display,” Stern says. “Just as they would in life, they must use their wits and powers of perception to come to grips with the situation and determine the next steps.”

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Data and analytics

These VR programmes can also be backed by data collection and analytics that can track details such as where participants are looking. This can provide valuable insights into what information participants are focused on, how their priorities are structured and how they interact with different stimuli.

Through an immersive, three-dimensional simulation involving scripts and actors, participants can be plunged into a lifelike conference room setting
Ithai Stern, Insead 

By receiving information and responding to it in VR, participants are kept in a controlled environment that can also allow their actions to be assessed independent of any interference from other participants.

This ultimately leads to more objective, personal feedback as part of each participant’s learning experience and can be more instructive when it comes to helping them to identify core strengths and weaknesses, and areas that might be improved upon.

At the same time, Stern does not anticipate that VR will completely replace existing executive educational tools and approaches any time soon. It is nevertheless seen as adding value and a new dimension to the classroom.

So, while VR executive training is not necessarily likely to become widely adopted in the near future, the use of the toolset is poised to grow in management settings given the value of its ability to yield insights into employee skills and personality traits and act as an aid in personal development.

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