The aviation industry has long relied on flight simulators to train pilots to handle challenging situations. These simulations are an effective way for pilots to learn from virtual experiences that would be costly and difficult or dangerous to provide in the real world.
And yet in business, leaders commonly find themselves in tricky situations for which they haven’t trained. From conducting performance reviews to negotiating with peers, they need practice to help navigate the interpersonal dynamics that come into play in interactions where emotions run high and mistakes can result in lost deals, damaged relationships, or even harm to their — or their company’s — reputation.
Some companies, particularly those with substantial resources, do use live-role playing in management and other training. But this training is expensive and limited by time and availability constraints, and lack of consistency. Advances in artificial intelligence and computer graphics are now enabling the equivalent of flight simulators for social skills – simulators that have the potential to overcome these problems. These simulations can provide realistic previews of what leaders might encounter on the job, engaging role-play interactions, and constructive performance feedback for one-on-one conversations or complex dynamics involving multiple groups or departments.
Over the past fifteen years, our U.S. Army-funded research institute has been advancing both the art and science behind virtual human role players, computer generated characters that look and act like real people, and social simulations — computer models of individual and group behavior. Thousands of service men and women are now getting virtual reality and video game-based instruction and practice in how to counsel fellow soldiers, how to conduct cross-cultural negotiations and even in how to anticipate how decisions will be received by different groups across, and outside of, an organization. Other efforts provide virtual human role players to help train law students in interviewing child witnesses, budding clinicians in how to improve their diagnostic skills and bedside manner, and young adults on the autism spectrum disorders in how to answer questions in a job interview.
Our research is exploring how to build resilience by taking people through stressful virtual situations, like the loss of a comrade, child or leader, before they face them in reality. We are also developing virtual humans that can detect a person’s non-verbal behaviors and react and respond accordingly. Automated content creation tools allow for customized scenarios and new software and off-the-shelf hardware are making it possible to create virtual humans modeled on any particular person. It could be you, your boss, or a competitor.
Imagine facing a virtual version of the person you have to lay off. Might you treat him or her differently than a generic character? What if months of preparation for an international meeting went awry just because you declined a cup of tea? Wouldn’t you wish you’d practiced for that? If a virtual audience programmed to react based on your speaking style falls asleep during your speech, I’d be surprised if you didn’t you pep up your presentation before facing a real crowd.
It is still early days in our virtual-human development work, but the results are promising. An evaluation of ELITE (emergent leader immersive training environment), the performance review training system we developed for junior and noncommissioned officers, found that students showed an increase in retention and application of knowledge, an increase in confidence using the skills, and awareness of the importance of interpersonal communication skills for leadership.
A related study showed that subjects found the virtual human interaction as engaging and compelling as the same interaction with a live human role-player. I can say from personal experience that asking questions of the students in a virtual classroom can be exhilarating (and unnerving when the virtual student acts just like a “real” student, slouching in boredom and mumbling an answer). Unlike a live human actor, however, a virtual human does not need to be paid, can work anytime, and can be consistent with all students, or take a varied approach if needed. Virtual human systems can have the added advantage of built-in assessment tools to track and evaluate a performance.
Technology alone is not the answer, of course As I recently wrote in “Virtual Reality and Leadership Development,” a chapter of the book Using Experience to Develop Leadership Talent, virtual humans and video game-based systems are only as effective as the people who program them. No matter how convincing a virtual human is, it’s just an interface. If the instructional design behind it is flawed it won’t be effective. So we focus as intensively on what a virtual human is designed to teach, how learning will occur, and how to continuously improve its performance as on the technology itself.
I believe simulation technologies are going to change the way we educate and train the workforce, particularly in the area of social skills. In time, just as a pilot shouldn’t fly without practicing in a simulator first, managers and leaders will routinely practice with virtual humans for the challenging situation they’re sure to encounter.
Randall W. Hill, Jr., is the executive director of the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies and an expert in how virtual reality and video games can be used to develop effective learning experiences. He is also a research professor of computer science at USC