Ever suffered through an interminable, lackluster training session? Or practically dozed off in an online meeting, trying to muster enthusiasm for the steady procession of bullet point slides?

What if, instead, you could create a customized, online avatar of your alter ego and participate in a highly interactive, virtual world session linking you with colleagues or clients—and their avatars—from around the country or across the globe?

Welcome to the virtual world, the new frontier of employee training and development. Today, companies increasingly are deploying the tools of augmented reality to create effective training programs driving employee engagement and success in a highly competitive global marketplace.

With the rise of role-playing games and social media, exploring how to leverage such interactive tools in a corporate training environment is intriguing. The payoff can be cost savings and improved workforce efficiency through a more economical, time-sensitive and collaborative approach to training. Virtual world technology is applicable across many training, communication and collaboration opportunities in the clinical development and life sciences arena.

Training Today’s Workforce

Today’s workforce is a cross-generational blend including older workers, baby boomers, Gen X’ers and Millennials, with differing expectations of the workplace and wide-ranging learning styles. For instance, research by Casey Carlson and Deloitte and Touche showed that, as a group, Baby Boomers are more motivated by salary and do not handle negative feedback well, compared to Millennials, who generally are more motivated by job security and do not believe performance feedback is necessary. Of course, your results may vary.

Businesses have learned to adapt to this changing workforce, understanding that delivering on employee learning and development expectations is multifaceted and requires a variety of modalities to capture the largest audience. Training methods include face-to-face sessions, one-on-one tutorials, lectures, demonstrations, facilitated e-learning, self-paced e-learning and blended approaches. These days, high-performing companies are employing a formula of 20% formal learning and 80% informal learning, with the gap continuing to widen.

Whether small, medium or global organizations, companies need to attract and retain top talent to ensure growth and viability for the future. Despite the wide range of employee expectations and learning styles, company training programs must be standardized, yet also tailored to the needs of groups and distinct business units, and even to specific regions around the globe. With rapid advances in technology, virtual world training tools can employ most of the available modalities while capturing the imagination and attention of employees across the entire organization.

Virtual Training for Real World Benefits

For example, clinical research associates (CRAs) play a critical role in monitoring clinical research conducted in the development of new medicines. Instituting a virtual-world classroom for on-boarding and training clinical research associates not only improves the cost-effectiveness of training, but also the speed and quality of training and the on-boarding of a globally deployed team.

Why? Employees no longer must travel to regional hubs for training, meaning less time away from home and family, and the company employing this technology reduces costs for transportation, lodging and per diem. And most importantly, four in five employees surveyed agreed that virtual training is not only effective, but that they are also more engaged in virtual training than in using traditional learning tools.

Participants in a virtual training program can learn in many situations. They can meet remotely with each other and/or their clients while engaging in highly social, interactive and visually appealing 3D virtual spaces. To do this, employees can create and maintain their online identity (an avatar of their choosing) in a professional and culturally appropriate manner. Users can talk, send instant messages, view and interact with presentation and media content, record notes and access the web—all at the same time, from anywhere around the globe.

Different workspaces within the virtual world can be used for collaborative group sessions, strategy and best practice discussions, classroom information delivery, role playing and ongoing, periodic evaluation. Virtual rooms modeled on real-world conference rooms can host presentations and large lectures, and they can include spaces reserved for private conversations similar to those found when stepping outside of formal presentations.

A replica of a medical office or clinic environment also can be built within the virtual collaborative space, including video technology and linkages to view electronic data systems. Research personnel can practice and be evaluated on their job skills by interacting virtually with office staff, accompanied by a senior member of the management team acting as mentor and trainer. Or, with the right technology, actual virtual monitoring can be facilitated between research personnel and clinical trial sites.

Operating in the virtual world means there are practically no limitations on when or where training and development can occur. However, the same considerations apply as in a face-to-face situation in regard to cultural preferences, norms and expectations. In some instances, even greater attention must be given to these considerations in the development and use of materials, the way working sessions are scheduled, and the manner in which break-out groups are formed.

Leaping into the Virtual World

While converting from traditional training methodologies to the virtual world may present challenges, there is growing recognition that the face-to-face training programs that most companies use are no longer innovative or sustainable, especially when employees are distributed across distances. However, if carefully thought out and implemented, a traditional classroom training program can be adapted successfully for the virtual world.

A company with existing training materials designed for in-person, interactive audiences in a bricks-and-mortar workplace can convert them into a format that is just as effective and also takes full advantage of the capabilities provided in a virtual space. To do this successfully requires a skilled team of learning specialists who understand and can imagine the difference between what’s possible and what doesn’t translate well.

Tips and Tricks to Get Up and Running

Various organizations offer tips and tricks for virtual world training to instructors. Additionally, most of the providers of such technology will include sessions on the use of tools and materials available within the platform.

Tip #1: Currently, the most viable options for launching a virtual-world platform include an internal technology solution maintained through hosting and license costs, or leasing space in a cloud version of a virtual-world platform that is shared across users and groups. Launching and owning a virtual world technology solution requires a robust information technology support structure and considerable planning. Licensing and maintenance fees apply in most cases and, depending on the size of the organization, support will be needed in the form of online access and personnel to troubleshoot challenges.

Tip # 2: Given the speed of technological advances, careful planning is mandatory. For example, system upgrades must be planned for on a regular basis. The virtual world technology of today is not the same as even one year ago. New features could mean that the hardware supporting the platform becomes obsolete or changes. Companies must plan for the impacts on internal programs such as BYOD (bring your own device), when a multitude of devices are employed, often requiring different security and access controls.

Tip # 3: Additional technology solutions could be needed to fully realize the benefits of a virtual-world platform. For example, in a training environment, assessments are often given periodically and mostly include manual completion and scoring. To realize the full benefit of cost reduction, an electronically administered and scored assessment becomes necessary.

Tip # 4: Regardless of the technology solution chosen, it should be user friendly and intuitive for all levels of competency. Unique scheduling requirements need to be addressed, such as ongoing 24/7 technology support to accommodate usage across time zones and geographies.

Generating ROI for Your Organization

In today’s competitive global marketplace, the traditional model of face-to-face employee training for large organizations is becoming increasingly cost prohibitive, considering the costs of regionally-based or global employees traveling to centralized locations for training.

Controlling these costs and reducing the time between hire and job readiness helps keep clinical research on track to deliver life-changing medical treatments to patients sooner and cost effectively. If executed effectively, return on investment in a virtual-world training program can be realized in under a year.

  • Stacy Weil

    Stacy Weil is an executive director in the Technology, Innovation and Performance group at PPD, a leading global contract research organization providing drug discovery, development and lifecycle management services. Her focus is driving change to improve quality, reduce costs and accelerate schedules to advance clients’ R&D programs.

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