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Immersive Tech Strikes at the Heart of Unconscious Bias

You know the modern workplace has hit next-level training heights when a “virtual human” is teaching soft skills to your employees while leveraging the power of virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI). But when you’re looking at ways to transform your diversity and inclusion (D&I) training program, VR goggles usually aren’t the first thing that comes to mind.

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Enter “Through My Eyes,” a VR program recently launched by BCT Partners and Red Fern Education Consulting and Services. The goal is to teach employees how to recognize unconscious bias through scenarios played out in real time while tackling prevalent examples of gender, race and age bias.

Novelist Harper Lee described the tenor behind this entire concept and curriculum via the words of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

The new corporate program “uses VR to put people in actual situations where they have to confront some of their own obvious or hidden prejudices,” said Randal Pinkett, Ph.D., chairman and CEO of BCT Partners.

The VR experience takes the employee through two scenarios: 1) as an observer to witness how bias rears its ugly head in various situations; and 2) as a character in a VR scene that is sure to trigger emotions. The latter hypothetical intends to accelerate understanding and empathy as to how bias affects different demographics. In both scenarios, organizations craft personal learning agendas as they collect data, such as the observations and choices made by each participant.

“The goal is to blend VR immersions and data capture to create a powerful experience that helps individuals recognize their own bias in action,” said Steve Mahaley, global digital learning strategist at Duke Corporate Education and the co-founder of Red Fern.

To learn more about the potential impact of virtual reality on the workplace, Workspan editor-in-chief Dan Cafaro sat down with Mahaley to discuss the future of augmented reality (AR), VR and mixed reality (XR) in a corporate learning environment.

Cafaro: Evangelists of AR/VR/XR say the next technology transformation is here. XR/spatial computing technology, they say, will be our new screen, integrating with AI applications, Cloud Storage, IoT devices and 5G networks. Isn’t this the case for only a select few organizations and government agencies that have the budget to experiment with state-of-the-art tech?

Mahaley: To a degree, “yes,” although cost as a barrier to entry is not as big of a hurdle as it has been, historically, for other technology-based developments. This all depends on the scope of application. Certainly, a firm-wide implementation of some XR variant, including provisioning equipment for many, if not all, staff is a tall order. However, if we are looking, as we should, at targeted efforts that leverage XR experiences for high-value endeavors,that will likely narrow the focus of that effort, and therefore the cost.

Cafaro: How do these tools apply to today’s modern workplace? Are they mostly poised to have the greatest impact on manufacturing (Industry 4.0+)?

Mahaley: For the workplace — yes, there are needs in at least two areas that we can agree: One is in the operational knowledge domain. In this area, we are talking about immersing people in replicas of their real context to give them full-surround immersions for simulation exercises. This is great for high-risk environments where mistakes in procedural knowledge can lead to high losses. Secondly there is the domain of human knowledge. In this area, we [BCT and Red Fern] are looking at how XR [at this stage, VR immersions] can accelerate empathy and insight into the realities of other people who are important and critical to the success of the organization. (For example, customers and remote operations employees.) And, of course, for uncovering unconscious bias to help us all build inclusive organizations.

Cafaro: How far along are immersive technologies (AR/VR/XR) to changing the way companies train and onboard their employees?

Mahaley: The application of this tech to industry is growing, for sure. The VR/AR Association would be a good resource for info in this domain. I can point to health care as an industry where VR/XR is having an impact today. Doctors and patient care staff are using this immersive tech for the very two applications described: 1) for procedural knowledge and to enhance operational accuracy (literally); and 2) for better understanding the experience, as a patient, in various care settings (from mental health to surgical settings).

Cafaro: I’ve heard it said that we may appear to be living in a Renaissance period with our learning management systems, but the reality is many of us are still living in the Dark Ages. Would you disagree with that general sentiment? Are we at the tipping point or is the challenge of scalability still impeding progress?

Mahaley: I tend not to subscribe to any form of hyperbolic predictions. What I think we are seeing is a natural evolution of technology in learning as a result of two things: 1) We better understand how humans learn. We have great research in neuroscience to thank, in part, for this. And 2) We have the ongoing, relentless evolution of technology that continuously provides designers new raw materials for developing powerful and effective learning experiences and approaches. Scalability, in my experience, is always a problem at the outset of any new application of technology. However, as with other digital developments, standards are eventually sorted out, and we see a curve of adoption that is inversely (roughly) proportional to costs as a result.

About the Author

Dan Cafaro is the editor-in-chief of Workspan magazine.

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