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Josh Bersin on how immersive learning will disrupt L&D

Expert insights
Interviews & AMAs
min read
Josh Bersin and Derek Belch, Strivr Founder and CEO, seated side by side during an interview

There’s a dramatic shift occurring in the learning space. Learning and development (L&D) leaders are feeling the profound effects of the changing nature of jobs and a heightened demand for better employee training. Under pressure, they’re discovering new and better ways to train employees, tapping into virtual reality (VR) not just for traditional high-risk scenarios like flight simulation, but to teach all kinds of skills that employees use every day on the job, from retail to manufacturing to customer service. This approach to VR training is known as immersive learning.

To discuss the topic, Founder and CEO of Strivr Derek Belch sat down for a conversation with Josh Bersin, the preeminent thought leader in global learning and development. Bersin’s insight into how Immersive Learning is changing corporate L&D comes from decades of experience working in and researching the space, as well as his own personal experiences with VR training.

Tune into our webinar to watch the full interview with Josh or read the transcript below (edited for clarity):

Trends in the learning space

Derek Belch: I want to kick off with talking about the 2019 report from Deloitte that just came out. What have you seen trend-wise in the learning space, and how does this report impact what Strivr’s doing?

Josh Bersin: One of the things that comes out of that particular study, which is a massive global piece of research, is that learning is now the number one human capital trend around the world. I think 86% of companies stated that it was either urgent or very high priority, and not only that, they also told us that they’re not sure they’re very good at it. Even though we have all these technologies and tools and content and authoring things going on, companies are struggling to figure out how to create learning that fits into the flow of work. People are busier and busier and busier, and the economy continues to grow.

The number two trend is that companies and individuals are worried about their jobs. Their jobs are changing very fast.

Automation is not only affecting learning, but everything else — sales and customer service and engineering and manufacturing — and so employees are reaching out to their employers to say “I want you to keep me up to date, because I’m worried about my skills and my profession and keeping my job and my earnings.” So companies can afford to invest in L&D and training, and it’s an enormous opportunity for them.

Derek Belch: On that note, what are employees asking for when it comes to new tools and experiences?

Josh Bersin: I would say the biggest problem employees have right now is they don’t have enough time. We’ve got our mobile phones, our emails, our text messages, our meetings and conference calls and all these things we need to do at work. They want an experience at work that’s purposeful and meaningful to them financially, but also professionally.

We’ve got all this stuff we’ve thrown at people at work — the HR programs, the training programs, the onboarding programs — and they can’t absorb it all.

Things like Immersive Learning are like a breath of fresh air.

We can now reach people in a much more effective way on their jobs without interrupting them with lots and lots of things.

The second issue is that we’ve got a combination of hard skills and soft skills in the economy right now. There is a shortage of technical people who can do machine learning and software and all that, but it’s a small percentage of the workforce. 95% of the workforce are working in sales — they’re retail workers, healthcare providers, manufacturing workers, marketing people — and they’re looking for skills on how to work on teams, get along with people, deal with difficult situations, hire people, be more inclusive, convey information in a new way. So we have these bifurcated skills problems of the technical skills and mandatory training, and this huge appetite for more soft skills and leadership development. It isn’t all about technology.

Deep dive into the changing nature of jobs

Derek Belch: You talked about automation and people being worried about their jobs. This comes up a lot at conferences where I speak. I have personally observed, as I’ve gone around the country visiting lots of different Fortune 500 companies, being on tarmacs and in auto manufacturing plants, that it doesn’t look like humans are going anywhere anytime soon. I think the robots taking over the world is a little bit of a misnomer. For us, training humans to do their jobs effectively is obviously important.

Josh Bersin: I completely agree with you, Derek. There are a lot of press articles about 55% of jobs being automated and so forth, and none of that has turned out to be true. When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, we had PCs replacing typewriters, and then we had more sophisticated PCs replacing old ones, and on and on. This is a continuous process. But if you actually look at the economics, there are more jobs right now than there are people. We don’t have enough people for the jobs that are being created, and the skills that are mostly in demand are more sophisticated, complex-thinking skills and service skills and interpretation skills.

Even if you’re a mechanic or a machinist or you’re out there working with your hands, you have to come up with new ways of solving problems all the time and identify problems faster than ever — things that software can’t do. I don’t think there’s any risk of us running out of jobs, although very routine work is going away: the toll-taker at the bridge who’s collecting coins, those kind of jobs.

There was some research recently done by the World Economic Forum. They looked at 62 different jobs that are being automated in different ways and all of the skills that are no longer needed. Their conclusion was that with most of these jobs, you can completely re-skill yourself in 13 to 15 months. We’re not doing away with people in any way.

An introduction to immersive learning

Derek Belch: You mentioned immersive learning. Walk us through your first experience with VR and why you were drawn to it as the next medium through which people will learn.

Josh Bersin: I’ve always been skeptical of new things, because I’ve seen all sorts of things mature at different rates than we’d expect. When I put on the headset and went through the football training module, I was completely blown away. Then we did the Black Friday simulation [a Walmart employee module] and a job interview module. Within a half hour I was completely convinced this was an enormously transformative technology.

As an analyst, I hadn’t really paid attention to the space because I thought it wasn’t ready. After that one afternoon, I realized it was way bigger than I thought.

This is a technology that is much further along than most people think it is. It is absolutely ready for prime time. I still vividly remember the entire experience end to end. I’ve been through a lot of training programs, and I don’t remember any of the other ones. It’s very, very effective.

Derek Belch: We like to say that while we’re at the bottom of the first inning in terms of where this technology is going, it is ready for prime time. We’re transparent with customers with where it’s evolved and where it still needs work. But it’s ready for mature organizations to integrate into their learning plans today. To that end, where do you see this fitting in?                                                                                                                  

Josh Bersin: It’s a good question. I think in the early days of this technology, it probably was used for things like oil companies simulating drilling-rig training — where the cost of failure is so high that they could afford to spend a million dollars on a handcrafted VR thing. It’s way beyond that now. If you look at most of the learning situations that companies have, the best learning is some sort of a simulation.

When I went through sales training at IBM, we did simulated sales calls. There was an instructor, facilitator, and someone who scripted it all out. Those were really effective programs, but they weren’t scalable. You couldn’t do them for all job roles. That is the exact kind of experience you can use for VR across all job roles now, where you put someone in a situation where they’re going to experience the work, whether it’s a gun in a retail store or a plane inspection with a missing part. There are hundreds of applications like this.

VR is on an accelerated curve, moving from once-very-expensive problems to the everyday problems we have to learn about at work.

The data on human behavior

Derek Belch: One of the coolest things we’ve seen is how similarly we’ve seen the brain treats virtual simulations relative to real life. We’ve compared pencil-and-paper quizzes — what the industry’s done for the last several decades — to how students score on virtual simulations. As we’ve found, they perform far worse on the virtual simulations. This is actually how they’re going to perform in the real world. If you can train them to perform in a virtual simulation, odds are they’ll actually do that job correctly in the real world.

On that note, let’s talk about data. Virtual training is a treasure trove of potential information that organizations can use to understand the effects of learning. What are you most excited about, and how do you think data will play out here?

Josh Bersin: I think what we’re going to find from these kind of solutions is that we’re learning things about human behavior that we could not possibly have picked up in a traditional training program. Why does a retail employee in a certain situation not notice something that’s causing a customer problem? We can teach them what to do and beat it into their head with tests, but in the real world, they might not do it.

With VR, we know where their eyes were, what was distracting them, why they didn’t turn around and notice something — all of those subtle skills, including management skills, interviewing skills, objection-handling skills. Unless you videotape someone and watch them every minute, which no one has time to do, you can’t pick that up. But with VR, you can.

I think we’re going to get feedback loops on what high performance looks like that we’ve never had before with VR. It’s new, and will get better and better over time, but that’s one of the ultimate benefits from this.

Derek Belch: What are you hearing and seeing in terms of best practices?

Josh Bersin: Airlines and oil companies are already familiar with this type of technology on the very high end, so they are in some ways more amenable to bringing it in for some of the more modest applications where they don’t have to spend so much money, but I think the best examples are situations where they work with a vendor like Strivr to identify a big problem that is complex or difficult or very expensive to solve.

In most cases, VR is an incredibly useful solution, but it’s not off-the-shelf stuff. You don’t just buy the glasses and turn it on and train people. You need consulting help.

One of the reasons I’m so excited about Strivr is that you’ve gone way down the learning curve on how to identify the right problems, create the right content, automate the rights tasks, and capture the right data.

The funny thing about VR is that, now that it’s popular, there are a million little tinker toys out there. I see little PC tools and apps you can buy on your phone, but they can’t do what you guys do. These are industrial-strength problems you can solve at a very modest cost, but that doesn’t mean you can buy something off the shelf and do it yourself. Eventually it may reach that point.

How to get executive buy-in for immersive learning

Derek Belch: One of my favorite pieces of data you’ve shared with us is how companies spend their money in the L&D space. Budget wise, and to sell this internally, how can L&D leaders engage other parts of the organization?

Josh Bersin: The first thing is, you have to be ready to accept the fact that a groundbreaking solution like this is going to come along, and you need to get the money. You can’t just wait two years; you’ll miss the whole thing. If the budget is fixed, chances are, you’re spending a half to two-thirds on stuff that you don’t know the ROI of. You have to go through this exercise and find out which big problems will give you a high ROI, whether they’re safety related, performance related or culture related. That’s number one.

Number two, once you’ve earmarked that money, and created a prototype, you realize you can scale it up. I think this is going to be revolutionary across many, many aspects of L&D, but you won’t know it until you start.

The third thing is the issue of human performance. We’re in a stage of the economy right now where the only thing that will differentiate a company is the human performance equation. You don’t need to hire more people than your competitors. There aren’t enough people. You can’t build software faster than your competitors; they can hire the same software engineers you can. They can hire the same sales people. It’s how well the people you do hire perform in your company.

Company-specific techniques and practices and cultural aspects and business processes are the magic to your success. Immersive learning institutionalizes that in a way I’ve never seen before.

The fourth thing is the engagement this drives in employees. People love this stuff. I’m excited after a half an hour of playing around with it. It makes you like your job more, your L&G department more, your employer more… there’s all sorts of positive aspects to this.

Immersive learning for soft skills & hard skills

Derek Belch: Soft skills versus hard skills. You have talked about the importance of soft skills to corporate America at large and L&D, specifically. As it relates to VR, should we be thinking about them similarly?

Josh Bersin: I think they are different, but very similar in some respects. There’s a lot of ways to learn technical skills. If it’s a hands-on, physical thing, you kind of have to do it. If it’s an inspection, a safety procedure, an operational procedure, you learn those things through the techniques and technology and understanding the principles behind it.

Soft skills are very different. You have to put someone in an uncomfortable situation where they come to grips with the fact that wow, I really know how to do this. And that’s hard to do. Most people don’t like it. But that’s what VR can do in a safe way — put people in a situation where they’re working hard to learn something they didn’t realize they didn’t know how to do well.

I’ve been in the business world since the 70s. I’m a technical person. But when I think about all the things I’ve done, the most important learning I’ve learned is how to work with people, work in teams, deal with problems, and listen — things people aren’t always good at. I think soft skills are a bigger opportunity than most people realize, and I’m amazed at how effective VR can be in solving those kinds of problems. It’s a big market.

Advice for L&D leaders

Derek Belch: If you could give one piece of advice to an L&D professional, what would it be?

Josh Bersin: I think right now, because of the pressure on L&D and the demand for learning on business executives and employees, you have to be more innovative and creative than ever before.

You’re not going to solve the problem by copying what everyone else does. You’re going to have to create something new. Taking advantage of technology, with a creative instinct of doing something for your company, is a huge opportunity. Now is the time to do this.

What Strivr has done, and one of the reasons you’re so successful, is that you’re learning really, really fast. You didn’t come into this thinking you knew the answers from the beginning. The way humans learn is very complex. We’re always coming up with better solutions and technologies. You guys are an example of that. I think it’s really important.

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