In Focus: Plugged In

With cutting-edge technology making its mark on the Australian workplace, we consider what the future may hold for tech-savvy SMEs keen to adopt emerging training practices – and how it could spell success for small businesses.

 

Technology is not only changing the way we work, but also the way we obtain information. We carry devices in our pockets that connect us with family, friends and colleagues across the globe – all at the touch of a button or swipe of a screen. It’s hardly surprising, then, that businesses are starting to adopt tech to improve staff skills, using cutting-edge innovations to enable workplace training in a timely, engaging and affordable way.

When it comes to the Australian market, some of the most exciting trends are rooted in virtual reality (VR), which is being used to develop high-level technical skills in a controlled environment, and micro-learning, a method of delivering relevant information digitally in small, digestible bites where and when needed.

Virtual reality: Delivering real results

The application opportunities for VR are innumerable. In training, the fact that the technology offers a fully immersive digital experience replicating almost any physical environment not only removes risk for the employer, but proves its worth as a long-term investment – a tool that can be used again and again.

Whether viewed through a headset like the Oculus Rift, a smartphone using Google Cardboard or by engaging with 3D projections, VR effectively allows trainees to think, react and operate as if they are physically present in the simulated environment.

In the case of VR, although the initial outlay for technology may seem high, the return on investment is realised over time. This is especially relevant for SMEs in today’s business environment, where sudden economic shifts and industry disruptions are commonplace. The flexibility that VR training offers simply makes sense.

In fact, we are already seeing a number of virtual reality training modules being realised in industries across Australia, from healthcare and hospitality to retail, automotive, mining and defence.

Since 2013, Alzheimer’s Australia Vic has delivered experiential learning to the professional aged-care workforce through its Virtual Dementia Experience. Created in collaboration with Melbourne-based games development company Opaque Multimedia, the program simulates the symptoms of dementia, putting trainees in scenarios ranging from going to the bathroom to cleaning teeth and showering.

Dr Tanya Petrovich, who works with the learning development team at Alzheimer’s Australia Vic, says this type of interaction with technology has the potential to make a huge difference to the lives of people with dementia, and the wider understanding of the disease.

The benefits of fully immersive tech

“The carers actually get to experience how people with dementia view the world and just how difficult it is to function in the midst of distractions, noise and chaos,” Petrovich says. “They walk out with a greater empathy and understanding, inspired to actually change the way they do things.”

“One of the great things about VR is that you can quickly and relatively cost-effectively put a person anywhere, in any situation – a submarine, bushfire, operating theatre or serving diners in a restaurant,” says Matthew Wilson, founder and head of VR with Australian virtual reality development company Novus Res.

Novus developers work in tandem with subject-matter experts to fully understand what type of training a client needs, and then create a virtual training environment based on their findings. According to Novus, the ability to measure and report on trainee performance helps deliver better learning outcomes, and also proves more effective than having to retrain staff in the conventional way. Ultimately, the virtual world allows companies to take a step beyond traditional training.

“We’ve built a lot of vehicle-based training simulators, allowing users to be placed in situations that would be impossible to emulate in a training room environment,” Wilson says. “At the same time, we’ve developed procedural-based training for customer service work, such as bank tellers or supermarket workers, with artificial customers who actually interact with the trainee. The scope is as broad as you can imagine; any situation in the world that requires training can be created as if it were the real scenario.

“An electrician will implicitly appreciate the effect of incorrect wiring once he has been ‘electrocuted’, while a forklift operator is unlikely to lose a load after experiencing it virtually.”

Micro-learning: Training anywhere, anytime

Beyond VR, micro-learning is another training trend gaining traction. Fuelled in part by an increasingly digitised society, this form of learning emphasises both flexibility and accessibility. Catering primarily to the increasing millennial workforce, 41 per cent of whom say they prefer communicating electronically at work, micro-learning is quickly meeting the demands of a new generation of workers – allowing staff to learn where and when it suits them.

Delivering information in small ‘bites’, micro-learning gives instructional bursts of content, delivered via a mobile platform. One company that has implemented this type of training to its advantage is Burger Project, a gourmet fast food chain. Educating staff on the likes of food hygiene best practice and kitchen safety is crucial, and this method allows workers to access training whenever it suits them, regardless of their shift patterns.

As there’s no dedicated timeslot, and all of the material is available online via mobile, the company found that its training costs were further reduced when employees started training in their own time.

Based on the Australian-built REFFIND Educate platform, Burger Project’s training consists of short-form videos on food-handling skills, workplace safety, customer service, training and supervising. For Rob van Es, COO at REFFIND, the potential application of this technology is limitless.

“The platform can be used to deliver training on best practices, changes to company policy and new products,” he says. “It can also overcome logistical issues and time restraints associated with real-world training.”

Is it affordable?

When it comes to cost, Wilson says that building a VR training module is no more expensive than normal software development, and it comes with the added benefit of automated reporting and analytics.

“Take forklift training,” he says. “Traditionally it can be expensive and potentially dangerous, but we’re currently designing a VR scenario where you sit on a physical rig with a virtual reality headset. It will give a far better experience for considerably less outlay.”

comparison of VR and traditional methods in welding training shows that costs and time are significantly reduced, and certification rates substantially higher, when the methods are combined.

Another study, conducted by the University of Wollongong into mine rescue training, concluded that VR is capable of overcoming real-world constraints and plugging the gap between real-life and traditional training, but warns: “VR training tool[s] can complement traditional and practical training, not replace them.”

What the future holds

Training based on virtual reality will get bigger and better, according to Wilson. “The current estimates for the VR market are AU$30–40 billion by 2020, but augmented reality is looking like it will be even bigger, with devices such as Leap Motion and Microsoft’s HoloLens starting to come into play.”

Shipments of virtual reality and augmented reality headsets are expected to soar to 6.31 million in 2017, up from just 140,000 in 2015. With a quarter of those destined for business use in training, simulation and troubleshooting, the tech is not only becoming more mainstream, but also more affordable.

“VR is big everywhere, but Australia has a reputation for being strong on serious games, focusing on applications like training and education,” Wilson says. “We also have businesses that are willing to try new forms of training, so not only are our designers capable of developing the resource, but we have a market that’s eager to start using it.”

For forward-looking SMEs, technology-based training should be viewed as a long-term investment, not a hefty cost. Increasing digitisation in the Australian workplace, combined with the emergence of the millennial workforce, calls for change. And it looks as though this change will be facilitated by cutting-edge technology.

Indeed, as the region’s appetite for cost-effective training tech grows and the market becomes more competitive, we are peering into a future in which small businesses will not only be able to afford smart training, but will need it in order to maintain competitive advantage. More than a fleeting trend, tech in training is redefining industry standards – one virtual headset at a time.

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