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Empathy, Equity

XR for Communication, Empathy & Equity

November 04, 2021 / by Audrey Mickahail, Katie Booth, Dan Guenther, Cortney Harding

Audrey Mickahail

Senior Director of Corporate Solutions, JFFLabs

Katie Booth

Corporate Social Responsibility, SAP

Dan Guenther

Managing Director, Accenture Extended Reality (XR)

Cortney Harding

Founder & CEO, Friends with Holograms

Hear how XR can help develop essential soft skills, such as empathy, customer service, improving diversity and inclusion, and leadership.


-Laura: Hi, everyone. Welcome back. Hope you had a great time exploring the digital exhibit hall and had some fun networking with new friends. Now we’re going to turn to a panel discussion XR for communication, empathy and equity. Audrey from Jobs from the Future will be leading this panel. Over to you, Audrey.


-Laura: Hi, everyone. Welcome back. Hope you had a great time exploring the digital exhibit hall and had some fun networking with new friends. Now we’re going to turn to a panel discussion XR for communication, empathy and equity. Audrey from Jobs from the Future will be leading this panel. Over to you, Audrey.

-Audrey: Thank you so much, Laura. Hello, everyone, and welcome. We have a really exciting conversation planned for the next 25 minutes. So, I don’t want to waste a second of it. In the last session, we heard about XR as a tool for hard skills training, and in this conversation, we’ll be focusing on so-called softer skills, communication, empathy and equity. I am joined for this conversation by three great panelists who bring complimentary perspectives on the state of the art, some real-world experiences implementing XR training programs for interpersonal skills, and we have some insights on how to get started if you are interested in pursuing this approach to soft skills training in your organization. As Laura said, my name is Audrey Mickahail. I am with Jobs for the Future, and I am delighted to introduce Katie Booth who leads corporate social responsibility for SAP North America. In this role, she’s responsible for bringing to life three global CSR pillars, connecting employees to purpose, accelerating best-run non-profits and social enterprises and building digital skills for underrepresented youth. She works closely to coinnovate with education partners, social enterprises, collaboratives and community organizations, and she spent her early career working within large organizations to improve communities in schools across North America. Dan Gunther is a managing director at Accenture and leads extended reality globally. He oversees Accenture’s extended reality business strategy and ecosystem relationships, and he is responsible for incubating, prototyping and scaling extended reality solutions to help clients drive continuous innovation at scale. Mr. Gunther has been at Accenture for more than 16 years, has extensive experience in scaling digital technologies for clients in utilities, health, medical technology, retail and consumer goods and services and then finally, Courtney Harding is a global thought leader, published author and speaker on emerging technology and the role of virtual and augmented reality. She’s the founder and CEO of Friends with Holograms which is, like, probably the coolest name of a company I’ve heard in a really long time. Friends with Holograms is a VR, AR agency focused on creating innovative, powerful and effective learning experiences for training. They have a really cool client list including Walmart, Verizon, Accenture, PwC, Coca-Cola and Lowe’s. She’s also the winner of multiple awards including Best VR, AR at Mobile World Congress, South by Southwest Innovation Award finalist and top HR Product by HR Executive. So thank you so much to all of you for joining us today. I want to get this conversation started with you, Katie. You and I in full disclosure have been working together for the past year on a really fun XR project. Tell us, if you would, a little bit about Skill Immersion lab and how you became interested in XR.

-Katie: Yeah, I am not a learning and development professional which I know a lot of folks on the line today are. I lead corporate social responsibility, and I had worked with Jobs for the Future in a different capacity around a high school STEM education program, essentially, and they were hosting a conference on the use of immersive learning for learning and development professionals. So I attended the conference, and I was totally blown away by how effective this methodology of learning was for all different types of employees and workers, essentially. So I left the conference feeling one, really inspired because I felt like working with students which is primarily who I serve in my role is students from disenfranchised communities or underrepresented groups. I felt like if this type of technology is so effective for a range of professionals then it will also be effective for high school youth, especially those that typically don’t have first access to this kind of technology. So we started working on what could this look like? How could we run a program with different communities, with different use cases throughout the US? And so Skill Immersion Lab was born, I’d say about a year after that conference is when we were able to start bringing our first sites to life.

-Audrey: And it’s been a fantastic journey ever since, and we are continuing on that journey, but we’ll get to that in a few minutes. Courtney, I want to bring you in. Tell us about your journey. You get to see the evolution of XR across a bunch of different clients. So tell us, if you would, how your work with Friends with Holograms has evolved.

-Courtney: Yeah, so we started about 4 1/2 years ago, and we first started out more sort of commercial products and got a really amazing project actually with Accenture on child welfare, and so that really started sending us down this different path of working on VR for training and then really focusing from there on VR training for social impact. So while we have built pieces that are hard skills training, we built a piece about how to fix a partner data center for one client, we built a piece on stocking grocery shelves, you know, that type of stuff, and it’s really valuable, we really see the power of this technology in terms of connecting with people, having lived experiences and making people honestly feel a little bit uncomfortable. Many of the pieces we’ve done, people have come out of the headset, and said, “Oh my gosh. That was really stressful. That was really scary. That was really uncomfortable.” And that is, in my mind, one of the best things someone can say because it’s giving that person the opportunity to feel something, and experience something that they never could have felt otherwise in their entire life.

-Audrey: Thank you, Courtney. Wow, I’m writing that down, that comfort with discomfort, and, Dan, I want to bring you in and turn next to you. It’s a similar question. I would love to hear a little bit more about your practice at Accenture and how you have seen XR training evolve over time.

-Dan: Yeah, thank you. So, you know, at Accenture, our purpose statement, right, is how do we fulfill the promise of technology and human ingenuity, and for me, I’m very focused on how XR as a technology can help us fulfill that promise for our employees, for our communities and help our clients and inspire our clients to do the same. So we’ve got a couple of super exciting initiatives that we’re proud of in just the last year. You know, we built a virtual campus, you know, a series of locations that gives our new hires a place to get together and communicate and talk to each other. Twenty percent of Accenture’s 600,000 employees have never set foot in a physical office space because of the pandemic, and so we’ve really challenged to say, “How do we bring our employees together in this difficult last year and a half of distance?” And we just from a corporate citizenship standpoint, I love what Katie’s done at SAP, and we’ve really embraced it in corporate citizenship as well was something that we just recently did with Goodwill to help people with criminal backgrounds get the safe practice that they need for high stress job interviews to talk about their incarceration and get back on their feet, and so, you know, we have embraced this technology heavily, and we want to try to help lead the change for these kind of soft skills and social skills and equity across all our communities.

-Audrey: Thanks, Dan. I wonder too if we could get into some additional use cases and maybe, Courtney, I’ll come back to you for this one, if there’s a range of where you see XR training, particularly for soft skills, particularly on the topic of empathy and communication. What are the range of possibilities?

-Courtney: I mean, if I listed everything off, we’d be here for, like, 3 days and that would be terrible. So I’ll just briefly talk about some of our projects. So we’ve worked a lot on VR for mental health. So we built a project where someone could practice having a conversation with somebody who is dealing with a mental health issue, whether that’s anxiety, depression, and in that case, you are allowed to fail first and then recover. So you say, the quote, unquote, wrong thing, you get a response from the other person, and then you can say the right thing, and then kind of move forward. So it’s not only getting comfortable — It’s not only teaching you skills, it’s getting you comfortable with having these conversations that can be very difficult to initiate and be part of. Another piece we just finished deals with racial bias, and in that case the user is first placed in the situation where all they know is they are themselves. They are a customer at a store, and someone comes up to them, a store associate, who behaves pretty aggressively towards the end of the piece, and there’s a lot of confusion as to why is this person targeting me, and in the second half of the piece you come to find out, you are now playing the role of the store associate, and you are having to deal with somebody who has had this bias incident happen to them, and you have to go through sort of the different steps of empathy and all of that, and the best thing about that piece is I showed it to a lot of men in my life who, you know, might not have experienced that type of discrimination before, and they all took off the headset, and they were like, “That was so uncomfortable. That was so weird.” And I think that’s the point, again. So it’s really about putting people in these situations that they ordinarily wouldn’t experience, and especially because, you know, you can read as many books and watch as many videos and have as many conversations as you want, and you can actually try to learn about other people’s experiences, but until you live it and you live it as yourself, which is a really key point, you can’t really know what it’s like to be in that position, and so I think that’s where VR can be really successful, and whether it’s again around bias or, you know, diversity or any of these issues, that’s the real power of using VR to do this, is it creates, again, this level of intense immersion that can really then create positive change.

-Audrey: Thanks, Courtney, I love that, and again, I think creating that safe space where folks may in fact have to get used to feeling some amount of discomfort and still recognize that they’re frankly still safe is phenomenal. Dan, I want to come back to you for a moment. I know that Accenture put out a really interesting report recently that talked a bit about how mainstream and how far we’ve come in terms of adoption, wonder if you could give us a sense for, to what extent are your clients adopting XR? How broadly experienced is it, and perhaps a little bit about how you’ve seen organizations get that first step in place? How do folks get started?

-Dan: Yeah, so I think in many cases what we’ve seen is it depends a little bit on the organization, right. So organizations that are very heavy on the frontline workers have always started inside of training because there’s a real proven ROI of if I can make them just as effective as an employee in a less amount of time, right, that’s more time they can spend helping my customers and doing their job and being successful. On the knowledge worker side in our report, you know, one of the things we share is that 94 percent of today’s workers say they would stay at a company longer if that company invested in them via training, and they want that training to be self-paced, and they want it to be delivered at the point of need, and I think that’s really important, and that’s where we at Accenture, going beyond our new joiner orientation is working at that safe space, practice as you need, learn as you go, and we see companies scaling up to say, “Hey, I need to use this technology across a range of uses cases, and when I use it across, and I trigger that scope level, right, the ROI gets better and better, and it helps me retain my employees because they feel invested, not just in the skill that they need for their job today but in the job that they want to move to in the company later.” And so how can we create those career pathways for employees we’ve seen be really successful so far?

-Audrey: Thank you, Dan, and, Courtney, I want to bring you into this question as well. We want to hear a little bit about this notion of scope. Is it even reasonable to think that there is a minimum viable approach here? How would you advise folks to scope their initial investments from your perspective?

-Courtney: Yeah, I mean, people still, given — Even the fact that VR is increasing popularity people still don’t really understand a lot of the fundamentals of it when it comes to, what should you create, how should you create it, what the budgets are, right? So people often think, like, “Oh, it costs the same as making a video.” But it doesn’t, there are many more parts that go into creating a good VR experience than go into creating a video, right? So understanding that you might have to pay a little bit more than you would for a training video, also understanding that you will get a much higher ROI than you would creating a passive training video. So, you know, I always encourage people to do a pilot project, you know, talk to us, talk to whatever partner you decide to work with. Come up with something where you can get started. Get started, test it and then go from there because I can almost guarantee you if you build a good pilot and you test it, the results will be astonishing, and then you’ll be much more likely to get funding. I’ll also say that you should have a longer-term strategy in place because, you know, you’re buying headsets, you’re learning new skills, you’re creating new content, and the silliest thing anyone can do is buy a bunch of headsets, create one or two pieces from them and then just leave them on the shelf because you’ve kind of wasted your money at that point. So what you really need to do is yeah, do some pilots. That’s great, awesome way to get started, but definitely develop a longer-term strategy in terms of a bigger rollout.

-Audrey: That’s a great segue to pull Katie back into the conversation because that frankly is the approach that we took with Skill Immersion Lab, and, Katie, I’d love if you would share a little bit about that experience and what some of the key insights were from the pilot.

-Katie: Yeah, we don’t think that this was a high-risk sort of pilot, so I’m really sensitive around using that word especially when we’re talking about more communities that don’t have as many resources, but we felt like, we felt pretty confident that this would go well, but it had just not been done before. So when we got back the results and part of the beauty of this kind of technology is the data that you can get from it, 85 percent of learners were more confident in speaking with others, 85 percent said their ability to express an idea got better, and when we talk about the empathy piece, 83 percent feel like how they understand other people’s ideas was improved and 79 percent really got insight into really navigating differing opinions which I think we all in our professional life know adults that could use some help in those areas. So this was incredibly valuable training for high school youth to have this and for us to see these results. I echo completely what other folks have said with starting really small and wanting to find out what those indicators for success are. We ran our pilot in three really different communities with pretty small groups in order to go bigger next time, in order to figure out what would make this successful, and one of the things that we found, working with high school students, was we were able to really codevelop and cobuild the existing curriculum and modules, we partnered with Talespin, into the curriculum of the three sites. So, it wasn’t just dropped in to these different community centers or sites. It was working side by side with the facilitators to make sure that this was embedded into their current curriculum and their current programs with varying degrees of facilitation for feedback and for reflection afterwards. Some sites had a lot of facilitation, some sites had less, just depending on what the sort of vibe of the site was. So those have given us huge insights, but generally we’re super encouraged by how positive the youth responded especially knowing that corporate volunteerism and corporate engagement with high school youth has hugely pulled back since COVID, that’s something that a lot of youth had more experience with and now they don’t, things like internships, things like job shadow days, most of that is gone for high school students. So this is a great way where students can be in that, like you said, sort of safe space to role play, to learn about difficult conversations, that is somewhat risk-free for them.

-Audrey: Thank you, Katie, and yeah one of the things that was a really nice outcome was that some of that gamification encouraged students to try and to compete with one another and to go back and replay some of the same scenarios. So that was a really nice and unexpected experience that some of the learners had in Skill Immersion Lab. Dan, I want to turn to you and ask, what do you think is — What are you anticipating, what’s coming down the pike for specifically soft skills training with XR?

-Dan: Yeah, I think it’s a great question, and I want to answer it in context of what you two just talked about is I think for organizations, right, it’s really around scale,right? How do I impact as many employees, people as possible? And that’s why I think the citizenship angle, if you’re in a organization that is not using VR today, you’re not using XR solutions, and you want to champion it, and you’re trying to figure out how do I gain momentum, how do I get the company behind this, I actually taking a look at your corporate citizenship agenda, and saying, “Hey, how could I use technology to scale the impact of what I already want to invest in anyways to many, many more people?” And so I think we’re at an inflection point where what we see play out in the citizenship space here plays out within our companies as well in terms of how do we expand access, how do we roll the soft skills out to not just targeted small groups of people, but we want to try to really continue to see roll out and scale across these investments, and I think 2022, 2023 are going to be years of scale as it relates to training within the enterprise using XR.

-Audrey: Thank you, Dan, and, Courtney, I’d love to ask you a kind of similar question, what are you seeing coming? What feels leading or bleeding edge from where you sit?

-Courtney: I mean, I think for the last 4 years, I’ve said next year is going to be the year of VR. So far that has not proved to be the case. I do think it’s being thrown into clearer relief that if you are not using this technology, you are falling increasingly further behind. So, you know, it’s challenging because there’s a lot of people in big companies who still despite the raft of data that’s come out, are intimidated by VR, or they don’t see VR as being useful for them, or they just, you know, they had a bad experience once and now they’re done forever, and, you know, it’s tricky, and it’s challenging. I do think there is growth and now everyone is talking about the metaverse, and that’s this huge buzzword that encompasses much more than just virtual reality, but I do think that it’s going to be — It’s going to reach a tipping point where if you are not doing VR, people will look askance, rather than if you are doing VR, people will look askance, almost, right? So I think for us it’s really about, you know, helping people do it right because there’s a lot of bad VR out there, and I think that is something that people need to really take into consideration is you do need to work with people who understand how the sausage gets made. If you just hire a kid who thinks it’s neat and has played a lot of Fortnite or whatever, you’re not going to get the same level of quality, and in fact, there are situations where if you put people through a VR experience that makes them sick, that can be really, you know, traumatizing or have a very negative impact. So I definitely think, you know, we’re going to move forward with this, stuff is going to happen. People are investing a lot of money into this, but we’re still at very, very early stages. And that’s exciting, and it’s also, you know, for I think people who have worked in this space a long time, it’s a little frustrating.

-Audrey: So I think that’s one of the things we’ve heard in multiple sessions now is that in fact it’s more an issue of adoption than it is the technology continuing to mature. Is that fair?

-Courtney: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, the headsets as they are right now are fantastic. I’m sure they’re going to get incrementally better, and, you know, I would never suggest that there’s not room for improvement with the different headsets on the market, but the issue is now content. It’s 100 percent content. The headsets are great. They’re affordable. There’s no reason not to do it at this point. I just think a lot of big companies tend to be really risk averse. They tend to think bizarrely long-term. So I was talking to one large company who I won’t name, and they said, “Oh, we’ve got our 4-year plan, and VR is not in it.” And I thought, “Are you out of your minds?” Like, how can you plan 4 years ahead, right? And I understand that’s how some big companies work, and it’s easier to turn a speedboat than a freighter. And I don’t know, read, like — People get disrupted all the time, right, and it seems like a lot of these companies just are like, “Disrupt us, please. We don’t know what we’re doing.” And I really feel like at this point, you know, it’s time to sort of go beyond this like, “Oh, this new technology, it’s for kids to play video games.” It’s like Wal-Mart uses this. Verizon uses this, the most mainstream companies on Earth are using this, and if you’re not ready to also move forward, then it’s unfortunate. But, you know, we are in the stage right now where the labor market is incredibly tight, right, and if you’re a big chain store that’s desperate for workers and you can’t find anyone to hire, they’re going down the street to Wal-Mart because they’re getting better training, right? So there’s an actual economic impact here, and I think a lot of companies are just sticking their heads in the sand or thinking like, “We’ll just make people watch videos. That’ll fix everything.” And unfortunately that’s just not the case.

-Audrey: Courtney, that’s such good advice. If you’re not doing it, you’re falling behind. Just go do it. In terms of training and retention, it sounds like we are increasingly seeing XR as part of the portfolio of skills and tools that organizations simply need to incorporate into their approaches for upskilling and onboarding folks. Dan, I want to give you one more opportunity to share a little bit of your insight, and specifically we think about learning outcomes and how learning outcomes can be met by L&D professionals. Any final thoughts or pieces of advice for folks listening in on how to get started or perhaps what to prioritize?

-Dan: Yeah, I mean I think the key is to get started. I mean, our CEO Julie Sweet was just in Forbes a week ago talking about the tens of thousands of VR headsets that Accenture has bought and how it’s made a difference for our employees. And so, you know, what we really want to lead the way with is taking soft skills training at scale because, you know, as Courtney mentioned, there’s a lot of great data on the effectiveness, but it’s also very isolated to specific populations. And so when we roll out and deploy this across countries, across cultures, right, across our employee base, I think that scale piece is something that we’re really leaning into. But we would never be there if we didn’t start and we didn’t get the executive buy-in to, you know, figure out what this technology means, how we can have it impact our business, right? And as Courtney said, “Where on our 4-year road map this fits,” right, and for us, it’s already gotten started and started in a big way. And so I think that’s the key is, you know, how can you champion? How can you create the rallying cry? How can you, you know, influence and be a change maker to bring this technology, you know, to do good, which is what we want to do and why I was so excited to be on this panel thinking about equity, and empathy and how can we all be change makers for that.

-Audrey: Thank you, Dan, and I want to thank my other panelists as well, Katie and Courtney. You heard it. Just get started. This has got to be part of your tool kit, so with that, I want to turn it back over to Laura with my gratitude to the panel for their great insights.

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