I’m of the age where when I hear the term virtual reality or VR, I first think of the 1982 film Tron. And then my mind jumps, of course, to The Matrix. But in recent years VR has jumped from science fiction to blockbuster gaming and now into corporate training & development.
Jena Davidson is the founder of Jenson8, a multi-million-dollar leadership development and assessment business originally delivering traditional workshops. But while her group sessions produced excellent results, she had bigger ideas. Weary from the travel and price competition intrinsic to an HR market space that desperately needed a new way of doing things, Jena decided it was time to “get real” using virtual reality. Long before the pandemic disrupted the world of education, Davidson understood that leaders and teams, which are increasingly located in different buildings and geographies, need capabilities for remote education that transcend two dimensions. PowerPoint-over-Zoom just does not have the impact necessary to create lasting behavior change.
In a recent interview, Davidson described her VR solution and what’s next for her company.
Kevin Kruse: What led you to VR?
Jena Davidson: In the last couple of years, I started to look at technology to see whether it could be used as an enabler in the L&D space. It really felt like it was time to bring in something that was a bit more immersive, a bit more engaging, where people could have fun while learning on the job. I came across virtual reality. I put the headset on, and a monster was running towards me. I felt scared and it was the fact that I had a feeling that I said to myself, “yes, this is it.” Virtual reality is the way forward.
Kruse: Tell me more about how VR can lead to that feeling of immersion?
Davidson: Immersion, by definition, is an illusory environment that surrounds you such that you feel that you are inside it and part of it. It is three-dimensional meaning you see, hear, and feel, and for a moment in time you get immersed, believing and accepting it as real. The result is that mindsets, attitudes, and behaviors are revealed by the individuals in the VR game. It is powerful.
Kruse: With much of the world still in lockdown, it seems that now is the time for VR. I am guessing you did not predict this. So share what you have heard from clients who embraced VR before this pandemic.
Davidson: Yes, no one predicted most of the world would be working remotely, and while we were doing VR before the pandemic, the challenge we have heard from our clients remains the same. “How do we build trust and cohesion? We need our leaders and teams to speak their truth, share what works, what doesn’t and get focused on serving the mission of the business.” This is one example, and it comes down to what we have always heard, businesses are run by people and people need to show up as their “best self” and work together.
Our VR experience shines the light on behaviors that are experienced in the workplace, but the difference is the ability to talk about what just happened…in there…in our VR space and the impact it had. The debriefs are powerful because the focus is on what happened just moments earlier. The facilitator can lead the team to discuss how those same behaviors show up at work and the impact it has on performance and working together. Learning and behavior change is expected, and the pressure to shift behavior as a leader and team member is immediate.
Kruse: Share more about what organizations get with your VR application.
Davidson: Our VR product is in the cloud, accessed from an Oculus Quest 2 cordless headset and surrounded by psychometrics. It is cool, fun and brings learning combined with metrics for the players and the organizations. I had the idea with VR and following the build of the platform, we found a partnership to set up the measurements and validate them. We are grateful for the partnership we have with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW)’s psychology department to create an on-campus virtual reality research lab. Under the leadership of Dr. Bryan Myers, a professor of industrial-organizational psychology, we developed a full complement of psychometrics, facilitator-scoring paradigms, and post-session reviews to create an integrated platform for producing validated and replicable data for coaching, team building, leadership development, diversity, and inclusion training.
Kruse: Can the platform work with other training provider’s or an author’s content as well?
Davidson: Certainly. In fact, we can convert their traditional materials or even their 2D digital content to a fully engaging “real” experience using our VR platform. This process starts by us creating validated psychometric profiles that match the ideas and constructs that they are trying to teach with their core materials. We then create a customized version of our VR environment that brings their static content “to life” using science that can reveal true behaviors and leadership styles in action. A great example of this is our partnerships with some of the world’s leading companies like The Ken Blanchard Companies and SMCovey.
Kruse: What’s next for Jenson8?
Davidson: Working with our customers and UNCW, we are adding machine learning and artificial intelligence to our VR platform. By recording and monitoring in-game actions and comparing them with the player’s profiles, we believe we can eliminate human bias from the evaluation that will lead to more efficient and effective feedback that contributes to employee performance. We are excited about our ability to advance human performance in the workplace. We are giving organizations and their people the opportunity to collaborate, have fun and learn. The wave of VR is here to stay, and we are excited about the impact our application will have in the world.