As the pace of technological change becomes ever faster, the skills agenda is centre stage as organisations and people need to both survive and thrive in the age of artificial intelligence (AI).

The term “artificial intelligence” covers a broad spectrum of areas but, essentially, we’re talking about replacing not just human hands (manual skills) but human heads (cognitive skills). It’s the replacement of human heads that makes this industrial revolution so different from the past.

The new technology is replacing cognitive skills as well as manual skills and so will impact both white-and blue-collar jobs. In essence, AI and robotics are “collar-blind.”

Joseph Auoun
Author of “Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence”

Today the challenge is to equip organisations, and the people they employ, with a spectrum of skills to navigate an ever-changing workplace.

Why a spectrum of skills?

No one can doubt that “hard” skills in areas such as coding, mathematics, science, engineering, data science, are crucial to our economic success as a county and as a nation. But these types of skills don’t function in isolation. Being skilled in data science, for example, will continue to be highly desirable. But being a team player, a good communicator and a collaborator will be equally important as well.

One thing I wished I knew before embarking on my career, as much as technology and maths are super important for data science, people are also very important. You need to be able to work with people as much as you can work with numbers and computers.

Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE

Wearing a virtual reality headsetWe know over the coming decade that some jobs are likely to be entirely replaced by AI, but many more roles will be supplemented by it. This means that the majority of us may well be working alongside AI to some degree, whatever sector we work in.

And if AI is taking care of some elements of our job, what will be left is the skills AI cannot emulate. Critical thinking, creativity, empathy, innovation, curiosity, leadership – all areas that AI is unlikely to encroach on in the near future.

Businesses are acutely aware of the need to address these skills shortages.  According to Udemy’s Workplace Learning Trends Report, the goal of 62% of L&D programs was to close the skills gap.

Goals of L&D Programs in 2020Source: Udemy Business

Delivering Soft Skills training in the age of Artificial Intelligence

Soft skills are difficult to measure and equally difficult to train. Unlike hard skills, a ‘one and done’ approach is not sufficient for acquiring skills that making a lasting change in behaviour. This means delivering soft skills training at scale can be both costly in time and money.

Combine this with a global pandemic, and it is evident that traditional models of delivering soft skills training need to evolve. We recognised this early on in the Coronavirus pandemic as we pivoted our training from the classroom to online. The move to online learning was dramatic and rapid for everyone.

We decided that it was important to understand how new technologies could improve the quality of the courses we were offering. In order to do so, we secured a grant through the New Anglia Growth Through Innovation Fund (GTi), which is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund.

Growth Through Innovation Fund and European Development Fund logos

GTi Funding

The aim of the GTi funding was to acquire and develop the skills and knowledge necessary to understand and utilise virtual reality as a delivery platform for learning. The funding enabled us to:

1. To further our knowledge of the use of VR in the workplace and its potential by becoming members of:
Academy – Future Workplace®
VR Learning HUB – VR Learning HUB (vrlearninglab.nl).

2. Purchase software packages and training to use to produce blended learning programmes (ie content to go around VR scenarios in addition to live training from an instructor).

3. Purchase licences for the Bodyswaps platform, a VR and mobile platform for soft skills training. These licences were used in EIRA funded usability trials with the University of Suffolk.

Artificial intelligence - pick your avatarUsing Virtual Reality training scenarios to simulate realistic workplace scenarios creates a highly sophisticated form of role play. The learners interact with a virtual character, then swap bodies and watch an avatar of themselves as the situation is played back. The impact of this new perspective encourages self-reflection and embeds learning from practical experience within a virtual environment.

 

Artificial intelligence for soft skills training

We now have a clearer view of how to utilise VR to deliver training with a particular focus on soft skills and will cover the details and results of the usability trials in a later article.