By Andrea Driessen, Chief Boredom Buster

Watching a child explore. Rock climbing. Sitting before a campfire. Spending time with our favorite humans—and pets. Playing a game. When we have these experiences, distractions fall away. We’re fully focused and in the now. We’ve reached that happy place positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.”

Yet in our increasingly distracted world, flow has never been harder to achieve. According to Porter Stowell, who heads up IBM’s serious games initiatives, 66% of workers are overwhelmed, he explained, citing a 2014 Deloitte study of global human capital trends.

As meeting professionals, we stand at the forefront of distractions, because human’s collective state of disengagement is ever present in meetings. No matter how hard we try, some audience members will not be paying attention to what we’ve worked so hard for them to experience—the event itself.

For over two decades, I’ve made it my business to boost engagement in meetings. I’m always on the lookout for new ways to get and keep meeting goers’ attention.

So when I began hearing about immersive learning and how it holds great promise to combat distraction…well, I got rather immersed in it.

Immersing in Immersion

Let’s begin with a working definition. Koreen Pagano, author of a definitive book on this subject, called Immersive Learning (of all things!), defines immersive learning as being in the learning experience, practicing things we need to do better. Making decisions. Leading a team. Operating a medical device. Getting feedback. Improving.

After talking to a wide range of gamers, trainers, technologists and other smarty pants, I see how immersion is indeed a powerful modality with which to stage compelling, bar-raising meeting experiences.

Imagine: what if our attendees could forget, at least for a few moments, that they are in a predictable meeting? What if they could surrender their “disbelief” and fully be in the moment as they expand their outlooks, practice new activities, become stronger, smarter and more effective? Draw as much upon their thinking selves as they do upon their feeling selves?

That meeting would be a transformational game changer. And some innovators are in fact changing the game of business through immersive learning. These can be “bite-sized” learning nuggets; longer-term ongoing learning experiences that go on for days; high-tech; low-tech; game-like.

For a window on the power of such experiences, consider this vignette from entrepreneur Ronen Gafni, founder of FreshBiz Global, in Binyamina, Israel. He’s developed a portable, customizable and bottom-line-enriching form of immersive learning he calls the FreshBiz game.

Israeli Hotel Chain’s Bottom-Line Results

Used by hotel chains, start-ups and corporations worldwide, his board game—while plenty of fun to play—has a serious purpose: to immerse players in a world where they turn ideas into reality. And we know that across any enterprise, the ability and willingness to create new ideas are crucial in today’s innovation-dependent economy.

Recalling the “old” economy, what was a popular board game? Monopoly. The experience? Transactional. The outcome? One winner. The timeframe? The game seemingly went on forever.

The FreshBiz game, though, takes a different approach. It’s all about building relational over transactional skills. Each round takes 60 to 90 minutes and can be a meeting onto itself, as you “play a business challenge” rather than just talking about it. (How immersive!)

And while in some games—including Monopoly—we assume a certain role, in FreshBiz, our real selves are called on to participate. We can’t hide behind gamey avatars or take on the personality of little metal race cars. We can’t fake whether we see or don’t see opportunities, or whether we’re good or not-so-good at building relationships.

Fattal, the largest hotel chain in Israel, played FreshBiz to improve guest experiences, foster a more entrepreneurial and collaborative culture and boost their bottom line.

The game allowed Fattal managers to begin to view themselves more as business owners who saw other team members as potential partners rather than as competitors, and to identify hidden opportunities to boost business. As they continued to immerse themselves in this “fresh” approach, each manager was asked to submit at least one new business idea after playing the game. Over 50 ideas came in. One in particular, which required a $200,000 hotel renovation, led to five luxury sea-view rooms and one suite that are now in high demand.

The result? $1 million in added revenue every 24 months, with no price wars, no additional marketing budget and the one-time capital investment. All because managers tapped and applied their new-found innovative energy to generate quantifiable results.

According to Gafni, “The game works at a deep level to foster changes to your brain wiring so you learn to think differently, even after playing just a couple times. The more you play, the stronger the shifts. It reminds me of Albert Einstein’s famous quote: ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking we used when we created them.’”

Immersed in Wine

The Constellation Academy of Wine offers training for wine and hospitality professionals. Before their live annual meeting, the aim was to improve the sales, data analysis and relationship-building skills of 350 sales managers. In doing so, they re-envisioned training based on immersive learning and e-learning principles.

Led by Pagano, they built an imaginary hotel, bar, Facebook page, website and wine events, as well as a cast of characters. Collectively, it was low-tech and story driven.

Despite some skepticism, sales managers—whose participation was voluntary—dove in the deep end. 84% participated, much higher than expected. According to Pagano, “During the three weeks-long exercise that ended in their annual sales meeting, events and circumstances that are commonly encouraged in the customer sales scenarios were presented to learners. These required them to make decisions about appropriate actions and next steps in the fictional hotel account. What started out as a one-way communication became a two-way conversation. Learners thought the game challenges ‘felt real,’ and presented exactly what they faced in the field.” Later, at the live meeting, the entire audience experienced more scenarios, and the immersive hybrid pre-event bled into the in-person conference.

Real vs. Role Play

In addition to benefiting the revenue side of business, immersive learning can also support the cost side.

At Boeing, for example, the cost of replacing an employee can be upwards of 300% of one’s salary, so workers’ abilities to perform at their most effective levels is paramount. That’s why a substantial segment of employee training there is considered immersive, explains Mark Turner, senior learning strategist and performance consultant.

Turner creates learning opportunities for managers that are apprentice-like so they get as close to “day-in-the-life-real” as possible, in part because the cost of losing someone who becomes ineffective or disengaged is so high.

One way Turner helps learners to “connect to context” is by replacing case studies and role play with real play that’s tied directly to actual business objectives and to employee performance.

For example, newly formed teams are told to create a new product, and they’ll be evaluated on their ability to achieve this deliverable. Not a theoretical product but one that will actually be used within the company. Success here depends not on what happens in a classroom but on everything that happens beyond it, as budding ideas face the crucible of the actual work place. Turner adds: “This immersive activity augments our ‘one-company’ culture, boosts retention, drives inclusion, builds social cohesion and leverages the power of divergent skill sets to support business goals.”

Cutting-Edge Immersive Technologies

Many of us may now be daily “immersive learners” on some level. Wireless-enabled wearable technology devices such as FitBits are, in a sense, immersive technologies, as they allows us to monitor, measure and focus our activities.

Pagano explains how some biometric collection devices are becoming integral in furthering immersive learning on a broader scale. Consider the life-and-death nature of medicine, where practice is crucial. Those in medicine have all sorts of skills they need to learn and update. Book learning can only take them so far, and for practice on people, curricula are at the mercy of whomever walks in the hospital door. Besides, who wants to be a doctor’s “guinea pig”?!

By using immersive learning technologies in medicine—like pilots sitting in flight simulators—doctors can immerse themselves in a wide range of realistic procedures. Biometrics can measure their physical prowess as well as their stress response and its impact on performance. And well-established surgeons can practice new techniques in realistic, immersive-learning settings long before they cut into people. Feedback is quick and specific. Plus, no one dies as doctors “move up a level.”

The Immersive Company

We’ve seen how relatively short, focused immersive learning experiences are powerful and practical. But what about making an entire company immersive? What if everyone were continually immersed in knowing and realizing individual and team objectives in ways that motivate all players to play to win? What if every element of a business were gamified, and everyone in the business is a player?

The teams at Alliance Enterprises near Tacoma, WA are doing just that. They call it management by gaming, a methodology they and their clients use to align to and deliver on promised outcomes.

As CEO Chris Pieper describes, “Management by gaming is built around tapping into the collective knowledge and power of a team. The employees—not just leadership—set the goals, execute on business strategy, practice, fail forward, iterate, get real-time feedback, adjust and improve. Over time, everyone sees the value of individual and collective efforts. We find that people are naturally wired to want to win more, which means the business wins more.”

But, Pieper warns, to make this all work, leadership must be committed and must understand that management by gaming isn’t about keeping scores of individuals; it’s not about merit pay or carrot-and-stick. Its purpose is to celebrate success, not identify failures. The organization must value employee engagement, and believe in the team over the individual.

Darcy Fleming, director of business development at Alliance Enterprises, explains: “Before the company instituted management by gaming, I didn’t know how my efforts related to overall company objectives, and I felt very siloed. The feedback I did get came too late.” Now she views the organization as transparent, the entire team as engaged and the enterprise as nimbly moving toward shared goals.

Potential Downsides of Immersive Learning

Despite all the positive reasons to implement elements of immersive learning, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Ross Smith, a director of engineering at Microsoft, believes that gaming and immersive technologies will usually fail when users are tasked to play a game to accomplish something that’s mandatory. “You want me to play a game to keep my job?!” leaves people feeling tricked, and rewards get conflicted.

Stowell of IBM advocates for designing learning opportunities so gaming, points, badges and leader boards are used to build intrinsic motivation, not to foster fear. In other words, the value of our tasks, learning and jobs should not be centered on extrinsic rewards like winning an iPad.

He also warns that some training needs are like chocolate-covered broccoli: content is so dry (can you say “compliance training”?) that really nothing—including an immersive game—will make it more palatable. For more appetizing experiences, start with what the audience wants and explore why a knowledge or skill gap exists so that, over time, you can modify behavior. To maximize results and win a battle for people’s attention, suggests Stowell, make the learning more bite-sized and more mobile.

I believe the world at large will become more immersed in the compelling options afforded by immersive learning. And if we play our cards right as meeting professionals by introducing more immersive learning into our events, more meeting goers may view meeting- management-by-gaming as not a break from work, but as a proven, flow-boosting growth engine for work itself.

Dive Deeper:

Want to immerse yourself in immersion for a few minutes? Try this fun 8-minute game:


Photo of dog via Dave Durden on Flickr