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St. James’s Place: Elevating Soft Skills with VR

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Episode Summary

On this episode of XR Industry Leaders, we interview Hannah Frame (Social Learning Tech & Innovation Manager) and Josh Ellick (Immersive Technology Manager) from St. James’s Place. We discuss how St. James’s Place, a major UK financial services company, has implemented VR across its training programs. They cover creating bespoke VR simulations to develop advisor soft skills, the importance of making VR accessible to all learning styles, and using VR to boost engagement and empathy.

The episode explores VR content development, change management, hardware logistics at scale, and plans to integrate AI for more adaptive training. Hannah and Josh also share advice for VR adoption, including hands-on demos to get buy-in, having VR champions spread awareness, and offering a blend of modalities so VR supplements other learning.

Key Moments

  • About SJP: (01:05)
  • Personal backgrounds: (02:08)
  • How VR found its way to SJP (07:01)
  • Perspective on quantifying soft skills: (16:23)
  • Key metric leadership is excited about: (20:48)
  • Pushback when it comes to VR: (22:16)
  • VR Hubs: (24:20)
  • Feedback on VR Hubs: (26:43)
  • Where is VR content coming from: (29:01)
  • Pain points using VR: (32:13)
  • Content pipeline: (35:57)
  • Where do you see VR going at SJP: (38:17)
  • Brad & Will perspective on VR moving forward: (42:26)
  • Wrap up, SJP podcast and goodbyes: (45:47)
"It is important that we offer VR as part of a wider learning offering, which includes more face-to-face learning, more digital learning, peer-to-peer learning. But for people who are interested in VR, we focus on creating VR pilots for departments. It massively helps grow VR when spreading the impact of a program through word of mouth."
Josh Ellick
Immersive Technology Manager at St. James's Place

About the Guests

Previously a rotational graduate at SJP, Hannah now works in the Learning & Development team driving the digital engagement strategy for learning and helping transform the approach to development. This includes driving the adoption of Virtual Reality, AR, podcasts, bite-size digital learning, and social learning platforms. Hannah’s main passion is how we can utilize technology to foster collaborative, peer-to-peer learning and to increase engagement.

Josh has been working with SJP since the beginning of 2022, and is responsible for project management and delivery of immersive technologies, including Virtual and Augmented Reality, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Gamification. Working in the Learning and Development division, Josh is focussed on delivering impactful immersive experiences that solve business challenges, as well as offering scalable, accessible content solutions through a variety of mediums.

About St. James’s Place

St. James’s Place engages in the wealth management business. It offers investment, retirement, protection, intergenerational wealth management, banking and mortgages, and advice for businesses. The company was founded by Nathaniel Charles Jacob Rothschild, Mark Aubrey Weinberg, and Michael Summer Wilson in 1991 and is headquartered in Cirencester, the United Kingdom.

Episode Transcript

Brad Scoggin: Hey there, welcome to “XR Industry Leaders” with ArborXR. My name is Brad Scoggin, and I am the CEO and one of three co-founders of ArborXR. And we’ve had the opportunity of working with thousands of companies since 2016, and we’ve learned a ton about what it takes for XR to be successful in your organization.

Will Stackable: And I’m Will Stackable, co-founder and CMO. This podcast is all about interviewing the leaders who are on the ground making XR happen today. True pioneers in the space from Amazon, Walmart, and UPS to Koch, Pfizer, and beyond to uncover the pitfalls, lessons learned, and secrets that you can use to help grow XR in your organization.

Brad Scoggin: All right, well today we get to talk to a couple of people from St. James’s Place. Today we have Josh Ellick, who is the immersive technology manager, and Hannah Frame, who is the social learning tech and innovation manager. Great to have you both on the show today.

Hannah Frame: Thanks for having us. Super excited. Did we hit it?

Josh Ellick: Yeah, it’s great that we’ve finally got everything working.

Brad Scoggin: Yes, we have had some technical difficulties, but we made it. We got through. Before we jump in, we always love to hear a little bit about your personal backgrounds. But ahead of that this time, because we do have an international audience, some people may be familiar with the St. James’s Place, but I’m sure a chunk aren’t. So maybe just tell us a little bit about SJP for the listeners who are not familiar with what you all do.

Hannah Frame: Yeah, absolutely. So SJP are a FTSE 100 company. So for those of you that are not familiar with what FTSE 100 means, it’s a share index of the 100 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange. So essentially, SJP provide face-to-face financial advice, delivered exclusively by our qualified expert advisors who make up our partnership. And we have over 4,000 advisors. And we’re founded in 1992, so we’ve been around for a few years and we’ve got just under £160 billion of client funds under management. So pretty big, I’d say.

Brad Scoggin: Yeah, that’s awesome. And that was a perfect elevator pitch. I like that. I should do a better job when I talk about Arbor. Well, let’s go to your background a little bit. So Josh, I know that you started out as a digital engagement analyst before this, and Hannah, you started out as an intern, so maybe each of you share just a little bit about where you started before this and how you got to your current roles.

Josh Ellick: Yeah, I basically joined as a VR digital engagement analyst when I first joined at SJP, and that was about 18 months ago. I essentially at that time just started on the operational side of things, so really sort of supporting how do we take the experiences that we’ve created so far in VR. And it was just sort of one experience that we had at the time, and how do we make sure we’re getting that delivered to the whole business and just really kind of bringing the delivery of that content to life.

Must’ve done a half decent job of that, because I then ended up getting extended quite a few times to keep supporting with that, but then ultimately starting to look at how we can then scale this out, not just to the initial group that we were using and delivering this training to, which was within our academy, but then also then branching it out to other pockets in the business and really trying to expand the reach of VR as a whole. And that sort of then led me on to taking on more and more projects, managing them, and just recently in the last sort of four or five months got promoted to the immersive technology manager. And so just managing more of our VR strategy across all of our projects and within our learning offering.

Brad Scoggin: One quick follow up, Hannah, before you go, I guess, and you can answer this as well, Hannah, but even before this position, Josh, if you came in as a VR digital engagement analyst just to start with, I guess, did you… VR background before this or just passionate about VR?

Josh Ellick: Absolutely no VR background whatsoever. So I was in recruitment before this and I guess I started off there doing a bit of tech recruitment, so recruiting for all technical roles. And I’m a bit of a nerd. I do like my tech, but I hadn’t ever touched a VR headset before. So I guess for me it was kind of when I saw this job become available, it seemed to have a really nice blend of being very people-orientated still, because ultimately we’ve got to try and showcase VR as a solution to the whole business. But then there’s also still being able to play around with loads of tech and occasionally ordering a new VR headset and give that play around. So yeah, I get the best of both worlds. So I’m happy.

Brad Scoggin: Very nice.

Hannah Frame: And answering that question, I had no experience with VR previously before this. Oh, I did an internship as you mentioned, and then applied for the graduate scheme that they have at SJP. So I did Psychology at University, had no idea what I wanted to do, but knew I loved SJP as a company, I wanted to be there. So I actually did three different rotations before finding my place in learning and development, which was partner lending, talent and investment communications. But L and D, whilst I was spending my time in talent, were going through this transformational change where they were looking at tech, COVID had hit us so we had to take everything online. And that sparked, as we’ll talk later in the podcast, about how we brought tech into learning and development.

So since being part of L and D, I’ve been focused on social learning, tech and innovation, as well as comms and engagement. So I look at utilizing social learning platforms and integrating them with our own L and D systems, creating social learning content through podcasts, through video creation. I also involve myself with the creation of virtual reality and our immersive experiences, as well as writing the strategy for the engagement in comms within L and D. So how do we get our users and our learners utilizing the tech that we have on offer. That’s me.

Brad Scoggin: That’s great.

Will Stackable: I want to bookmark that for later in the call, for sure.

Brad Scoggin: Yeah, I was going to say the same. We need to dig in a bit more there. It’s kind of funny though. I mean, the technology is so new. We all have that moment where we put on the headset and realize, wow, this is real and this is exciting and I want to do something with this. It’s going to make an impact in the world. So it’s fun to hear about those shared experiences. So SJP from my understanding, is one of the first financial services companies to implement VR training. Maybe curious about how VR found its way into SJP and if there was any pushback during that process.

Hannah Frame: So virtual reality was first introduced into SJP when we were redesigning our academy program. So our academy program, for those that aren’t familiar, it’s the training kind of school that provides award-winning financial advice training to people that want to be financial advisors. And you can join our academy from a variety of different backgrounds. So we decided on VR because like with most companies when COVID hit, we were looking at how we best utilize the transition to virtual learning. So a big part of our original academy program was role plays and with other trainee advisors that were also on the program. And as part of this, we found that learners would very much partner with their friends, their colleagues who were also on the same cohort as themselves. And thus the feedback that they received wasn’t always the most objective feedback. And they were quite nice to one another, which is great, but it’s when we’re providing training and we want our advisors to be topnotch. It wasn’t the most effective in that format.

So we started looking at what other means we could bring in. And there was actually a study done by PWC in 2020, so I’ll just talk you through that a bit now. But essentially, PWC and other companies already knew that VR was an effective means for teaching hard skills and for job skills simulations such as flight simulator to train flights how to fly. And they did an actual study where they looked at 12 US locations. They took the same training, which was addressing inclusive leadership, and they took it in three different learning modalities. So classroom e-learning, and then VR. And the survey found and the results found that actually VR, those that learn in the VR setting had much higher emotional connection to the learning. They also found that it was way quicker to complete the training. Classroom was two hours. E-learning was 45 minutes, but VR was 29 minutes.

And also they found that over time, the cost of VR actually really evened out if not achieved lower when compared with VR training and sorry, when classroom training and e-learning. By all means, I think in the show notes I’ll include a link to that study so we can go and read it in more detail. But we just found that perhaps a great way that we could look at virtual reality was implementing it for our roleplay. So we decided to build our own bespoke roleplay scenarios where learners could train anywhere, anytime, but in that objective learning environment. So Josh, I don’t know if you want to explain a bit more about these roleplays that we created?

Josh Ellick: Yeah, absolutely. So they are sort of financial advisor and client roleplay experiences. And like Hannah was saying, we delivered this into our academy program. And so essentially we would give them a headset for 12 weeks. So everyone who was going through our academy program, they would all get a headset and then they would then get the flexibility to then use these role plays as and when they wanted to within that cohort. So the actual role plays, they were kind of almost like a bit of a foray into gamifying some of our learning content as well because it was ultimately they would have to choose how to interact with the client on the other side of the table from them. And basically it was almost like a conversation, a branching narrative where the scenario could go hundreds of different ways depending on how they approach it. And then you get a score at the end.

And I think Hannah was mentioning about the objectivity and feedback as well and how that’s a bit of a challenge with face-to-face, like actual actual role playing, I guess I could say. But that we then could almost implement this really consistent way of measuring people’s ability in different areas. So we could, for example, score them on active listening or asking open questions, building rapport and give them some feedback on how to improve that next time around. And it also just means it’s in a safe space so they can practice that as many times as they want. They don’t feel like they’re getting judged by someone across from them when they feel like they’ve made a couple of silly mistakes. And again, like Hannah was saying, it means that they can go through this relatively quickly and in sort of a short space of time, really actually have an impact on improving their soft skills in these meetings.

Hannah Frame: And what you’re saying, Josh, we’ve had over a thousand playthroughs of the role plays, considering we launched them, would you say a year ago? Just over a year and a half ago. But we have set codes that go for the academy at a set time. So it’s brilliant that we’ve had already well over a thousand runthroughs.

Josh Ellick: It was from the beginning of July. Yeah, beginning of July last year we started capturing all the data for our roleplay experiences. So we just got over a thousand a couple of days ago.

Will Stackable: Wow. And what have the results been? Has the program been effective? Have you been able to measure that in any ways?

Josh Ellick: Yeah, so talk a bit about that. So one of the things that does come across in the data is where we have had sort of repeated playthroughs of the role play experiences is actually having an improvements in their score when they go through it. So we measure things like that overall score, but then those breakdowns in active listening, asking open questions, all of that. And there’s a consistent trend that the more that people are playing through this experience, the more they’re improving their score in those areas. I think a lot of that comes down to just actually being able to more emotionally connect with the person they’re speaking with and understand a bit better how to approach a conversation with them when they understand their goals in a bit more detail as well. So it really showed the sort of a strong benefit in terms of being able to replay through it. 

But other than that as well, one of the things that we have been measuring is just a bit of evaluative feedback again on I guess the empathy and really being able to put yourself in the client’s perspective. And so we found that quite consistently we were getting very strong positive feedback in specifically that kind of empathy area of the experience. And that’s something that we saw as quite a sharp difference compared to the other digital mediums of content. So yeah, that was then what led us into our next role play experiences, which we’re working on now, which is on vulnerability. So working with vulnerable clients and naturally with that, it’s really crucially important to be able to empathize with them very well.

Hannah Frame: I think it’s worth mentioning as well, we recently won an award from MoneyMarketing, which is a well established kind of industry, well established, not industry. Well established company that we won an award for our award-winning program through the academy, which is what we focus our virtual reality on. So our virtuality has been recognized across different areas.

Brad Scoggin: I mean, it is really powerful and unique benefit I think of VR to be able to practice soft skills over and over again and in a safe place, like you said. And it is funny, yeah, I mean our friends are nice to us. They’re not objective. So getting real feedback. A couple of follow-ups, I do want to dig in a little bit to understand better when the trainee puts on a headset exactly what’s happening, but on some of the stats, the improvements in engagement or the improvements in empathy or kind of those soft things you’re measuring, it’s super clear to see, okay, people train faster, it costs less money, it’s very objective. I’m always curious because improving engagement, improving empathy, et cetera, it’s very important, but it feels hard to measure. I don’t even know what the question is there. Just maybe your perspective on how do you guys really quantify some of the softer, more subjective things you’re trying to improve and you’re seeing the improvement but it just sometimes feels soft. So how do you guys quantify that?

Josh Ellick: Yeah, it is a hard thing to quantify specifically with soft skills because like you say, soft skills aren’t almost like a tick box type exercise. It’s very much dependent on the person that you’re speaking to and their personal situation, all of this sort of stuff. But I think what we had to do was when we were creating these roleplay experiences, let’s say for example in a financial advisor roleplay scenario, you are going to be talked to them about different products and services you provide, and it’s like do you lean into that too quickly or do you actually take more time to actually just have that sort of bit of small talk to start off with and build that level of trust and openness to allow them to really be really clear and transparent with you about what their goals are.

And so we kind of designed the roleplay experience to be that they would become more withdrawn if you went into those things too early and focused it on essentially that building of rapport with the client and then allowing that to then be how you can open up the conversation to a lot of different areas. And essentially, yeah, that’s kind of how we then attach those kind of decisions that you made in the conversation to having a more understanding of being tactful and being more empathetic and all of that. So it’s not a hard and fast response, I guess, to that, but it’s something we are exploring a bit more with the empathy vulnerability series that we’re working on now, is very specifically having a score for that and having decisions in the experience that negatively impact that score versus ones that are more sensitive and I guess more correct answers.

And it’d be interesting, I’m kind of quite keen to see how that role play experience because we’ve literally just started developing it a couple of months ago and it’s going to be delivered at the end of this month. So the first thing we’ll be doing obviously is trying that out with some focus groups, but on the basis of what we’ve done with the previous role-play experiences, I’m confident we’ll get some really positive feedback on specifically the empathy side of things with that.

Hannah Frame: I think it’s also an element of we do measure their confidence as well, their confidence in being able to go and speak to clients. And that was quite a lot of the feedback we got at the beginning, was when we were more assessing on the preference of role plays versus doing it in virtual reality, a lot of just the generic feedback and when we were doing some focus groups with them was that they felt more confident having done it in the virtual reality than in the role plays. So when they go to see a client for the first time when they’re leaving the academy, they actually, because they’ve done it in the headset that almost emulates kind of real life and they’ve had that feedback, they felt they were in a better place to be able to go and have those conversations.

So I definitely think confidence is something that would also continue to measure as to how impactful the virtual reality training has been on that soft skills side. Because like you said, that is the hard bit. But essentially if I felt more confident to go and have a conversation based on the soft skills training I’ve done, then we can link it back to that.

Brad Scoggin: Yeah, right. Yeah, that’s huge. Is there a key metric, as you all are presenting findings back to leadership to keep this thing growing? Is there a key metric that leadership is most excited about from what you’ve done so far?

Josh Ellick: I think really it’s from the skills that we’re presenting in terms of the training, how easy is it for then people to then apply those skills in real life. And I know that’s one thing, we have a whole sort of data and evaluation team within learning development that does look at the quality and engagement of all of our content. And it’s one of the key things, it’s like are we presenting learning in a way that they now feel confident to apply it. And if not, then that’s not good. But then what we have noticed with VR is because it is so similar to how they would be tackling these problems in their actual day-to-day life, and we put a lot of focus and emphasis on that, it’s an easier transition to go from learning to application. 

And I guess with VR, it’s almost like this middle ground where maybe a lot of digital content before was more like theory-based, where you would kind of learn generally what you needed to do, but not necessarily how to do it. But VR is kind of plugging this gap of being able to practice and that’s really where we’re focusing for a lot of our VR content.

Hannah Frame: Yeah.

Will Stackable: Brilliant. I want to circle back to something you mentioned, Hannah, in your intro, which was part of your job is trying to figure out how to get your teams and employees to actually adopt these new technologies. What have you seen, has there been pushback when it comes to VR? Do people not want to put on a headset? Are they skeptical? And what have you been able to do to help people get over that, I guess adoption curve?

Hannah Frame: Yeah, I mean because, because stereotypically we were working in the finance company and that’s semi old school. We’ve changed that now, but certainly when we launched it almost two, three years ago, we were still in that position. So it was really hard because some of our partnerships have been there since 1992 and they’ve not seen anything like it. So to go and put a VR headset and say, this is the way you’re going to train now, we just knew that wasn’t going to work, but we’re saying that we didn’t take no as an answer. So we did go quite big bang with it. And we did conferences and attended conferences all across the UK at our different office locations where we had our partnership events and we were showcasing our VR role plays and we were encouraging to them to come and try it. We were almost, like I said, didn’t take no for an answer. And as soon as someone puts it on, I think that’s where you can understand, for those that haven’t tried VR, it is very kind of intuitive.

You just naturally know what to do. So we had partners across a variety of different ages that all instantly knew how worked and understood how to navigate themselves around, and they all loved it. And that was the thing, is once the word of mouth started and we had lots of press about our VR work that was going on, which really helped, really supportive of that, showing that we were leading the way that when they were talking to each other, a lot of what we do is with engagement is that peer led. So if your peers are talking about it, then hopefully then they’re going to want to try it. They don’t want to miss out. So we did a lot of that at the start, which is really good. And we still do that now. And one thing that we recently done, and Josh, you can explain more about this because it was your idea, was we have virtual reality hubs. So Josh, I don’t know if you want to explain to the listeners about that?

Josh Ellick: That’s so nice, because I probably actually wouldn’t have said anything about it, but you’re right, I know it was a good idea. So yeah, we want to try and make VR more accessible. And I guess the challenge is that with any business, we have budget constraints. We have a few hundred headsets that we have that we can use within the business. But when you’ve got, I don’t know, I think totals around 16 and a half thousand employees across all of SJP, that it’s just naturally you can’t give a headset to everyone. And then how do you make sure that this content’s always accessible to the people who are interested in engaging with it? And so we just towards the beginning of this year started implementing VR hubs across our different offices. So we now have three altogether, a couple in our Cirencester offices, which is our main sort of…

Hannah Frame: Headquarters.

Josh Ellick: Head office. Thank you. And we also have one in Bristol, but we’re working on ones in Manchester and in London, so kind of capturing different areas across the UK so that no matter where our partners are based, and they are dotted all over the UK, the idea is that then they have a hub which will have VR headsets that are charged on a dock just ready to go. There’s a digital screen which is interactive. They can click through it to understand not just how to use the headset, but also all the different experiences that we offer. And they actually also just help us actually promote some of the wider stuff we do within the division as well. So it’s cozy, inviting spaces to just sit down and explore some of VR content for a bit.

Will Stackable: That’s brilliant. I think one of the biggest barriers to getting adoption that we hear is the basic one of how do you get somebody actually to put on a headset? And sometimes you have headsets loaded with great content that really could make an impact, but if they’re sitting on a shelf collecting dust, so the hubs is, what a great way of making it accessible, creating a space that feels inviting that people can come into. Could you share, have you gotten any feedback from, you’ve got now thousands of employees that are and partners that are going through this kind of training, are you still having to do a lot of poking and pushing and scheduling for people to get into it? Or is there a little bit of word of mouth starting to happen where people come to you and say, Hey, I heard this thing was helpful for a partner, I want to get in as well? What have you been hearing?

Hannah Frame: Definitely word of mouth. I’d say, Josh, you get inundated with requests from people emailing you to set up coming to their team meetings, to them to go out to their partner practices. We’ve actually loaned headsets at times, so we’ll give it to partner practice or whoever it may be to go and have headsets for a couple of weeks and then they can do it in their own time. And that’s proven really popular. But yeah, I’d say, Josh, you’re kind of always getting requests.

Josh Ellick: Yeah, I’d say we also just get the whole spectrum as people would expect, like people who just don’t want to go anywhere near it, think it’s a gimmick, why don’t we just offer this content as something they can do on their laptops and just they’re quite reluctant to go touch it with the bar control, basically. And then we get people who are much more advocates for it that see it or even just hear about it and get really excited and want to be involved in any pilots that we do. And that’s really great as well. Because I think naturally, I don’t want to say it, but obviously people are really resistant to VR. It’s, I guess, a thing to appreciate is that VR isn’t for everyone and it is important that we do offer VR as part of a wider learning offering, which includes more face-to-face learning, more digital learning, peer-to-peer learning.

But for people who are interested in it, we do kind of focus on using them with pilots and helping with spreading that word of mouth that Hannah was talking about, just kind of generating a bit of buzz and excitement with some of the partners who are more interested. And then that does seem to then naturally then trickle out, because it’s this classic fear of missing out. I think that seems to work really well. Some partners having a really good time with VR content, finding it really useful, and if they hear it from them rather than hear it from us, they’re much more likely to be engaged with it.

Brad Scoggin: I have a basic question that you’ve talked about this a few different times, but maybe just explain, I guess one, where is the content coming from? Are you creating the content? And then two, when a trainee puts on the headset, exactly, I know it’s a role play, but what is happening inside the headset in that experience?

Josh Ellick: So we do create bespoke content. So I’d say most of what we’re… Actually, everything we’re delivering pretty much at the moment is bespoke content that we’ve created or worked with a developer-partner to help us create. So we’ve got a company called Make Real that we’ve worked with for a lot of the role play experiences that we’ve created up to date. We’re also working with a consultancy called 55E5 that have also helped us from an advisory perspective and with managing some of our VR projects. So it’s stuff that we have created for specific use cases within the business, but then we have also been researching other platforms that will allow us to either create our own content quicker or just provide a good off the shelf package. So there are some other soft skills workplace scenario training platforms that we’re looking at, and one of them was Bodyswaps and we’ve been doing that as a bit of a pilot within the business at the moment.

And another, we’re looking at how we can integrate AI into our virtual reality experiences as well. And so there’s another couple of platforms that we’re looking at that will hopefully then allow us to evolve from maybe the more scripted role play experiences that we offer at the moment to hopefully in the future more generative AI and very much having that to and fro conversation with the person sitting across from you. And even from a feedback perspective, being able to assess how people come across in terms of their body language. Things like if there’s specific things we want them to say out loud in an experience to someone, we can start hopefully looking to measure that as well. So I’ve realized I’ve just gone on the ramble there, but I feel like there is so much opportunity with VR to start looking at how other technologies can complement it. I think it’s really exciting where it can go and then the impacts that could potentially have as well.

Will Stackable: No, I want you to keep talking. I mean, I think you’re right, and we’re hearing it from all corners that it’s this confluence of these different technologies. There’s a bit of convergence happening and I think that the AI simulation, the generative learning, I think that’s an unexplored frontier that obviously it’s still there’s issues in, but we are seeing, you mentioned Bodyswaps, they’re a fantastic developer. Their team is doing really cutting edge stuff using a combination of VR and AI. So I’ll be curious to see what conversations you have with them. Well, I want to ask, well, I really want to ask about AI, but I don’t want to go there, because this is about VR. But if you want to, you could weave this in an answer, but my question is around just pain points.

A lot of companies listening are in various stages of building out a VR program. Some are very early in the process, and you have a well-developed VR program at SJP. I’m sure you’ve experienced everything from hardware issues to software, figuring out content. If you had to look back on the last few years, what have been the major pain points that you’ve encountered and maybe any lessons learned? And if you both want to answer briefly, that would be great.

Josh Ellick: And I don’t know if you want to start and I’ll fit in from the technology side of things, maybe.

Hannah Frame: Yeah, I can definitely start. I think one of the things that was our pain point at the start and not so much now as we’ve evolved was around how we can make it accessible for all. Because accessibility is massive and it’s really important and it ties in quite a lot of the neurodiversity aspect of people learn in different ways and process information differently. And so we’ve, at the start, I would say our first roleplay was not accessible at all and we got quite a lot of feedback about that, that people couldn’t access it, virtuality wasn’t for them. The headsets, their brains just don’t process it that way. So we have made a desktop version on the back of that. So if people don’t want to do virtuality, we have a desktop that’s still interactive, it’s still has all those kind of immersive aspects to it, just obviously by the laptop.

And then we’ve also, in our most recent ones, it started including things like subtitles that people can turn on and off so people can read our 360 films rather than if they can’t listen to it in a certain way and also at a slower speed as well, so people can control their speeds. And we found that now we are at a point where we feel we’ve got a great network of people that we can tap into, so we tap into the neurodiversity group at work. We also during our focus groups make sure we’re asking questions about accessibility, because we don’t know what we don’t know. So we get this feedback and then we always implement it. And I think we’re in a great place now that we weren’t at the beginning. So that was one that stuck out for me. I don’t know about you, Josh.

Josh Ellick: Yeah, I think yeah, totally would agree with Hannah on a lot of those challenges. And I think the technology was always a bit of a challenge starting off with as well. But then also just some of the issues that you have with trying to get maybe 20 people in the room to all put on a headset at the same time and what kind of issues come up. And it is a bit like whack-a-mole, you’re just trying to sort them all out as they come up.

But then I guess again, naturally it’s a new technology, we’re identifying what those challenges are and it meant that then we could start introducing that into any sort of lesson plans or delivery plans around it so we could be a bit more proactive, know what issues do sometimes come up and have the almost like where we’re trying to get people who are outside of our division more familiar and more becoming experts in VR so that then if there’s people within their teams that are struggling, then they can support rather than us always having to be the ones that kind of come in. And then naturally, that’s based on maybe limitations of us actually being available to help. So yeah, it just means that they get more immediate sort of support and have a better experience overall.

Will Stackable: Really interesting. Both of those answers are great. I’m curious, when it comes to some of the logistical challenges, once you started hitting a certain scale, what solutions have you found? Obviously you guys are using Arbor, that’s a part of it, but even beyond that, what does your content pipeline look like? I know you’re regularly updating providing new training modules and you have now devices in multiple locations. So could you just share a little bit about, for companies that are looking to go from that first pilot project, which is relatively easy to manage to some kind of scale, what have you found is what’s working for you?

Josh Ellick: Okay. I think the initial when you’re piloting it out and it’s at smaller scale, it’s probably much easier from a logistical perspective, and this is what we’ve found to run sessions where you’ll bring everyone in the room to experience the headsets and the role play could be in the same room, they could be in different rooms, but however you want to set it up, but ultimately you’re making it almost like a course or an event that they then book onto and you hold it all in one room. Because one of the challenges that we’ve definitely had with our academy program where we’re sending headsets to delegates for them to just use in their own time, we have had challenges in getting those headsets back. We get them back, but then ultimately we have, let’s say a hundred headsets out with different cohorts across the academy, while vast majority of them do come back, suddenly it then becomes a bit of a trying to chase the last few down.

And that can obviously take a bit of time and a bit of resource. So I think that’s also another reason why stuff like the VR hubs is probably a really good idea, because you can actually set up a little space within different offices that’s relatively inexpensive that then allows people to actually come and engage with it and use it. And then you’re not having to worry about the continual sort of logistics. So I think that’s something we do want to broach and do much more of and get much more of these hubs set up because we could then get to a point where we’re not having to send headsets out to partners for them to use. They can just pop into an office that’s not too far from them.

Brad Scoggin: Yeah, that’s great. That’s great feedback. As we move towards a wrap here, Josh, one of the things you said earlier was that, and I think this is really important, that VR training is just, it’s part of a broader landscape of training. I think you said Josh, maybe Hannah, I think that’s important. VR isn’t for everyone and even when it’s maybe in its best form, it’s not the only way to train. So curious, just you’ve had a lot of success, the hub sounds like a great next step, but where do you see this going over the next three to five years at SJP? Kind of what’s your dream of what VR could become?

Josh Ellick: Hannah, you say your dream first and then we’ll see how aligned our dreams are.

Hannah Frame: Oh, I think it’s linking back in with that AI stuff. I mean, who knows where tech’s going to be in the next 10 to 15 years? Goodness me. But I would say as we evolve and I’m starting to look at bringing AI into a lot of our training, not just our virtual reality kind of experiences, I’m really intrigued to see where that goes because that provides that personalized learning journey. And that for me is the interesting part, because like I said, everyone learns differently and someone’s experience is, I think it’s best when it’s not the same as someone else’s. And therefore, when AI, we are not scripting anything, we are not directing someone down a certain route, then that’s how people are going to learn, isn’t it? The AI with the feedback there. I think also with reading body language as well, so it becomes much more humanized.

I think at the moment we don’t have that aspect of virtual reality training, but I would love to see that aspect coming in, especially because the nature of our business is face-to-face financial advice. So if we have a way that provides that training that looks at the human aspects, so our facial expressions, our body language and can provide feedback in that way, then that will be really exciting because that will be when advisors can apply that in real life when they are giving the face-to-face financial advice. So for me, those are my two, I’d say. What about you, Josh?

Josh Ellick: Yeah, I’d say a couple of things. One of them, based on this rule that we’ve got at the moment with any VR content that we’re creating is that we’re also making it available in some sort of form on a different platform, whether it’s desktop or mobile, let’s say. And that goes back to that really important aspect of making sure it’s accessible to everyone. But in terms of what I’m excited about for the future, I’ve just been playing around with the Quest 3 headset, Meta Quest 3.

Hannah Frame: Nice.

Josh Ellick: And yes, again, one of the best parts of my job is just ordering in the latest toys and having a mess around, but tough job. Yeah, it’s a tough job. The mixed reality aspect of it I think is so interesting. So it’s something I kind of maybe got a little bit excited about before, but once trying the headset and actually putting it on, it’s this whole idea of you are not being completely disconnected from reality.

You are kind of having your real life enhanced with digital elements that are coming through in the headset. And I like the idea of us trying to create different experiences that actually involve maybe you speaking with someone, but they’re right there in front of you in the room. And almost like having this connection between different headsets as well, so that if you’ve got multiple people in the room all wearing headsets, that then you can actually see them all physically in real life rather than them being kind of disconnected from you because you’re all in your own isolated world. So I think the connectivity between people and the more social element of learning will be a really exciting step that some of this mixed reality experiences will take.

Brad Scoggin: Yeah, I agree. Kind of similar for me, I’d gotten excited about mixed reality in the past and just kind of, yeah, that’s been, I guess reignited.

Will Stackable: It hasn’t been good enough to really be impactful.

Brad Scoggin: Right, yeah. There’s so much now. Well, this has been great.

Hannah Frame: That’s a good point actually. What are you guys most excited for?

Brad Scoggin: Oh, yeah. Oh man, that’s a good question. I think the thing that I say often is, for me what’s just exciting overall about VR is it feels like, I mean, it really is changing the way people learn. That’s the way I think about it. So whether it’s training in an enterprise or corporate setting or it’s learning in a classroom, it’s really just learning. And I think the speed at which people learn, the amount of information that they’re able to retain, but then even the accessibility I think is a point that doesn’t get hit on enough. Being able to bring these really high quality training experiences to students in places where they wouldn’t have access previously or even to new hires or employees getting access ahead of time and they come in ready to roll.

I think to me, all that’s really, really exciting. And I think there’s honestly kind of a bigger thing that we’re all a part of here, which is helping change the way people learn in a very significant way. And so I think seeing that play out over the next five to 10 years and see how it permeates, I mean, we’re seeing it’s totally industry agnostic, the growth that we’re seeing. We’re seeing every type of company from all over the world moving training into VR. And it’s not industry specific. It’s totally agnostic. And so I think for me, that’s what’s most exciting, is just to see this massive transformation and how people learn.

Will Stackable: Yeah, I love the Ford thinking. I love looking at, I’m always trying out any new… Google recently just released their search engine generative image capabilities where you can ask it to create something just like DALL·E or Midjourney. So I’m always interested in that kind of thing. But honestly, my answer would just be, we’ve been doing it for six years and I’m excited that it’s finally becoming a reality, to sit down with a company like SJP and to hear that you’re using it broadly and that employees are actually enjoying it and using it. I think for a number of years we were still asking ourselves, is this actually going to happen or is this a pipe dream or is this technology even relevant? And I think it took some time. I think that there’s plenty of people using it for gaming. That’s great, that’s fun.

But to me, it is the learning applications and it’s doing things. We always say that VR is great. This is a Dr. Jeremy Bain from Stanford quote, but VR is great for doing things that are difficult, dangerous, or expensive to simulate in real life. And the example you gave about being able to simulate a difficult conversation that might be embarrassing and where you might make a mistake in real life and being able to do it five or 10 times without judgment and then really feeling like you’re confident and then you go in and you’re in that actual situation in real life and you feel like, wow, I’ve already done this. So to me, that what you just shared was what gets me excited, that we’re seeing that across the board. Nurses training doctors preparing for surgeries, lots of soft skill applications, not just hard skill, lots of soft skill applications. So I think the real world applications, after six years of feeling like at home at Christmas, my parents asking, “Is VR really going to be a thing?” Stories like SJP give me some ammunition to be able to answer that now.

Brad Scoggin: Hey, I got to say, it’s been seven years. I have to correct, because VR years are dog years, so that’s like another seven years adding that extra year. But yeah, so you all are training financial advisors at scale. Amazing. And then yesterday we interviewed a group that’s using VR to train astronauts, right? So it’s permeating everything. I mean, it is just so awesome. But this has been great. We’ve got to wrap. I know we’re at time for everybody and we really appreciate you guys. I know you’re busy and the time change and everything. One thing, you have your own podcast, Journey To The Metaverse. Where can our listeners find that if they want to check that out?

Hannah Frame: Yeah. It’s on Spotify, so if you just type in Every Day’s a School Day into the search bar. You’ll find it under St. James’s Place. And just one quick thing on that. We do, if you watch our episode four, it’s actually done in VR. So it’s a broadcast.

Brad Scoggin: Cool.

Hannah Frame: It’s not a podcast. It’s a broadcast.

Brad Scoggin: I like it.

Will Stackable: I’ll put that in the show notes for sure.

Hannah Frame: Yeah. And we actually go into virtual reality, but there’s a four part series which takes you on a journey to the metaverse, is what we called it.

Brad Scoggin: I love it.

Hannah Frame: Actually talking about the AI, we just recorded a podcast yesterday around how our brains learn and how AI can help and not help with that. So that episode will be coming soon. So make sure you like and subscribe.

Brad Scoggin: Love it. Awesome.

Will Stackable: Love that plug.

Brad Scoggin: Thank you guys. That’s great.

Hannah Frame: Thank you so much for having us.

Will Stackable: Thanks everybody.

Brad Scoggin: Talk soon.

Will Stackable: It was a great interview.

Brad Scoggin: Yeah, I love, it’s actually been a lot of fun to do the interviews with two people. I think we get kind of different perspectives, different energy, and once again, a major financial services institution, top 100 in London.

Will Stackable: FTSE 100.

Brad Scoggin: Yeah, FTSE 100.

Will Stackable: That’s a new…

Brad Scoggin: Yeah, new term for us. But it’s exciting to see companies of that size taking VR training so seriously.

Will Stackable: It’s legit.

Brad Scoggin: Obviously they have big plans. Yeah, very legit. Well, as always, we appreciate you spending a little time with us. Make sure you check us out wherever you find your podcasts and we’ll see you next time.

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