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Training As if Your Life Depended On It

How reluctant trainees became super-motivated

One of the most innovative cognitive training companies I know is WTRI (Workplace Technology Research Inc.), which is run by my friends Lia DiBello, Dave Lehmann and Sterling Chamberlain. I met with them in San Diego a few months ago and heard this story.

WTRI had been brought in to put on some training for Rio Tinto — the training was tested at an exercise in an underground mine. The training seemed fairly mundane and the miners didn’t see any reason to spend two whole days on it. They were highly experienced and knew their jobs well. They complained loudly about having to go through the WTRI training, and complied only because upper management insisted.

But they hadn’t encountered the kind of training WTRI had designed — highly realistic scenarios presented in a virtual world, with each miner acting alone to make critical and time pressured decisions. The virtual world layout had been carefully designed to match the actual layout of the mine as it will likely be in 2025, so some of it was very familiar, and some of it was new, but part of a well-known plan. In fact, it was the future layout the miners were engaged in building in real life. So this was no cookie-cutter exercise. The miners felt that this was the real thing.

Their stated mission at the start of the Day 1 scenario was for the crews to get their assignments in a team meeting at the start of the shift, to practice finding work areas in the new underground territory they’d be exploring without getting lost, finish their assigned tasks and radio any reportable issues to their shift boss. When their task was completed, they would radio to the shift boss for another assignment, find that area, and so on. They believed they were practicing being efficient in a large underground environment.

Each trainee was alone in a room with a computer, wearing a headset and navigating the virtual world with a joystick. However, they were not alone in the virtual world. They could only see the others through the virtual world — but the others were people they actually worked with. Their shift boss was their actual shift boss. They were assigned tasks that they would be doing in real life. They had a radio in the virtual world for communication. The younger miners saw that it could be similar to a massive multiplayer online game they might play. After about 20 minutes inworld, the radio chatter indicated that they were fully immersed, cracking jokes like they do on the real radio, asking each other where others were, reporting safety hazards they found, and asking for direction on some tasks. There were about 30-35 people inworld together at the same time, not including the people logged in to run the show.

What they didn’t expect was that once deep in the virtual mine, an upset would occur at some point, 45 minutes to an hour into the session. Usually this was a fire in some random area of the mine. The actual training goal was to improve decision making following an accident that required the miners to evacuate or, if that wasn’t possible, to move quickly to a safe area with adequate ventilation, food and water. The real purpose of the exercise was to see how they handled the emergency. The underground tunnels filled with smoke and visibility got very poor. If they were near a fire, the noise was deafening. The light on their helmet bounced off the smoke and haze and the view could be deceptive; they could easily get lost or miss signs. Their avatar’s performance degraded; without oxygen, they were soon on the ground, unable to get up, with only minutes left to live. They had rebreathers that gave them about 30 minutes of air, but they had to decide when to put them on, and then pick an exit path, or a path that took only 30 minutes to reach a rescue chamber.

Before the exercise, all participants were briefed on the procedures and what parts of the mine were too far from the exits to reach safely. They were all briefed on the locations of rescue chambers and the reasons for going to them. Rescue chambers are crowded and unpleasant underground boxes for sustaining small groups of people with food, air and water until help can arrive. Understandably, people do not want to end up there and can easily get to one and find it is already full. It turned out that all the miners believed they knew how to get out and none believed they needed to go to a rescue chamber. This was not the case. During the exercise, many of the participants (i.e., their avatars) did not make it out alive. Some that did not, died because they misjudged how long their air would last and thought they had enough time to go back looking for others they could hear calling for help. It was heart-breaking to hear.

LiaDiBello/WTRI, used with permission
Source: LiaDiBello/WTRI, used with permission

Everyone was dismayed by the results — the WTRI team, the upper management, and the miners themselves. Most surprising was the emotional toll. Even though no one actually “died”, the workers were quite traumatized by the experience, realizing that about 30% of the miners would have died if this was an actual fire and that the loss of life was entirely preventable. That kind of outcome gets your attention if you are a miner.

The training was scheduled for two days. That’s pretty typical for WTRI. The first day is a realistic scenario to serve as a reality check and demonstrate to the trainees that their current way of doing business or thinking about the issues isn’t going to work. The second day is to allow the trainees, while still in a state of shock, to drastically revise their mental model and their approach in order to become much more effective.

For this mining exercise, the second day was scheduled to start at 8:00am. Given the unusually high level of complaints about having to do the first day of training, the WTRI team wasn’t sure what to expect. They got to the training site early, which was a very good idea because the miners showed up at 7:00am! An hour early. To say the trainees were motivated would be an understatement. They had just gone through a near-death experience the first day, especially the 30% who had died in the simulation. Their braggadocio was gone.

The second day of training was free of belly-aching and whining. It was all business. The miners were determined to diagnose what had gone wrong, what was wrong with their approach, and how they needed to rethink their response. Needless to say, the second day of the exercise resulted in a dramatic improvement. Everyone escaped safely. Those who escaped safely the first day escaped twice as fast the second day. They reported that they automatically made a mental note of the nearest exit and rescue chamber for every work area they were assigned to. Unlike the first event, during the second event on Day 2 they planned their escape route carefully, especially the ones who had run out of rebreather capacity the first time through. They didn’t want that to happen to them again. They vividly remembered how frightening it had been to be lost during the first event, even though they knew it was just a simulation. And listening to others over the radio — others who were not getting to safety in time — really heightened the emotional reaction. They talked about how much this experience had changed them, how frightening it had been because of how sure they had been even when their assumptions were wrong. They also talked about how upsetting it had been to get lost or to hear the voices of others who were lost.

So how do you turn a bunch of gripers into grimly determined trainees? Not by speeches. Not by issuing values statements. Not by citing safety statistics. But by letting the trainees see for themselves that they aren’t nearly as good as they thought, and by letting them experience the panic that comes with failure. WTRI’s research shows that carefully designed virtual worlds may be a way to accomplish that outcome.

When the WTRI research team returned 8 months later for follow-up interviews, they found the effect had endured in the people who work underground. They reported that they look at the underground space very differently now. The first thing they do in an unfamiliar mine is imagine a problem and mentally simulate getting to safety. Some said they are more aware of hazards as well, things that might cause a problem such as a fire.

The initial virtual world disaster experience was enough to create a mindset shift — perhaps in this case we could call it a “mine-set” shift — to be much more sensitive to issues of danger and self-protection.

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