Imagine this. You’re an experienced plumber and you’ve just sent an apprentice out on a routine job to fix a leaky toilet. He arrives and gets down to work, but quickly realizes that the problem is more than just a simple leak. What does he do?

If it’s the not-too-distant future, he’ll put on his smart glasses, contact you– the experienced plumber– back at the office, and feed you video of the troublesome toilet, from where you’ll spot the problem and guide him through the process of fixing it. OK, so someone is in the bathroom fixing the toilet, but it’s not you.

This type of virtual on-the-job training is just one of many possibilities that could be in store for the next generation of learning management systems, thanks to the introduction of wearables into the workplace. The usefulness of wearables at work can still be a contentious subject for companies hesitant to take the technological leap, but if we learned anything at this year’s Gartner Symposium in Barcelona, it’s that wearable tech is unavoidable in the future of the workplace.

Usefulness varies from smartwatches showing ‘glanceable’ information, to hard hats with altitude sensors ensuring that they’re always being worn, to virtual reality headsets offering simulations. It’s this last one that hints at interesting opportunities for on-the-job training with wearable and IoT connected devices. How can the next generation of wearables and smart devices impact the future of learning on the job?

Field service training

Field services have the biggest potential when it comes to benefiting from wearables in the workplace.

One study from Advanced Field Service highlights some of the biggest benefits of using wearables in field services, which include hands-free working, improving engineer workflow, and health and safety concerns.

According to Jim West, vice president of facilities technology for Velociti, “wearables and connected IoT devices are taking field service productivity to a whole new level. Smart watches, smart glasses, rugged handheld computers, and tablets are all devices that utilize real time voice and data connections to connect companies with their field technicians.”

The Microsoft Hololens shows how someone can remotely help fix a leaky sink. http://www.microsoft.com/microsoft-hololens/en-us

The Microsoft Hololens shows how someone can remotely help fix a leaky sink. Source

This connectivity extends even further to field services training, where the first example of a plumber in the field getting real-time, remote help offers tangible improvements to the training process. It provides a guided, hands-on training session in the field, as well as time-saving benefits, where the more experienced technician can help more trainees remotely than if he’d have to physically go into the field with each one.

Another cool example is the Daqri smart helmet, which adds augmented reality to the mix to help onsite engineers, technicians, and construction workers survey the space around them and get useful information about problems or issues so that they can more efficiently fix them. It’s especially useful when training and carrying out tasks for the first time, as the video below outlines.

Here, the helmet doubles as both a replacement and an addition to a ‘wearable’ like a hard hat, which is another reason why wearables can be useful in field service industries where people are already required to wear accessories at work.  

Marne Martin, CEO of field service management solution ServicePower, says, “wearables with ‘heads up displays’ such as glasses, will be invaluable for training service technicians who often require two hands to perform their job. Video recorded using such devices will allow experienced and new members of staff to review working practices on the ground, or even direct technicians in real time. Although in its infancy, wearables have a clear role to play in plugging the field service skills gap through accelerated learning and collaboration.”

A Lincoln Electric student is learning how to weld using virtual reality. Source

A Lincoln Electric student learns how to weld using virtual reality. Source

One step even further into the future is a complete simulation with virtual reality headsets like Oculus Rift, where employees can be trained in dangerous industries or for complicated tasks, without the risk or fear of screwing up. One example is Lincoln Electric, the largest welding manufacturer in the U.S., which worked with virtual reality company VRSim to train its welders with virtual torches, then scored them and gave feedback based on their performance.

Customer service training

It may not offer quite as many possibilities as field services, but customer service training can benefit from wearables too, in the form of feedback and coaching. In a way, customer service already benefits from certain on-the-job training situations, like call centers that record and monitor calls for quality and training purposes.

With wearables, this can extend to in-person customer service roles, where wearable devices like glasses or pins can record audio or video of customer interactions and be used to provide feedback post-sale. Capriotti’s, a US sandwich chain, is doing just that, equipping its customer service reps with Google Glass in order to film first-person training videos, as well as recording and giving feedback to new employees learning the ropes. This also opens up opportunities for real-time coaching, where trainees can get advice on how to handle difficult situations while they’re happening.

Again, this allows new employees to learn by doing without spending too much time watching training videos, exposing themselves to real training situations instead of cheesy simulations.  

One foreseeable problem is video recording customers without consent– this could get tricky when it comes to privacy, since recorded calls are usually prefaced with a discretionary message, but it’s within the realm of possibility for the same spiel to be implemented for in-person situations.

Compliance training

The bane of probably every employee’s existence, even compliance training for health and safety or sexual harassment can benefit from the world of wearables.

Immersive task simulations can put employees in situations where they’ll have to make decisions or react to what’s happening in a virtual reality setting, letting those scenarios play themselves out as opposed to watching them happen in a video or reading about them in an online training quiz.

Employees can then be assessed based on their reactions to the situation, which could provide a much more useful judgement than a hypothetical situation presented in a training module. Giving employees this type of reactionary testing can more realistically assess their ability to handle a situation, while also providing a safe environment for them to be able to comfortably do so.

Learning with wearables

While the biggest potential for using wearables in the workplace lies in field services, there are opportunities in other industries to use wearable devices to enhance employee learning and retention.

As co-founder of DataXoom Rob Chamberlin says, “a very realistic future use case for wearables is a scenario in which wearables are part of a daily training regimen. One could imagine personalized modules for employees based on job descriptions, and learning via wearables largely replacing learning in a classroom or via a PC.”

Let’s hope the days of boring online training will be replaced with effective virtual reality simulations, and that your favorite LMS solutions will jump on the wearable bandwagon sooner rather than later.