Since the start of the pandemic companies around the world have been forced to adapt in never before seen ways.
Staff have been furloughed, shops have temporarily closed, and employees have been made to leave the office and do the majority of their work from home.
Video conferencing, emails and chat boxes have become vital communication tools for businesses that have found their employees working from a multitude of locations.
But the benefits of face-to-face contact have yet to be fully replaced by video calls – particularly when it comes to learning and training.
But a team of developers working in the North East is combining its expertise in making video games with its knowledge of training and learning techniques to create a virtual reality experience designed for businesses.
The Leadership Network was founded in 2013 to help senior professionals in some of the world’s biggest companies improve in areas such as creating products, innovation and intelligent engineering – all while using virtual reality technology.
While The Leadership Network is headquartered in London, its development team is has based in Gateshead, at the Northern Design Centre, and is headed up by Frankie Cavanagh.
Frankie works as The Leadership Network’s chief architect but he is a well-known figure in the North East tech scene. He currently runs local game studio Pocket Money Games, which has worked on a number of hit VR games including SuperHot, while he also been involved in teaching game development in the region.
Frankie and his team of developers have taken their knowledge of VR and used it to create The Leadership Network’s GEMBA platform, which the firm describes as the “world’s first enterprise learning programme in VR”.
In GEMBA, business leaders and employees can meet up to learn vital skills, take part in conferences or board meetings, or carry out one-to-one training with colleagues in an environment that simulates the real world. It can even recreate a factory setting to show workers how to operate machinery.
And all the while the experience keeps the learner engaged through their knowledge of video games.
“All the cool stuff from games we are able to put into it because this is multiplayer,” says Frankie. “We still use game engines and we use the gamification of achievements.
“Then we take everything we know from games such as how do we keep you engaged and make it fun.”
But while the North East team’s specialism is in games development Frankie points out that the ideas they bring to GEMBA from the gaming world are there to improve the learning experience.
He emphasises this by explaining how the team used a mechanic from zombie survival game Left 4 Dead to help solve one of the more challenging problems in teaching.
“The thing we took from games is something called Stretch and Support. A good teacher should be able to push you as a student, and push you to the next level while a student not doing so well should be supported.
“However, most teachers can’t achieve that.”
Frankie argues that when a teacher has a large number of students, not all of them are at the same level. There are some who can be pushed to excel, others than need support, while many will be somewhere in the middle.
“The problem happens as when you have a classroom of 30 kids, two of those groups get left behind and you get an average.
“What Left 4 Dead did was that, if you are very good, it throws more zombies at you. If you aren’t very good it gives you some help. Our artificial intelligence system, Stretch and Support, identifies if you are doing well and adapts.”
GEMBA’s learning solutions can also be brought to a host of different situations. It can be used to a virtual lecture theatre where dozens of people can watch an expert give a talk. It can recreate daily performance meetings, or replicate whole manufacturing processes for those working on a factory floor.
The company has three versions of this product. The first is the Masterclass, which is the company’s standard version of the software. The second offers more customizable options, which can add different colours and corporate logos to the sessions, while the third is a fully bespoke product which Frankie says can be “pretty much anything you want”.
Car giant Toyota has used the system to map out one of their factory floors, meaning employees from around the world can see how the factory operates, what staff at a site are doing well and what can be improved.
Along with Toyota, The Learning Network has a number of big-name clients including Coca Cola, IBM, Nestle, Volvo, Carlsberg, Adidas, and HP.
For large-scale, international companies, GEMBA presents the solutions to a number of problems. The technology allows a business to share the knowledge of a few employees to its workforce quickly and effectively.
It also allows business leaders to network with others based around the globe, gaining perspectives they would not have received without a large amount of travelling. The Learning Network believe this technology saves on average around £1,800 per person on travelling to and from events.
On top of this, the coronavirus pandemic has led to more companies needing to find solutions that allow them to continue to train, connect with, and develop their workforce and business heads. This has put The Learning Network’s tech in high demand.
“I think this is the turning point,” says Frankie. “We have gone through a big rebrand in June. The switch for Covid when it happened, it was fortuitous that the CEO had done a year of development of it which put us at a huge advantage.
“We sell more tickets at the virtual events than the real events.”
But for Frankie the success of GEMBA is not only about helping companies revolutionise how they train their staff. It also shows that the North East can compete with international tech firms in the VR space.
“The company is down south but the development is done in the North East,” he says. “The North East is a hub for VR and all those talented people.
“We compete with global VC funds and companies in Silicon Valley. We are using the same technology, if not better than, companies in San Francisco.”