A lot of people have asked us what is different about WTRI’s approach. There are companies offering similar looking options. An interview with our principal scientist, Dr. Lia DiBello is our attempt to explain the depth and breadth of our work.
First of all, what industries have you worked in?
WTRI has worked in industry verticals as diverse as biotech, pharma, manufacturing, mining, power generation, transportation, financial services, education, health care and others.
What does WTRI do?
We are best known for two things:
- Assessing the thinking of experts of various kinds using powerful non-verbal performance based methods
- Accelerating the development of expertise for business using – among other things – specially designed simulations contained in Virtual Worlds.
What sets WTRI’s FutureView™ Virtual Worlds apart from the others out there?
Our simulations are “rehearsals.” So instead of looking at it as a structured “game,” it’s best to think of it as a “smart place.” Companies can actually rehearse a future strategy, market play or project iteratively until they are successful with a specific financial or performance goal. We found that this process aligns the teams and the thinking of the organization. Because they have “done it” and gotten it to work, the capability that is developed along the way, and the new thinking, transfer instantly back to real work.
We noticed this result didn’t happen with more “scripted” business games, so as cognitive scientists, we researched the reasons why. Then we used what we know about the brain to design something that works with how expertise develops from experience and how that can be accelerated. We have found a way to build that into virtual world experiences. This discovery is the core of our research and our value to our customers.
Why is this important now?
One of the biggest problems working adults have right now is keeping pace with increasing complexity in business. Our species did not evolve to reinvent ourselves every one or two years. The rehearsal approach has been proven to harness our neuroplasticity to greatly accelerated learning, providing a means for everyone to adapt and remain relevant. For example, in a study we conducted last year with hundreds of people worldwide, we found statistically significant learning normally shown to occur in five years occurring in 2-4 weeks, regardless of culture. This result indicates our technology may be a way for people to develop game-changing capabilities very quickly and – most important – remain relevant.
How did the “rehearsal” notion come about?
We have an interesting history. We started as university scientists trying to understand the role of cognition – expert thinking in specific – and the forces that affect businesses; what makes businesses successful and what causes their demise? We worked with economists to help us define models of success, and with cognitive scientists to design activities that develop the underlying business capabilities in an accelerated fashion. Most of our early work in this area was funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation and has a strong scientific history.
How would someone find out more?
That research has been published widely and is pretty easy to find – for example, we have a list of our publications on this website. Simply, what we found is that managers have a theory of their business or a mental model that may not be a good fit with what is actually happening. Further, business leaders don’t always have insight into opportunities they actually have, given market forces and the strengths they have to leverage. There are numerous examples of “failed” businesses that actually had huge opportunities if managers had been capable of seeing them, such as Kodak, Woolworth, Pan Am, Research in Motion. We found a way to identify the right goals and then change the mental models of executives. In short, the rehearsals very quickly get teams back on track by creating ways to rehearse the future repeatedly until they are successful with specific goals and with finding hidden opportunities.
Were you successful?
Oh yes, very much so. Our estimates of the impact for our clients are in the billions. But the rehearsals were usually customized working physical models and very time consuming to design and build. However, they were very powerful and got more so over the years as we developed enabling technologies that made it easier to make them highly complex.
What do these enabling technologies do?
All of our environments are powered by the FutureView ™ Suite of tools; the Patterned Event Generator, the Dynamic Strategic Modeler (which manages the financials and metrics)and many have a Cognitive Agility Assessment built in. Over the years these tools have been fine-tuned to support the subtle features of a successful rehearsal structure.
The suite creates an unfolding future of business events, synchronized at several levels, from major market forces to specific transactions, such as a single sales transaction. In a few minutes, we can take the activities of a firm, such as manufacturing and assembly, a model developed by an economist, and synch them to create literally hundreds of thousands of events. These unfolding events are the context in which the team must find success.
Are you using these technologies in virtual worlds?
We are. We started attaching the FutureView™ Suite to virtual worlds as early as 10 years ago. At first, we used various commercially available multi-player virtual world and gaming platforms and developed an Application Program Interface (API) to connect our technologies to them. We added a Metrics Engine, which tracks behavior in the simulated environment and creates instant feedback for participants as they interact with smart objects. This technology also calculates the financial value of the simulated business activity in an ongoing manner. Inworld dashboards are linked to these events and allow the teams to track their progress against the goals in real time
Most of that early work was funded by the National Science Foundation, National Academies of Science and some corporate laboratories, such as IBM Labs and Siemens Labs.
What are you doing now and why?
We found the commercially available virtual worlds hard to work with. They are not built to respond to complex business enterprise technologies or enabling tools like ours. The intense information traffic crashed them or the environment was too small to build complex companies. But we were pleased with the proof-of-concept results; we saw that the rehearsal approach resulted in striking accelerated learning in early tests used with virtual worlds. However, getting the benefits on commercial scale required a virtual world platform specifically for that purpose.
Therefore, in 2015, we began to build our own world. This has worked much better because it was built to work with our technologies and designed specifically to rehearse and evaluate complex business on a world-wide basis with teams across the globe. It hosts large multi-player teams seamlessly on a cloud server. We have some environments that are 50 square miles or larger and which are Oculus™ ready. We also developed a world economy and a map. All our “companies” are located somewhere in this “world” and have the economic features of those regions as context. The link of all activity to a financial or performance outcome is a key differentiator of our worlds and our value. This is built into the platform.
This has proven to remove any constraints to making very powerful simulated environments normally seen with virtual worlds, and most important, made the rehearsal approach and enabling technologies scalable and cloud based.
We think the problems of many companies are very similar and that lower cost, scalable versions of our worlds will provide tremendous value. We like the idea that many more people can access our science and attain greater success.
What have you done so far?
We created and are creating products for accelerating project management expertise for the Project Management Institute. In tests last year with about 700 people world-wide, we proved that advanced project management skill that normally takes years to develop can be developed in weeks. This year we are conducting focused pilots with 12 corporations.
What’s next with those efforts?
Currently, we have other “generic” rehearsals under development, mainly in the “wicked problems” area and mergers and acquisitions. There is significant interest in the M&A rehearsal because of the high failure rate. We expect success similar to what we saw with the PMI product. Early versions have been pre-piloted with about 100 people so far.
What do you predict for the future?
I think we have come full circle with the development of virtual worlds that are cloud based and multi-player. Human beings used to learn only through experience for more than 100,000 years; it’s part of our DNA. Virtual worlds now offer the means to do that again, only this time without risk to actual companies or people. However, the principle is the same. When properly designed as “smart places”, virtual worlds are experienced much more like real life and much less like a computer than anything else we have seen used for education or business improvement.
The CEO, President and Director of Research is Lia DiBello, M.A. Ph.D. is well-known and extensively published in the field of cognitive science and accelerating expertise in business. Her mentor was the late distinguished Professor Sylvia Scribner, pioneer in cognitive research on workplace skill and author of many now classic works. DiBello has been affiliated with University of California, (Assistant professor) CUNY Graduate School (Principal Investigator), and IBM Research. She has been recognized as a thought leader by her peers in accelerated learning and the assessment of experts. Currently, she is contributing the “Business Expertise” section of the Oxford University Handbook of Expertise Research, which will be released in 2018.
The Vice President & Senior Technologist is E. Sterling Chamberlain III. is a former Technology Lead for New York City Transit, and a National Transit Institute Fellow for his work on operational simulations. His contributions to virtual world business solutions and the automation of cognitive science applications have won him numerous awards in recent years as well as recognition in the virtual world and business community. He leads the team of developers who develop and maintain the FutureView™ Suite of tools supporting WTRI’s solutions.
The Vice President & COO is David M. Lehmann Ph.D., P.E., CIRM, a former senior executive with Worthington, Sunoco, GE and Caterpillar Inc., with experience in strategy development and business investment, research and product development, engineering, operations, supply chain innovations, Enterprise Resource Planning, and sales and marketing. Caterpillar won the Malcolm Baldridge award under his leadership. Most recently, he was inducted into the Alumni Hall of Fame at the Peter Drucker School at Claremont University, in recognition of his Ph.D. thesis on leadership.