Press Start to Play: Why virtual reality has a place in the boardroom

9th March 2017

Today’s business leaders have grown up in the golden age of gaming. As we delve further into the 21st century, more C-suite executives will have spent their formative years at the helm of a games console, and this upcoming generation of leaders will bring with it an unprecedented level of digital understanding. In contrast, the average age of a board member in the UK today is 57, meaning they would have been 12 years old when Pong came out. This represents an important ongoing change in the dynamics and attitudes within the boardroom.

It’s a change that goes beyond the technological competency of board members, to include the way in which they interact with information. This means that new, engaging technologies such as virtual reality (VR) can become a leader’s favourite gadget; creating immersive digital landscapes that allow users to interact with business-critical data in a completely new way.

The neurology of risk

As humans, our understanding of the world around us is not just learned, it is something that has evolved over centuries, primarily to help us identify and react to visual cues – movement, shapes and patterns. This is evident when looking to our ancestral roots, with hunters scanning their immediate environments and applying the ‘fight or flight’ mentality to any potential hazards. The key to our survival as a race has depended upon our ability to extract risk-based data from our surroundings.

However, when it comes to business, we have instead chosen to assess risk through a linear display of digits within a spreadsheet. Not only is this limiting, it is also – evolutionarily speaking – alien. VR is a vastly more natural interface. It presents us with significantly more data points than traditional methods, enabling us to put millennia of training to good use and, ultimately, make better, more informed decisions.

Moving away from spreadsheet-based information towards a new technology is a big step for those who rely on data for critical insights. However, the new generation of business leaders will have the digital appetite to do so, and others will be duty bound to follow.

An ocean of data

An integral part of the VR offering is that it utilises comprehensive metaphors to instantly convey rich, complex data to the user. Imagine, for instance, that you’re standing on the ocean floor. All of your surroundings signify crucial statistics about your business – shoals of fish could represent benign groups of stakeholders. Sharks could represent hostile parties that pose risk to the business. Meanwhile, the coral reef could represent the underlying reputation of the company and how it is perceived – perhaps thriving or struggling. From one glimpse of this ecosystem, a board member can gain a full understanding of the position of the business. The user can break down the environment to as granular a level as they wish, achieving in several moments what would take several hours of intense spreadsheet work.

Enter The Matrix

But VR systems offer more than just data-led fact-finding. This new technology also provides detailed insight into the immediacy of any threats faced by the company, prompting action faster than any spreadsheet. Looking at risk through the lens of a spreadsheet can seem almost comforting; the rows and columns of dry data can restrain any sense of ‘real’ urgency and lull us into a false sense of security.

Now let’s translate the same data into a virtual environment, where for example, the decision maker finds themselves standing on the edge of a precipice; the slightest nudge will tip them over the edge into oblivion. From this precarious standpoint, it is possible to fully appreciate the extent of the risk. Back in the real world, there’s no doubt that this experience will have encouraged urgent action to mitigate the immediate threats.

Using VR in the boardroom not only helps users to visualise key aspects of their business and the environment around them, but it can pluck them out of their comfort zone and perhaps even give them vertigo. What happens inside the headset can inspire business leaders to act fast – and decisively – to head off or minimise the threats they face in reality.

Today, up and coming business leaders may find themselves concerned more with finance than Frogger, but digital natives – equipped with digital know-how and their vision of a digitally-enabled business – will soon be dragging the boardroom into the 21st century. As the most exciting technology currently making the crossover from the consumer to the business world, VR is going to play a significant part in that.