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SJP Academy boss: We are using virtual reality to train future advisers

SJP Academy boss: We are using virtual reality to train future advisers
Andy Payne, head of St James’s Place Academy

While some may reasonably expect to get a textbook when joining an adviser school, trainees at St James’s Place Academy are equipped with a virtual reality headset as part of their arsenal.

Combined with artificial intelligence, the technology is part of the advice giant’s ‘new and improved’ academy led by head Andy Payne.

“Our partners and advisers coming through the academy can run role play interview scenarios with a virtual client. They can launch into a virtual interview scenario, role play questions and test responses,” says Payne.

“And then they can switch that interview so they become the client. So they’re the recipient of all of the questioning and all of that technique, so they can see the potential impact that they’re having, role-played in front of them.”

The technology enables trainees to practise how they would deal with say, a nervous or angry client, in a virtual environment akin to video game The Sims. But artificial intelligence results in a different outcome each time.

“You feel that you’re in a room with a person, and you’re getting real reactions to body language, and also tone as well as the questions that you’re asking,” says Payne.

“You can’t game it either. So it’s not like if you say this and you don’t get the response you want, you can reset it and think, ‘I’ll do it, and then if I say this I’ll get the response that I want.’

“It is truly artificial intelligence. You’ll get a different scenario, different outcome every time you go back in, even if it’s the same base scenario. You can do this 10 times and never get the same response.”

Another change that trainees will encounter is that the academy no longer operates a geographical structure centred on the four locations of Edinburgh, Manchester, London and Solihull – the last of which Payne joined St James’s Place to open.

Payne says the four academy offices work well, but adds the classroom-style training imposed a physical cap on the numbers that could be recruited through the academy, as well as creating “significant disruption” for some people who would want to join.

“You would have to make your way into one of four offices. It would be a deterrent for some, and it would make life difficult for others.

“We’re opening the academy now across all of our 22 locations, and most significantly our 2,500 partner practices.”

As a member of the wealth manager’s inclusion and diversity steering committee, the approach aligns with Payne’s ambition for the academy to be “for all”, citing the partnership’s role to present the academy as a realistic career choice for more people than it was probably perceived in the past.