What's one of the worst tasks you can have in a business? In my experience, it's firing someone. At the absolute best, everyone is uncomfortable and unhappy. At worst, people break down in screaming and sobbing or even get violent.

You can get insurance for employees who disgrace themselves, but that doesn't help here. There are even consultants who fire people for you. Like an HR gunslinger.

Or, instead, you could turn to technology. Virtual reality can let you and others practice "soft skills" like firing Barry, the imaginary person that a virtual reality company called Talespin has created.

Barry reportedly follows a script, as does other training in sales, customer service, or providing employee feedback. In theory, you can run through the presented scenarios and learn to address various potential outcomes. But these aren't interactive in that sense. The avatar won't suddenly change its behavior in response to yours.

Also, while the art is very good, you're  clearly looking at a constructed entity and not something that looks and acts completely human. (It reminds me of an extremely good soft sculpture.)

An approach like this potentially could be combined with other technologies like Sofia the robot, which simulates emotion and is tied to an AI system that reportedly learns and changes responses with more experience. In theory it's all cheaper in application than hiring actual experts in house or bringing in knowledgeable consultants to do training and role playing.

Maybe the technology will one day prove useful, but not for some time, and that might mean many years. If, for no other reason, these simulations don't look human. You're also playing a game that becomes predictable and one that can't offer the same experience as human interaction. Reacting to an animated figure, whether physical or virtual, is still nothing like being faced with a live and unpredictable person. Just as going through scripted interactions on a page while speaking with people on the phone doesn't make for the most effective work. (Having done this at a young age in a sales room, I speak from experience.)

Among other things, the history of business is the promise of one technology after another that is supposed to revolutionize all of commerce and bring forth an era of greater effectiveness and lower cost.

We've seen these waves time and again, including systems to manage manufacturing, "paperless" offices, total quality management, the complete computerization of supply chains, gamefication, mobile everything, and more. The tools being pushed can be useful. But they get promoted by people interested in making sales or getting attention pontificating about what is to come.

Has the computer and software had massive impact on all aspects of business? Of course. Have you seen a company that can run without people or the live experience of dealing with them? No.

Perhaps that will happen one day, but in the meantime, business is people. You ultimately sell to them, buy from them, work with them. Many persons these days find communication, interaction, and (especially) confrontation difficult. Look at how many people dread placing or receiving a phone call and will do almost anything to instead rely on email, messaging, or texting. Forget in-person visits.

None of it is enough. Unless you have savant-like abilities that will let you sit in a remote cabin with a good Internet connection by yourself, people skills are a must. As of now, I'd be suspicious of assuming that you could learn them from a machine or script or anything short of experience with other an beings. Even in-person training has its limitations.

Forget trying to find a way to insulate yourself. If you want to be successful, however you define it (outside of a hermitage), you have to deal with people. Embrace it.

Published on: Aug 28, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.