How will changes in higher education affect the development of VHRD?

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Advances in Developing Human Resources

12(6) 728 –741 © 2010 SAGE Publications

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DOI: 10.1177/1523422310394796

ADH394796 ADHR12610.1177/1523422310394796BennettAdvances in Developing Human Resources

1Tufts University and Baystate Health

Corresponding Author: Elisabeth E. Bennett, Baystate Health, 280 Chestnut St., Springfield, MA 01199 Email:

The Coming Paradigm Shift: Synthesis and Future Directions for Virtual HRD

Elisabeth E. Bennett1


Virtual human resource development (VHRD) is beginning to be viewed in other fields as the next generation of knowledge management. This article synthesizes the discussions of the contributing authors for this issue of Advances, describes future trends, and serves as a call to the field of HRD to develop and study VHRD. VHRD symbolizes a paradigm shift that will grow in a chaotic fashion at first as it integrates with present practices and systems, but it will become increasingly central to organizational life because of its ability to foster creativity and maximize knowledge flow. This article presents a heuristic for transferring learning that occurs in virtual environments outside organizational boundaries to professional work and organizational processes. Future directions for research and practice in VHRD include new roles for HRD professionals, particularly that of architects of virtual learning environments, the need to build theory for VHRD and to study the impact of new technologies.


virtual HRD, VHRD, learning transfer, workforce development, knowledge management

The articles in this issue of Advances have explored virtual human resource develop- ment (VHRD) from a number of different perspectives and viewpoints. In the Foreword, Short (2010) asked how VHRD will transform practice and McWhorter (2010) raised the question of whether VHRD represents a paradigm shift given the vast array of new

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technologies that have brought the field of HRD into a new realm. Nafukho, Graham, and Muyia (2010) identified technology as the primary force behind a coming para- digm shift, one that Bennett and Bierema (2010) suggested will best thrive in a deli- cate balance between structure and spontaneity.

VHRD has been variously considered (a) an environment (Bennett, 2009; Bennett & Bierema, 2010), (b) a process (Huang, Han, Park, & Seo, 2010), and (c) a construct (Mancuso, Chlup, & McWhorter, 2010), all of which emphasize the interconnections of people and technology. As a new area of inquiry, scholars are wrestling with how to describe the nature and structure of VHRD as well as the best way to prepare for the coming paradigm shift. In addition, as this issue was about to go to press, an article on VHRD was published in a new computer science journal, which should serve to punc- tuate the call to action for HRD. From an international perspective, Hanandi and Grimaldi (2010) advanced VHRD as the next generation of knowledge management systems. Although they discussed the importance of learning, they view VHRD from a management perspective, seeking to delegate creativity (if this is even possible) and produce precision in planning and managerial guidelines for sharing knowledge in an organization. This development provides evidence that HRD must claim VHRD; oth- erwise other fields may design dynamic constraints (Bennett & Bierema, 2010) into organizational technology that may undermine our practices.

From the discussions in the articles, one can conclude that VHRD does not unseat the traditional purposes of HRD but rather shifts perspective on the paradigm in which HRD operates. The purpose of this article is to synthesize the perspectives represented by the authors and identify future directions for Virtual HRD. The article offers discus- sion about the growing need for VHRD, synthesizes ideas and future trends, describes a heuristic for virtual organizational learning transfer in VHRD, and concludes with implications for practice and research.

A Growing Need for VHRD Technology is essential for VHRD and it plays a significant role in helping the field of HRD change and adapt to demographic shifts in the labor forces, restructuring of higher education, and the pressures of global competition. The anticipated effect of aging baby boomers is now well known, and generational differences are discussed in this issue. What has not been addressed is a restructuring of higher education that will affect employers in the near future.

Similar to the recent housing bubble burst, Cronin and Horton (2009) wrote that higher education has been overvalued and its corresponding market is likely to burst when the financial model (including taxpayer subsidies) becomes unsustainable. The result may be a restructuring of higher education. The burst will be more significant if, and when, employers no longer require a bachelor’s degree for entry-level profes- sional positions, such as general managers, because of the widespread availability of free learning on the Internet and alternative paths to an educated workforce.

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According to Davenport and Prusack (2000), the U.S. educational system does not produce a high number of knowledge-oriented employees; those that are good at applying knowledge. As technology becomes more embedded in new work environ- ments, employers are increasingly seeking employees whose skill set can evolve and develop quickly in an environment of rapid-fire change. As a result, employers may place more emphasis on screening applicants for essential competencies and for the ability to learn, rather than on screening by degree completion. Many higher education credentials will still be important but some professions may be better served by a com- bination of national exams and on-the-job learning.

Christensen, Horn, and Johnson (2008) indicated the United States is falling behind in science and technology because prosperity has weakened extrinsic incentives to achieve in these disciplines. The current system of higher education is unsustainable if new graduates carry a staggeringly high debt load as a way to finance education but cannot find high wage positions or if they become unemployed during periods of eco- nomic downturn. Corporate universities have arisen in response to the need to train employees within the culture and process of an organization (Christensen et al., 2008) and they are likely to become even more important as organizations adjust to projected changes in the workforce and because of global competition. Corporate universities, and other educational programs, will continue to be important to employers and such programs need to be supported in VHRD; however, VHRD is larger than technology for training since it mediates social interaction, which requires us to take into account the ineffable human element in organizations.

The Ineffable Human Element The articles in this issue demonstrate there is an ineffable, often indescribable, ele- ment to humans that is of high value to organizations for creativity, judgment, inter- pretation, approachability, and continuous learning. High touch is important in HRD; Swanson and Holton (2001) recognized that a major challenge for organizations in the 21st century is to develop a workforce that has the interpersonal skills to relate to clients in a responsive and engaging way even while implementing new technologies for greater speed and efficiency. Because technology can sometimes seem cold, aloof, or insensitive, the richness of the human element that people bring to VHRD is essen- tial. It is the intricate dance of people learning, producing, and innovating together that makes work worthwhile, satisfying, and engaging.

Technology offers greater speed, efficiency, and connection across space and time; however, it does not replace the organic nature of organizations. The ineffable human element creates the intangible assets that Nafukho et al. (2010) described as critical for organizational success. These assets may be recognized, optimized, and fostered in VHRD but we also must pay attention to the impact of virtual work on people, and the intangible assets, to understand successful development of VHRD. Most importantly, we must ensure that creativity is not managed out of technology by heavy-handed management tactics that provide disincentives for knowledge sharing. Rather, HRD

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professionals must seek to understand what makes virtual work satisfying, engaging, and supportive of creative processes. Telecommuting is one aspect that provides a lens through which to view the future impact of virtual work on people.

Why Choose Virtual Work? Telecommuting as a Lens for VHRD Telecommuting has been a viable option in some professions for decades and it pro- vides insight into issues and challenges in virtual work and virtual organizations. Computer programming, call centers, and sales are examples of professions that were early to adopt virtual work because much of the work could be accomplished by tele- phone. Now, most professionals engage in some type of technology-mediated work that presents both advantages.

The use of email in the workplace, for example, has the advantage of quick digital communication and information sharing. However, it has simultaneously added an infor- mation management burden when the volume becomes overwhelming. In addition, reli- ance on email presents a danger of increased burnout as some employees may not truly find downtime from work duties. Technology now enables people more freedom to make alternative choices regarding the flow and location of their work. However, this freedom does not come without limitations. A look at the downsides of telecommuting helps us understand potential concerns in VHRD and the management of work stress.

Stephens and Szajna (1998) raised concerns about whether telecommuting could lead to exploitation of people if organizations couple the “benefit” with reduced pay and insurance, or treat them differently than traditional employees. Adapted in Table 1 are advantages and disadvantages they outlined for telecommuting. The authors noted that a worker who is telecommuting often exchanges one set of distractions for another set. In this situation, an individual must choose what is right for his or her best work. In some cases, such as with autonomy, a factor can represent both an advantage and a disadvantage. For example, some people may thrive when they have greater auton- omy, whereas others may become aimless or feel abandoned. Virtual workers need to practice a degree of self-direction and persistence (Colky, Colky, & Young, 2002) which is also likely to be the case in VHRD.

Table 1. Aspects of Telecommuting adapted from Stephens and Szajna (1998)

Advantages Disadvantages

Flexibility Role conflict Reduced distraction Isolation Autonomy Autonomy Better commute Lack of visibility Away from office politics Interfering household responsibilities Time for family activities Less opportunity for feedback Increased control of work day Increased personal expense

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A recent editorial by Morris (2008), described the increased levels of stress in the modern era due, in part, to globalization and the gap between the need for knowledge workers and the knowledge deficits in the labor pool. He noted that stress is connected to the sophistication of modern technology. Stressors include the inability to keep up with the pace of technology changes, feelings of frustration about the intrusiveness of work into personal lives, and damage to physical and social health. These problems affect turnover, error rates, and family relations. The field of HRD must ensure that VHRD does not add to workplace stress but rather allows for greater confluence of work and learning, free of some of the typical frustrations of telecommuting.

Although many of the technologies discussed in this issue promise powerful results for organizations, the field of HRD must reaffirm a commitment to employee well- being in virtual settings. Ethical conduct and trustworthiness play a critical role in determining the existence, survival, and further development of virtual organizations in the global marketplace (Grydzewski, Hejduk, Snkowsda, & Wantuchowicz, 2008) and so we must ensure VHRD grows congruently with our accepted ethical codes of conduct and best practices. To further the discussion of VHRD, the next section exam- ines trends across the articles in this issue.

Synthesis of Trends in VHRD As a general trend, most authors in this issue recognized that a balance must be struck between formal and informal aspects of virtual work and learning. Weick (1979) noted that formal structure is overlaid or superimposed on the existing social interactions in an organization. VHRD is not only an overlay but a primary mediator of social inter- action in present-day organizational life, which is another general trend in this issue. This section addresses trends in three categories: learning and performance, design, and measurement and impact of VHRD.

Learning and Performance Learning and performance have always been critical aspects of HRD. Several authors in this issue described the role of adult learning in VHRD (Chapman & Stone, 2010; Mancuso et al., 2010). Employees are able to learn and communicate within VHRD technology and so there will be more opportunities for informal learning that enhance the flow of knowledge. Understanding how adults learn in a virtual workspace will be a critical part of HRD, perhaps even more than in the past because knowledge is a primary economic driver in knowledge society (Bennett & Bell, 2010). The need for learning will not go away in the coming paradigm shift to VHRD but rather it will become even more recognizable and valued.

VHRD emphasizes the creation of an environment that improves performance through formal and informal learning (Bennett, 2009). Greater realism and social pres- ence in virtual environments evoke informal learning (Bennett, 2011), and this incor- poration of presence, coupled with social learning, makes learning in virtual environments

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more authentic and readily applicable to real-life performance (Chapman & Stone, 2010). There likely will be a reciprocal effect between learning and performance in VHRD. As organizations are better able to connect learning with performance, perfor- mance standards may be reinvented according to new knowledge and skills that employees acquire on the fly. New knowledge and skills may be unanticipated but useful nonetheless.

Yoon and Lim (2010) noted that e-learning in VHRD is larger than e-training. VHRD is predicated heavily on informal learning, which includes self-initiated (Yoon & Lim) or self-directed (Mancuso et al., 2010) learning. Mancuso et al. further described a steep learning curve for adults in virtual worlds, and a similar learning curve is likely to be found where VHRD is complex and media rich. According to Yoon and Lim, VHRD can be built with a definable learning and performance archi- tecture, which leads the discussion to design in VHRD.

Design Design and development of VHRD will likely be chaotic at first, especially as orga- nizational members work on discrete applications before taking into account how they integrate into the larger system. Similar to Davenport and Prusack’s (2000) perspec- tive on knowledge management implementation, how VHRD is integrated with other systems and processes will be idiosyncratic, starting with areas that are most impor- tant to an organization’s culture such as accounting, research and development, engi- neering, or customer service. Bennett and Bierema (2010) recommended addressing issues of diversity and equity in the design of VHRD. In addition, VHRD needs to be culturally relevant to be most effective (Bennett, 2009) and design will include formal and informal structures, such as Web 2.0 capabilities that allow employees to add and alter content.

Chapman and Stone (2010) noted that cultural relevance of a 3D virtual world depends on how it was designed, and the level of relevancy would likely have a direct impact on performance improvement. The leading edge of VHRD will be virtual world software that is pulled in-house, protecting the core organization, its proprietary knowledge, and internal communication while utilizing the capability of virtual worlds for multidimensional immersive learning and collaboration. Second Life®, for exam- ple, has developed an enterprise edition that can manage up to 700 avatars simultane- ously logged in behind a company’s firewall (Wagner, 2009), which is a fascinating place to activate and study organizational learning. Organizational learning occurs when individual learning crystallizes into organizational structures (Watkins, 1996) and this may be very evident in a virtual world.

Nafukho et al. (2010) addressed how VHRD can be designed to promote knowl- edge assets. VHRD can also aid talent development by building competencies into the design, according to Yoon and Lim (2010). The element of fun may also be introduced into the virtual work environment through the use of avatars and games. Huang et al. (2010) added serious games to the discussion, describing ways that VHRD can be

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planned to improve results and protect employees from cognitive overload. Their GAPP system includes a theory layer, which could be adapted to include different forms of learning theories. For example, one could design in experiential learning tenets (Kolb, 1984) that allow a learner to engage actively in an encounter and use reflective tools or prompts, such as journaling, to enhance understanding and further experimentation. Competencies and knowledge assets that are built into VHRD neces- sitate ways to measure impact.

Measurement and Impact Authors in this issue identified methods for measuring learning outcomes and the impact of VHRD. Competencies built into VHRD should be evaluated, especially when they foster alignment of learning and job performance, or what Huang et al. (2010) called “empirical alignment”. A strict alignment should be approached with caution, though. There are times that learning should be purposefully disconnected from job performance evaluations so that learners feel safe to practice and make mis- takes in a formative way. Summative performance evaluations raise the stakes for employees, and thus raise anxiety to levels where they become a barrier to learning. Juxtaposing the need to measure impact against best approaches for learning calls for good judgment.

Creating methods for measuring learning and impact in VHRD may drive new approaches to evaluation. Yoon and Lim (2010) noted that applying existing develop- ment and evaluation processes to virtual learning would cause failure. Rubrics and other qualitative tools are commonly used to address authentic learning in virtual envi- ronments (Chapman & Stone, 2010), and are methods that can be used in VHRD. These are more likely to be at the individual level of learning, but Nafukho et al. (2010) provided methods for measuring intellectual capital and knowledge assets of the organization. Some of these methods of evaluation were also identified by Hanandi and Grimaldi (2010) as critical to integrate into VHRD from a knowledge management perspective. Knowledge assets may be grown through internal development but con- sideration must be given to how knowledge assets grow through external influences.

Organizations are open systems (Swanson & Holton, 2001) and knowledge flows into an organization when employees learn outside the organizational boundaries. To address this knowledge flow, the next section presents a heuristic for conceptualizing how learning can be transferred from external sources and systems to the organization in VHRD.

Heuristic for Organizational Learning Transfer in VHRD The authors in this issue identified fundamental matters of learning, development, and performance in VHRD. It is important to note that an essential difference between general virtual learning and VHRD exists. In VHRD, learning is put to a constructive

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purpose for the professional and the organization; thus, the mission of the organiza- tion must remain an essential component of the discussion. Given that employees learn both informally and formally outside of the bounds of the organization, a heuristic for transferring that learning to organizational learning within VHRD helps conceptu- alize the process.

The discussion of transfer of learning in HRD often involves changing behavior to improve job performance through the application of knowledge and skills (Swanson & Holton, 2001). Based on training transfer literature, Holton, Bates and Ruona (2000) advanced the term “transfer system,” meaning “all the factors in the person, training, and the organization that influence transfer of learning to job performance” (pp. 335-336). Their perspective is focused more so on job performance than organizational learning. Incorporating the idea that learning is more than training, the question arises of where to draw the line between personal learning and HRD. For example, is it HRD when a person takes a website design workshop at a community college on her own time and for leisure purposes, and then later volunteers for a project that involves building a new departmental intranet page at work so that she can try out her newly acquired personal skills? This is certainly an example of organizational learning if she embeds her new knowledge into the organization’s internal network, even if it is not strictly what is commonly considered HRD. VHRD may speed up the transfer of external learning to the organization.

The Internet provides new opportunities for formal and informal professional development and networking, many of which are outside of traditional training depart- ments and other organizational boundaries. Employees may search the Internet for ideas and solutions to new problems. The transferal of learning in these cases may be immediate or so significantly delayed by time that an employee cannot trace the source of the idea. We often think of training transfer as drawing a straight line between a training event and a specific performance act. In this new era of knowledge work, the path of learning-to-performance may be quite circuitous and unpredictable, given the ineffable human element necessary for creativity and inspiration. It is also due to the sometimes unconscious nature of informal learning (Bennett, 2011).

The heuristic reflects three types of transfer of virtual learning to the organization. Virtual learning transfers to the work environment and shapes it by adding to the knowledge, skills, and perspectives people hold, whether or not it is connected to spe- cific or desired behavioral change. Similar to Royer’s idea of near and far transfer (1979), which calls attention to the distance or gap between learning and job perfor- mance, I envision three types of learning transfer from the external virtual environ- ment to the organization. Although this heuristic can be applied to nonvirtual learning, it is helpful for identifying how external learning effects changes in and through VHRD. Table 2 describes three types of organizational learning transfer in the heuris- tic, which are proximal, intermediate, and distal.

Proximal transfer occurs when organizations build direct linkages to external resources for learning, either directing employees to the resources or connecting them directly by linking the organization’s Intranet to the Internet. The linkage is deliberate

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and done according to specific aims for training, development, and knowledge net- working. For example, an instructor may build a training program in SecondLife®, utilizing the capabilities of the virtual world to fulfill learning objectives directly con- nected to organizational strategy and job competencies. In this case, the organization is highly likely to provide instructions for accessing and using the site, as well as iden- tify explicit expectations of the employee. A direct linkage would become part of the transfer system described by Holton, Baldwin, and Ruona (2000).

Intermediate transfer occurs on an ad hoc basis, typically because employees are inspired to search for ways to solve new problems or managers suggest using external resources. For example, a professional may post a question to a knowledge network to see what solutions others have discovered. Because this activity occurs as the need arises, the technical resources needed are not necessarily part of a direct and pre- planned organizational strategy but are strategic in an impromptu way. In another example, a marketing professional may search the Internet for a competitor’s past product advertisements and then use this information to recommend a different approach for a given client. Learning that is shared about the competitor and how well this tactic worked may be posted to a team blog, which can serve as a reference for future projects.

Distal transfer is learning that is furthest from explicit organizational strategy but it still influences how people work and perform. It is also more likely to involve per- sonal learning as well as professional learning. Tacit knowledge built from external

Table 2. Organizational Learning Transfer Heuristic for VHRD

Proximal Intermediate Distal

The organization opens direct portals or links to online resources, training programs, virtual worlds, and knowledge networks. Learning may be supported by written goals or terms of use. The proximal approach directly extends professional development activities into these environments as part of a deliberate strategy for learning and development. Learning is both explicit and tacit, although explicit learning is more likely to be identified as important for success of a strategy.

As needs arise, organizations and individual professionals interact with online resources, training programs, virtual worlds, and knowledge networks for learning and skill development. The intermediate approach is more likely to be an ad hoc strategy for solving organizational needs. Employees may explicitly mention these resources as a source of ideas and solutions to problems. Learning is both explicit and tacit but may not be comprehensive.

Professionals participate in online resources, training opportunities (e.g., free webinars), virtual worlds, and knowledge networks out of personal interest in the resources but not stemming from an overt organizational strategy. Learning that occurs is less likely to be explicitly connected to organizational strategy but it still impacts work and job performance. Explicit learning may be in the form of citing discrete facts but tacit learning is likely to be a greater influence.

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learning experiences should be highly influential but not easily recognizable. For example, a person may learn how to navigate a virtual world and this affects sugges- tions he makes for a corporate webpage redesign at a very implicit level. This type of transfer is supported by Davenport and Prusack’s (2000) notion of embedded knowl- edge, which is knowledge that is structured into a process and, therefore, becomes part of the company’s fund of knowledge that is relatively independent of the knower. The development of schemas, assumptions, mental models, navigational techniques, and other knowledge created through experiential learning, impact work performance even when they are not linked directly to organizational strategy. It is important to note that distal learning transfer can also introduce hidden error when employees transfer flawed knowledge or introduce techniques that will not work in the particular context of an organization.

Although authors commonly cite that only about 10% of learning is transferred to job performance (Holton & Baldwin, 2003), the transfer heuristic proposed here helps us envision a higher percentage and a greater number of sources for learning transfer. Given that transfer is more likely to occur when it is connected to an organization’s process and reward systems (Holton & Baldwin, 2003), transfer should be more effec- tive in VHRD when it is integrated into reward processes in human resource manage- ment systems (Bennett & Bierema, 2010). The transfer forms in the heuristic are neither good nor bad in and of themselves but rather lead to variable outcomes and consequences. They should be considered value-neutral. In the following section, this article addresses implications for research and practice in VHRD.

Implications for Research and Practice VHRD is shifting the roles and related skills of HRD practitioners, particularly as they become architects of virtual environments. Practitioners must be ambassadors that encourage the wise use of technology, know the limitations of technology, and foster the persistence employees must have in order to find lasting solutions rather than surface fixes that are available on the Internet. HRD will likely become more team based and interdisciplinary so that learning and development (both individual and organizational) are fully supported in VHRD. HRD as a field will need to acquire a shared vocabulary with computer science professionals as both fields delve into VHRD. Collaborations will most likely begin with the vocabulary of knowledge man- agement and human capital, but a significant contribution that HRD brings to the table is the language of learning and development.

To address changes in the workforce, succession planning and talent development are imperatives for at least the next 10 years, and it is hard to imagine these processes not involving VHRD. Integrated systems can track the readiness of employees to assume the next level of leadership, and lifestyle-friendly virtual technologies may be able to help retain women and older workers, which Morris (2008) stated are critical for companies to maintain competitive advantage, yet are often lost when they make career limiting choices because of family obligations. According to Lengnick-Hall and

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Lengnick-Hall (2003), human resource professionals will need to assume new roles as human capital stewards, knowledge facilitators, rapid deployment specialists—including the management of physical and psychology borders of an organization—and relation- ship builders (p. 171).

Because VHRD is nascent, there is a tremendous need for empirical research to establish best practices and measure outcomes. It is also important to study how tech- nology is changing organizational design and the meaning of work. In addition, Short (2010) stated that the field of HRD has an opportunity to build theory. Qualitative research is particularly important for understanding the informal learning of VHRD (Yoon & Lim, 2010) and the motivational factors described by Huang et al. (2010). Quantitative research will help test newly built theories, measure relationships among variables, track activity patterns, and validate instruments in VHRD. Below is a sam- ple of questions for future VHRD research based on the ideas proposed in this issue:

• Are the interactive, spatial, and multimedia features in virtual technologies changing the way people think and behave, particularly members of the new- est generations of adults?

• How will mobile technologies affect the workforce and the development of VHRD, particularly for global companies and developing countries?

• What is the best way to develop Generation X through VHRD to assume leadership and address coming workforce challenges?

• How can VHRD foster creativity? • What new ethical dilemmas and best practices will be found in VHRD? • How can serious gaming foster achievement for competitive advantage in

science, technology, engineering and math fields, and other essential disci- plines?

• How will changes in higher education affect the development of VHRD? • What impact does distal transfer of learning have on organizational health

and success? • How will immersive technologies alter organizational communication and


Concluding Thoughts As an exploratory issue of Advances, there are many areas of VHRD yet to be discov- ered. HRD as a field needs to broaden the dialogue of how technology is affecting practice and research, especially given that the future holds significant workforce challenges. HRD often holds career development, training and development, and organizational development as essential components of practice; however, it is now time to integrate technology development as a critical fourth component.

Building expertise is one of the central purposes of VHRD (Bennett, 2009) and the addition of technology development will help the field “unleash the power of human expertise” (Swanson & Holton, 2001). The human side of organizations has the ability

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to mesh with the power of technology in VHRD, representing a paradigm shift already underway. Articles in this issue contributed toward understanding trends in the future of VHRD. Although the landscape is changing as a result of VHRD, HRD still needs to have its feet firmly planted on the ground to break out into cyberspace (Willis, 1996), and perhaps bring cyberspace in-house.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the authorship and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research and/or authorship of this article.