Infrastructure // PC & Servers
Commentary
2/22/2008
12:51 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
Commentary
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Turning Work Into Play Is No Game

It sounds like techno-utopian silliness to say that businesses need to learn from online games how to make tedious knowledge-work more enjoyable. But many knowledge-work jobs are so deadly dull that the typical worker lasts just nine months -- in call centers, for example. Extend that by a few months, and businesses stand to save piles of money, said Byron Reeves, a professor in the department of communication at Stanford University.

It sounds like techno-utopian silliness to say that businesses need to learn from online games how to make tedious knowledge-work more enjoyable. But many knowledge-work jobs are so deadly dull that the typical worker lasts just nine months -- in call centers, for example. Extend that by a few months, and businesses stand to save piles of money, said Byron Reeves, a professor in the department of communication at Stanford University."If we can figure out how to entertain a couple of thousand call center representatives with guilds and quests and they stay on the job three months longer than the nine-month average, we'd have a hundred-million-dollar business," Reeves said.

Reeves spoke at a panel at Metaverse U, a two-day conference about virtual worlds hosted at Stanford University this past weekend. The panel was billed as a "conversation," and was loosely themed on the subject of virtual worlds and work.

Making work more fun doesn't necessarily mean doing it in a multiplayer online game like World of Warcraft. But it does mean that businesses need to take some of the techniques games like Warcraft use to make repetitive work fun, and apply them to repetitive work in businesses with call-center operators, or watching surveillance video, or categorizing and filing documents, or any jobs that make extensive use of SAP or Oracle enterprise applications. "When you ask people what it's like to work with that kind of software, it's dull. It's tragically boring," Reeves said.

But coming up with the proper incentives programs will be hard, said Christian Renaud, chief architect for networked virtual environments for the Cisco Technology Center. "How many companies know themselves well enough to know what they want to incent and disincent?" Renaud said. And how many companies can build a game of their business model that would help improve the company without employees gaming the system (so to speak) -- swapping favors and evolving strategies to maximize the game score without maximizing business value.

(I'm going to drop my own thoughts here in parentheses throughout this blog. And my thought here is that the problem Renaud outlines is nothing new. Employees already game their performance reviews extensively, using techniques such as "office politics" and "sucking up to the boss.")

"There's an old saying that if work was fun the rich would keep it for themselves," said Reuben Steiger, CEO of Millions of Us, an agency that builds advertising presences for big companies in virtual worlds like Second Life. "We need to find ways to make this kind of work less oppressive -- make it fun."

Another problem that virtual worlds can help solve: Isolation of remote workers. Renaud works in an Iowa home office for a company based in San Jose, Calif. He said that virtual worlds can replace the hallway encounters and water-cooler conversations where most work in a company gets done. "You can bump into people serendipitously in a virtual world," Renaud said.

Renaud said he is baffled why companies are leaving Second Life. "I get a chance to talk to a trade show's worth of people for a tenth of the cost of a trade show, all the time," he said. "Second Life is for any company that has customers." Renaud added that he frequently has random encounters in Second Life with Cisco customers. "In 12 years, I've never had a random encounter with a customer in the Cisco parking lot," he said. (We wrote about Cisco's Second Life initiatives in April.)

You can't have those kinds of encounters with videoconferencing or telepresence, Renaud said. "I've done those Hollywood Squares or Brady Bunch videoconferences, where everyone is three pixels by three pixels. They're useless. At that point, give me an avatar."

Cisco sells videoconferencing and telepresence equipment, and views virtual worlds as complementary.

Virtual worlds already are being used for collaboration by small businesses, Steiger said.

The advantage to that kind of collaboration, from an enterprise perspective, is that it's cheap, Steiger said. The disadvantages: It's a hosted solution -- you can't bring Second Life in-house behind a firewall, at least not yet, although Linden Lab is talking about developing a hosted solution and open-sourcing its server software.

Ironically, Steiger's company, Millions of Us, isn't a distributed organization. All but four of the company's 38 employees work in the company's Sausalito, Ca., headquarters. They found that remote workers were more likely to be "unhappy" and "prone to meltdowns," Steiger said.

(I haven't noticed this problem, and I've worked for distributed organizations, which included home-office workers located all over the United States, for nearly 20 years now.)

Virtual worlds foster collaboration at a distance, Renaud said. "We can collaborate on complex tasks in World of Wacraft -- why can't we collaborate on product designs with the same people?" he said.

Online games teach us lessons in how people learn, Renaud said. Watching a person learn to play a game, you see them fail over and over and over again until they get it right. Their character or avatar "dies," and comes back, and the player rushes through levels, trying to kill the same monster or solve the same puzzle until they succeed. We need to build that kind of forgiveness into business, giving people "permission to fail," because the benefits of success far outweigh the cost of repeated small failures, he said.

Steiger cautioned against assuming that virtual worlds in the enterprise are inevitable. Research departments in big corporations assume virtual worlds are inevitable -- but research departments are small and underfunded. When research departments talk about the drawbacks of virtual worlds, they talk about at details like shared whiteboarding and additional security. But if you talk to IT managers in big companies, they're late adopters, and not even thinking about virtual worlds. "They say things like, 'We just started using WebEx last year, how does this replace that?'"

Virtual worlds evangelists have done a bad job of explaining the payoff to skeptics, Renaud said. "I think we have some work to do to distill the enthusiasm into tangible value."

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