I recently blogged about the success of virtual worlds for kids, and the impact this will (or, rather, won’t) have on such sites in the enterprise. And it got a lot of feedback, mainly from people who feel that there is a significant role for virtual worlds in the workplace.
To be clear, virtual worlds are not the same thing as social networking sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, which I fully embrace as tools that can support the virtual workplace. More on those in the weeks to come. For now, I want to clarify my point about the enterprise value of virtual worlds such as Second Life.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the people who contacted me in support of such sites work for technology companies (one who posted a comment on Collaboration Loop works for a “competitor of IBM”; another specializes in online learning through the use of Second Life; and all who sent me e-mail on the subject work in the industry in one way or another). Personal interest in Second Life and its brethren aside, people who work for technology companies tend to be biased about the use of technology—they like it in all its geeked-out forms.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And certain elements of a virtual world can indeed be valuable in the enterprise. As the IBM competitor noted, 3D layouts of office buildings would be useful—but, I would argue, not so much while you’re having a virtual meeting as when you go to visit an unfamiliar office in person.
Likewise, interacting in unique and personal ways can go a long way toward building relationships, as the Second Life poster said, and relationship-building is certainly important to any effective collaboration environment. Indeed, there’s not much point in building networks if you don’t form relationships within them. (This is true for technology, too; the network doesn’t matter—what matters is what you can do with it.)
The assumption is that virtual worlds help build those relationships because they’re fun, and anytime people have fun, they tend to feel better about the other people they’re having fun with. This is why companies offer real-world retreats that include cocktail hours and 18 holes of golf. (There are other ways to build relationships that might not be so much fun, such as hiking in the woods for a week without food or shelter, a la Outward Bound, or fighting alongside comrades in a war zone, a la the military, but those are not what’s intended by virtual worlds, I don’t think.)
So there’s nothing wrong with injecting fun into the workplace to make everyone happier and more productive; we just need to make sure that the fun is really, well, fun. My concern is that most non-technical employees don’t really consider virtual worlds all that enjoyable. (A lot of us don’t consider 18 holes of golf all that enjoyable, either, but that’s another story.). So using them to build relationships won’t work—all it will do is frustrate those participants who aren’t interested in creating avatars and negotiating through 3-D images of the conference room they’re not really in. In the process, it might inadvertently lower the value of the technology.
A lot of the value to be found in virtual worlds can be delivered to employees without the bells and whistles, and in the process make them more productive. And that’s where social networking sites come in…
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