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3/29/2007
01:40 PM
Melanie Turek
Melanie Turek
Commentary
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Here's a Thought: Not All End Users Love Technology

As part of an initiative to help developers use social networking to collaborate more effectively and accelerate the software development process, IBM has launched a 3-D area called “codestation” in the virtual world of Second Life. IBM is inviting developers to the Labyrinth Beta, a maze designed to help users test their scripting skills as they navigate through the maze as quickly as possible using a demo bot; they can then design their own bots and challenge other coders, to continue deepening their skills. Somewhat secondarily, it would seem, developers can also share code (and bots!) on the site.

According to a press release from IBM, “developers can explore how 3-D environments might revolutionize the software development process by encouraging developers to collaborate in a visual environment where they can share ideas and information for the betterment of the greater developer community.” But really, it’s gaming for fun and profit. IBM wants to encourage not just software development, but the development of certain skill sets and code; to get the best and brightest to play, the company is literally letting them… play.

IBM, of course, stands to gain all around. As a software vendor the company can benefit from both open source initiatives and specific code development, such as Sametime plug-ins; as a leader in the UC space, IBM wants to find ways for other companies to leverage social networking software in the enterprise.

But there’s a difference between using a 3-D environment to support business processes, and using a 3-D gaming environment to support business processes. I’m not persuaded that what IBM is doing today will revolutionize anything, although it may lead to some valuable knowledge sharing specific to this initiative (nothing wrong with that). Most companies don’t want to entice their employees to work by making it seem as though that work is actually play. And frankly, most employees don’t really want to play when what their supposed to be doing is work.

Which raises a point that is often overlooked by technologists, especially when they’re designing “new and improved” end user tools, or anything that promises to be paradigm-shifting, or (heaven forbid) both: The typical knowledge worker doesn’t want to play with her technology; she wants her technology to help her do her job better, faster and more easily. IBM is itself gaming this experiment by running it with software developers, who as a rule tend to be more interested than the typical end user in fooling around with new technology (and, it’s arguable, gaming).

Most knowledge workers don’t want to pretend to be living a second life in order to do their jobs; creating avatars and 3-D mazes won’t make their work more appealing, and it’s unlikely to encourage them to do it more successfully… or even just more of it. If anything, having to interact in a virtual environment and complete labyrinthine tasks is likely to turn off many end users, who’d just as soon use the technology and get on with their business (even if they spend their free time playing games).

There’s no doubt that social networking has changed the way people interact, especially people under 30. It’s likely, therefore, that it will find a way into the enterprise. But not all consumer technology needs to be used on the job, and not all of it will be. If technology doesn’t help employees work smarter, faster and better, it probably won’t gain traction—no matter how cool it appears to be.

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