Working Virtually

Originally posted October 15 at theagilemind.blogspot.com
Talk about your multi-tasking! I’m writing this post while simultaneously attending the Cognos Virtual Government Forum and chatting with a Grant Thornton staffer whose virtual booth I stopped by while passing through the virtual exhibit hall at the virtual forum. Whew! Enough virtual. Henceforth let’s stipulate that most places I refer to in this post exist on the Web, not in the real world.

I wrote about this forum for Nextgov.com’s blog recently, so I felt I had to attend at least some of it. Now I am waiting for the opening address by John Kamensky, late of the Clinton administration’s National Performance Review and now of IBM’s Center for the Business of Government.

Meanwhile, this seems an appropriate moment to muse about working in another virtual environment, Second Life. Erica Driver, a former Forrester analyst, has set up a new analysis firm called Think Balm, focused on the immersive Internet. Better to find out what that means from her here, but in short, it’s all things 3D and virtual online. I found her work at Forrester to be smart and insightful, so I’ve continued following her as the new firm evolves. She is a tad more sold on immersive spaces for work than I am, but refreshingly, her enthusiasm is buttressed by facts.

Just a few days ago, Driver blogged about a new study suggesting that work-related teaching and learning, collaboration and meetings all can be done effectively in Second Life. The Social Research Foundation, a nonprofit, surveyed 1,298 Second Lifers who participate in the foundation’s First Opinions Panel and found 16 percent of them use the virtual world for work. A third of those folks said more than half their time in Second Life is spent working. More than a third reported using the environment not just to collaborate, but to work together on visualizing data and concepts in 3D, 17 percent use it for recruiting and interviewing and 12 percent for managing real-world systems, Driver reports.

The study, along with her own work, makes Driver bullish on enterprise adoption of the immersive Internet:

ThinkBalm foresees that enterprise use will be mainstream in five years. The main reasons for this are 1) convergence of hardware, software, and network bandwidth, which make immersive technologies accessible on a widespread basis, 2) the prevalence of social networking, which allows Immersive Internet experts and advocates to find each other and share ideas, learnings, and best practices, and 3) an economic downturn, which will favor IT investments that result in hard dollar cost savings.

One important caveat: Driver is writing here not just about Second Life, but about immersive environments in general. She is tracking two dozen sellers of such platforms.
Skeptics (like my friend and colleague Allan Holmes, Executive Editor of Nextgov.com) continually call for proof that people actually learn as well or better in virtual settings than in brick and mortar classrooms. It’s a legitimate request, and one that academia is beginning to address. Perhaps the best work has been done at Stanford Medical School, where researchers have found that “virtual [emergency department] environments fulfill their promise of providing repeated practice opportunities in dispersed locations with uncommon, life-threatening trauma cases in a safe, reproducible, flexible setting.”

And now, there’s research from Penn State suggesting that solving problems in a virtual space might take a bit longer than in the real world, but can come up with better solutions. Researchers set up 10 teams working face to face, 10 teams teleconferencing and 12 teams in Second Life.

Using a mathematical problem finding and solving video trainer, the groups had to figure out how to rescue an injured eagle. Even though they could only communicate via text and had to learn how to use the keyboard to move their avatars, the Second Life teams came up with the most accurate answers.

Nothing hugely definitive yet, but lots of intriguing hints that Driver might just be onto something.

On the other hand like many people who visited the Cognos forum, I never was able to attend John Kamensky’s talk. I kept getting an error message whenever I hit the “attend” button. The support folks told me to download and updated version of Flash, but doing so would have meant I had to close all my browser windows. That would have prevented me from writing this post and a host of other things, hence eliminating any advantage of attending a conference virtually instead of physically. Ah well, I suppose I could have gotten hung up on the Metro, too!

THIS JUST IN: Just received an email from high-end consulting firm McKinsey about a new study, “How IT Can Cut Carbon Emissions.” Though they didn’t consider the use of immersive environments, the implication is clear from what they did discover: “We studied the possibility of reducing emissions by “dematerializing” physical goods and processes through telecommuting, video conferencing, Internet shopping, and downloading content rather than using paper, CDs, DVDs, and so on to covey it. We found that these kinds of substitutions cut emissions significantly—by 0.5 metric gigatons a year.”

It’s not the kind of savings that can come from making manufacturing, electricity grids, buildings and truck fleets more efficient, but it’s nothing to sneeze at either!

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