Working Virtually

Originally posted October 15 at: http://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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Pam Broviak

I too stopped in at the Cognos Virtual Government Event, talked with a representative of the company, and tried to attend a conference presentation but could not find how to get to it. I kept going into the conference room at the time listed on the agenda, but could not see any way to get to the talk. Even so, I welcomed the opportunity to attend some type of work-related event without having to leave my office.

I have also attended events in Second Life. The virtual settings at events like the one held by Cognos are not even close to the ones presented in Second Life. However, I think the ability to access events like the one held by Cognos through a browser helps to attract a larger crowd. Second Life is much more fully immersive, but can be difficult at first for someone to navigate.

One of the more fascinating aspects of attending an event in Second Life as opposed to other events is the ability to interact and communicate with everyone at the event through several methods. As a video is shown or a speaker gives a presentation, the audience is constantly talking to each other and the presenters through chat or private IMs. They either discuss what is being shown, add information to the presentation, or go off on parallel discussions about similar topics. By allowing everyone to participate, many points, views, or other resources are offered up that normally would never be seen or explored had the presentation been given in a more traditional setting.

Another benefit of attending an event in Second Life is the opportunity to network and make new contacts. Each person in Second Life has a name shown above their avatar and a profile that is accessible by clicking their name. So if you are at an event and you notice someone commenting about something that interests you, you can access their profile and find out more about them – perhaps you find out they work in a similar field. Then you have the ability to contact them through a private chat, add them to a “friend” list, or exchange contact information.

Erica Driver is doing a great job of helping people connect through mediums like Second Life for the purpose of exploring how best to use this new technology. Based on my experiences of trying to use Second Life and other Web 2.0 tools for work, I agree with her that this is where we are all going.

Anne Laurent


Thanks for such a thoughtful comment! How rare and how refreshing!!!

I, too, have attended events in Second Life. My problems there have been technical glitches in my avatar’s movement and in using live chat. I remain convinced that these venues aren’t the best for large events, at least not yet. My best experience has been attending an event in a private virtual world–a conference hotel in Forterra’s OLIVE platform–sponsored by Vbusiness, I believe. It was not without glitches, but the event staff were on scene as avatars and fixed everything in real-time, “face-to-face,” as it were.

What I find most exciting is the prospect of doing day to day work in virtual environments. It offers such a huge improvement for telework! What I’ve seen of Sun’s wonderland, for instance, makes me very hopeful about the future. I’m also very impressed by some of the military training being done on game-based platforms. If you visit my blog, you can see more about all of it.

Thanks again for your comment.


Andrew Krzmarzick

Hi Anne and Pam,

Make that three of us that attempted to attend the Cognos Virtual Government Forum. I was able to find my way into a presentation. I won’t say which one, but the content was incredibly dry. It was ironic: novel environment, old-school content and delivery. To Pam’s point, there was limited chance for interaction. Within 10-15 minutes, I ditched the presentation to browse the conference hall (love that faux crowd noise!) and lurk in the lounge. About 10 minutes later, I left the Cognos Forum to continue my engagement in another form of virtual conferencing: Twitter.

While participating in the Cognos event, I tweeted about the experience, which led to an unexpected comparison of their relative value. In the same time period, I received great recommendations on 2-3 articles and posted 1-2 of my own recent reads (including posts here on GovLoop). In fact, due to this back and forth, I was invited to have a real-time conversation about collaboration with @AriHerzog, to whom I was directed by Chris Brogan.

Granted, I have not participated in a meeting in Second Life (yet!), but I am finding that Twitter, if following and being followed by the right people, is the equivalent of a perpetual conference where I can come and go with minimal time commitment, yet walk away with high impact information and connections….especially using tools like Twhirl.

I think Second Life and the other virtual worlds will offer this kind of forum eventually…but we’re not there yet. In the meantime, I am going to get back to checking in on my Tweeps!

Anne Laurent

I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t gotten onto Twitter yet. Too busy blogging (theagilemind.blogspot.com) and doing Web video. Also, it seems too much of a mix of the personal and work-related. I guess I am a dinosaur in wanting to keep them separate. How do you do that?

I am impressed with what you say, though, and with the presence of other smart folks there (Mark Drapeau, for example), as well as of lots of agencies (though many just seems to be pushing out updates).

I hope Cognos is blog trolling about that conference. I suspect they won’t do one that way again!

BTW, love your posts and glad to have been befriended by you!

Thanks for the comment


Andrew Krzmarzick

Thank, Anne. I have been following your blog for several months and always appreciate your posts. I would like to talk with you at some point about the ways in which you uncover your topics. You seem to have your finger on the pulse of emerging agency activity! A super sleuth! 🙂

Regarding Twitter….recommend you try it on trial for about two weeks using Twhirl with a targeted search for people to follow. During work hours, I try to stick to news stories and blog posts (like yours) and work-related activities…after 5 p.m., I open up with more (benign) personal information, like hobbies, events, and thoughts.

Thanks again for your ongoing insight,


Pam Broviak

Andrew is right about Twitter – I am continually amazed at the amount of information a person can receive each day by just following and being followed by the right people. He is also right about trying it out for a while. At first I did not like it and saw little benefit as did my husband until we realized it is all about finding the right people to follow. And by that I mean people who are interested in and focused on the topics and issues in which you have an interest.

I also wondered about the mix of personal and private, but then I thought about how we interact at work in our non-virtual lives. Not sure if this goes on in other areas, but here when you meet someone, you go through a type of ritual where each person asks where you are from and who your folks were, almost as if trying to find some connection before you launch into actual business. Sometimes if a connection is found or if you are dealing with people who are already familiar with part of your personal life, the group will spend a short time doing a type of personal “catch-up”.

So I have started thinking of the personal exchanges in Twitter as serving the same purpose as the ones people go through during their regular business day. If the personal details exchanged are along the same lines as those offered in non-virtual business conversations, then they serve to create that connection that some people seem to need in order to even begin conducting business.

As for the other virtual platforms, I unfortunately have not had the opportunity to attend events using them.