Making the business case

In my course overview in yesterday morning’s first face-to-face class of the module I stressed to students that we would and should be considering not the technologies alone but also the business case for developing in Second Life.  I’d cited Cisco, inter alia, as an instance of good practice.  Returning home in the evening, I opened my newspaper to find an article by technology journalist Rhodri Marsden on “the world of virtual offices” in which he writes:

Midlands legal firm Simpson Millar has made its own tentative forays into Second Life, led by Operations Director Craig Jones. “I attended a Second Life lecture that addressed its possible business applications,” he says, “but it was going to the lecture itself that opened my eyes to its potential. Normally, attending an event like this would involve incurring travel expenses and imposing my carbon footprint. But once I’d got over the strangeness of the experience, this virtual presentation was just like the real thing; a person in front of me, talking.”

As Second Life develops, it has become clear to the likes of Jones that while the media focus on companies selling kooky virtual clothing to make virtual currency, its biggest value to business is going to be its ability to bring employees together and save a great deal effort, time, and money. American technology company Cisco are at the forefront of adapting Second Life for serious business applications. They regularly hold virtual seminars on their products and strategies for staff, other businesses, and whoever happens to be wandering by; not only has it had the effect of educating, raising awareness and developing corporate links – it has simply made the company more accessible.

Indeed, tales abound of CEOs of large technology companies wandering around in Second Life and striking up conversations with graduates and customers – something that would rarely, if ever, happen in real life.

As a utopian vision of easy access and informal communication, the virtual office model has a lot going for it.

He goes on to warn, however, that:

what looks good on paper doesn’t always translate to successful implementation, and some companies’ efforts to embrace virtual worlds have been stymied by underpowered technology and the reluctance of all but a hardcore of geeks to show any interest. Reuters famously opened a Second Life bureau, but this closed late last year; the employee charged with running it, Eric Krangel, outlined the reasons. “The very things that most appeal to Second Life’s hardcore enthusiasts,” he said, “are either boring or creepy for most people… experimenting with changing your gender or species, getting into random conversations with strangers, or having pseudonymous sex. It was about as fun as watching paint dry.”

I am unconvinced.  My gut feeling, even though I can’t at this stage muster enough firm evidence to back it up, is that organisations that fail to capitalise on the opportunities offered by multi-user virtual environments such as Second Life have probably missed the point.  It’s certainly no longer an issue of “underpowered technology”–although Second Life requires a broadband connection, a fast processor, half a gig of RAM, and a decent graphics card, there are few computers sold today that do not meet these requirements.  If our students with modest means can afford the kit, so can businesses and so will those who work for and with those businesses.  I can understand “the reluctance of all but a hardcore of geeks to show any interest”; but I am inclined to believe that reluctance has less to do with technophobia than with the failure of businesses to conceptualise meaningful ways of working in virtual worlds and to effectively communicate this to employees and partners.  And, yes, from the simple fact that all in-world content is user-generated it will inevitably follow that there’s as much weirdness and wildness in Second Life as there is in real life; but, as in real life so in Second Life, we have found ways to manage boundaries between work and play.

The greatest cause of disillusionment, it seems to me, is rooted in the failure to understand two fundamental realities:

  • that Second Life is not, whatever the expectations and first appearances, just another mature off-the-shelf and ready-to-use technology like office suites, project management packages, or email clients.  Business strategies do not just pop out of one’s Inventory: all content, including conceptual and work-flow content, is user-generated;
  • that Second Life is not ‘somewhere else’, divorced from and separate from real-world activity: whatever one does in Second Life will deliver benefits only when it is anchored in and integrated seamlessly into the work one is doing in real life.

I’d argue that the hard truth of the matter is that those who are working with purpose in Second Life are still very much ‘frontiersman’, explorers at the pioneering edge of possibilities.  And we still have very little notion of what those possibilities are; but, in the words of Alan Kay, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”.  Of over 10 million registered accounts, only 1,444,530 have logged in over the past 60 days and only 58,229 are (as I write) currently online, a very small population of “hardcore enthusiasts”, many of whom–those in for the long haul–are not “experimenting with changing your gender or species, getting into random conversations with strangers, or having pseudonymous sex” but are rather forming solid communities dedicated not just to understanding but to defining how Second Life can be used to support learning, business, culture, and commerce.

References

Rhodri Marsden, ‘The new tools of trade’, The Independent, 10th February 2009.
» http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/sustainit/the-new-tools-of-trade-1605552.html

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About Christopher Hutchison

Museologist, cognitive dissident, political grouch, curmudgeonly bibliophage, and all round jolly nice chap.
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