Today, it's hard to imagine being able to get our jobs done without the Web. Within five years, the same will be true of the immersive Internet. We will "go to work" in virtual worlds and on virtual campuses where we will use immersive workspaces, learning simulations and function- and industry-specific applications. In these environments, many of which will be 3-D, we will learn and rehearse business activities, communicate and collaborate with colleagues, prototype products, recruit and interview job candidates, visualize complex data and remotely manage systems and facilities - maybe even vehicles. We will be embodied through avatars (personas) and identifiable to others through rich profiles, allowing us to interact with each other, information, physical systems and objects virtually, socially and in a way that feels real.
The immersive Internet will deliver an unprecedented level of engagement - emotional involvement with or commitment to our technology and our work. Some virtual worlds, immersive Internet sites and applications will accomplish this through a high degree of visual realism, with photorealistic avatars, objects and environments as well as realistic "physics" (e.g., gravity, wind and collisions). Others will offer a high degree of data realism, meaning they are fed by current, accurate information (e.g., weather, radio frequency identification [RFID] or global positioning system [GPS] data, real-time system status or data from product lifecycle management [PLM] systems). For some uses, the holy grail will be environments that deliver high levels of both visual and data realism. In other cases, neither of these will matter. It will be more important that people can express their personalities in the environment or build new virtual objects, and having real data tied into the system won't add a whole lot of value.
Examples of Business Value from Early Adopters
While the immersive Internet certainly has its cool factor, the main reason IT decision-makers should be paying attention to it is its business value. Let's explore a few examples from companies in the professional services, automotive and software industries.
Accenture's investment in a virtual recruiting center paid off after five to six networking events. After the global recruitment marketing team at Accenture began to see a pattern in a number of small virtual efforts taking place around the company, it pulled resources together and built a recruiting island in the virtual world Second Life. Here, the company holds networking and recruiting events targeting what it calls the "Facebook audience." The company has already found hires through events online ("in-world," in virtual world parlance). In fact, the island paid for itself after just five or six events. If you think about recruitment at Accenture taking place in 49 countries around the world, and each of these countries using the Accenture careers island rather than building its own, the cost savings start to stack up. Also, recruiting becomes more standardized across the regions as recruiting staff all begin to use the same materials and processes.
Michelin IT professionals report that enterprise architecture (EA) training in-world is highly effective. Michelin Group has a strong EA approach, which is instrumental in aligning IT with the company's business ambitions and goals. The EA group's challenge is to ensure that IT professionals throughout the company understand the EA methodology as they develop specifications for the company's global applications. Traditional EA training approaches failed to deliver strong buy-in from IT pros. So the company tried a new approach: it built an island in Second Life designed specifically to teach IT pros about EA concepts. It is a highly interactive environment that combines presentations and hands-on workshops. The project, which costs about $60,000, has been a success so far. Of more than 160 IT professionals who have gone through the training as of early August 2008, 96 percent said the training session enabled them to better understand the basics of EA, 98 percent said Second Life is an appropriate medium for learning about EA and 97 percent said they would be able to return to Second Life later on their own (see Figure 1).
At Microsoft, the cost of virtual events is approximately one-third the cost of physical events. In April 2008, Microsoft launched three new products (SQL Server 2008, Windows Server 2008 and Visual Studio 2008) in Second Life. The company wound up with a 150 percent attendance rate (more people attended than had registered) and a 90 percent retention rate (most people stayed for the entire day). The cost of the in-world event was about $4,000 - much less expensive than a traditional product launch event. Microsoft didn't have to rent a meeting room, cater in food or pay for airfare and hotel rooms for speakers coming in from out of town. The company estimates that now that it has built many of the assets it needs for in-world events (e.g., meeting spaces, presentation screens, etc.), it is able to run in-world events for approximately one-third of the cost of doing comparable physical events. As you scale up the number of attendees at in-world events, the cost per attendee drops down even lower.
How to Get Started with an Immersive Internet Initiative of Your Own
Perhaps you see ways that the immersive Internet could help solve business problems in your organization. How do you get from that point of recognition to a funded, approved pilot project and beyond? Consider the following good practices from early adopters.
Pick one business problem and target a very specific audience. A clear focus will lay the groundwork for demonstrating business value, which will be necessary for further funding and investment. The most common work-related immersive Internet use cases today are learning and training, business activity rehearsal, team collaboration, events and conferences, recruiting and interviewing, collaborative design and prototyping, and data visualization. An emerging area is remote system and facilities management. Pick one area like this and one specific target audience. For example, Accenture focused on recruiters and the problem of attracting the Facebook audience into its workforce. Michelin focused on training IT professionals that contribute to application design and development in the specific area of EA concepts. And Microsoft focused on the problem of getting the word out about new products to its Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) and TechNet technical communities.
Recruit project team members who play online video games. Not just any online video games, but massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft. Not only will they likely have a gut-level affinity for the immersive Internet, but as the immersive Internet begins to play a more prevalent role at work, leadership skills developed in MMORPGs will translate directly into leadership skills at work. In MMORPGs, successful groups self-organize under the banner of one or two individuals who establish a guild. These self-appointed leaders take responsibility for assembling the group, selecting members and making sure members have the skills they need for the group to complete its missions. Successful guild leaders provide a positive in-game experience for the players in their groups, avoiding common problems through acts of community building. And good MMORPG guild leaders inspire real-world loyalty and emotion in their teams - just like good managers might in the office. But in many cases, guild leaders are not the same type of leader you would see in a typical office setting. Introverts tend to thrive in virtual worlds and MMORPG environments, where they develop tangible and valuable leadership skills without formal training. Nurture the natural leaders who will rise to the top.
Explore technology options for a pilot. Dozens of technology vendors and open source projects offer virtual world platforms and 3-D Web site technology suitable for use in the enterprise, such as Altadyn, Forterra Systems, Linden Lab, Multiverse, OpenSim, ProtonMedia, Qwaq, realXtend, Rivers Run Red, Sun Microsystems, Unisfair, VastPark and Virtual Heroes. As with any emerging market, offerings in these categories do not yet conform to a standard set of features and functions. Your vendor short list should depend on factors like use case, whether you want an out-of-the-box solution or something that is highly customized to your requirements, budget, skills required for creating or modifying content for the environment, the level of visual realism and data realism you need, communication and collaboration features required, whether you want to operate the virtual environment in house or use a hosted service, whether you want a Web-based or rich client experience and what level of integration you require with your existing business systems.
Identify "evangelists" and set them loose to promote. Evangelists fervently believe in something and have the marketing and sales skills to draw in others. Evangelists for your project will emerge. Give them the reins to go out and build visibility for the project. Encourage them to tell the story of what's happening using pictures, such as snapshots or movies made in-world. There's nothing like personal experience to change a person's mind about something. Invite people to come into the pilot environment and experience it for themselves. Stream in-world activities to the Web so people who can't get into the immersive Internet environment or don't feel comfortable going in-world can still see what's happening. Share the results of early successes internally - but also externally, if you can. External awareness and validation can sometimes light a fire under business process owners or functional leads even faster than internal success stories do.
Create a multifaceted support program for your target audience. Because the immersive Internet is so new and has roots in gaming, many businesspeople are not yet comfortable going into virtual worlds or using 3-D applications in which they as users are represented by a little cartoon character. Put a lot of effort into making the initial experience as easy and fun as possible. Hold meetings, calls and tours to get people started. Create written materials instructing them how to sign up, create avatars, navigate in the environment (e.g., walk, sit, fly, etc.) and communicate with others (e.g., text chat, instant message and voice). Communicate regularly via email or blog about best practices and new programs or tools. Dedicate portal or team site real estate to the project. Invite early adopters to participate in a blog or wiki where they can share best practices and lessons learned and seek solutions to problems they may encounter.
It is not surprising that this short list of recommendations is similar to advice I've given to information and knowledge management professionals over the past decade regarding enterprise collaboration strategies. Tools like instant messaging, team collaboration and social networking have changed the way many of us work. Now the immersive Internet is coming from the fringes to become the newest wave of technology change to hit the workforce. Draw on lessons you've learned from introducing collaboration tools into your organization. At the same time, recognize that because of the immersive Internet's roots in gaming, some of the skills that will help your team the most may be new to your organization - or at least new in the workplace. Success with immersive Internet technology will bring a change to the way we work on the scale of the Web a decade ago, so if fortune favors the prepared mind, it's time to meld experience with innovation and start experimenting now.
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