Monday, April 28, 2008

Second Life for HR

At every conference, there should be 1 session that blows your mind. Most conference sessions are geared toward providing new information on something you already know. You already know that there's a shortage of nurses, but you didn't know that the constraint is in college classes. Interesting, you've just added to your body of knowledge. But the session that blows your mind, that introduces new technology, or shows you a completely new way to work, is the session you'll be talking about in 6 months. It's the session that justifies your attendance at the conference.

The mind-blowing session at HRPS was the plenary session: Second Life: The Business Case for HR in the Virtual World. The abstract included a well-constucted audience tease.

You will be transported into the virtual world of Second Life, where the future is now. Explore the impact of the new economy, the emerging virtual workforce and the workplace of the not so distant future. Your Avatar moderator and tour guide will show you what millions of people and dozens of leading companies are doing NOW in a virtual world and economy.

Hmm.... there's an Avatar moderator? How's that going to work? Will there be someone live as well? Are they actually going to present in Second Life? I was intrigued.

The presenter (in person, standing behind the podium, bummer!) started by asking how many in the audience had an avatar, in any application. (maybe 5-10% of the audience.) He then offered a definition of Second Life as "the unholy offspring of The Matrix, MySpace and eBay". That was followed by some suprising demographic stats. 43% of Second Life users are female. Average age: 32. 55% of users are outside North America. He was also very careful to distinguish Second Life from World of Warcraft. (WoW: it's a game, and you live within its rules and narrative. Second Life: focus on commerce and creativity.)

And then the fun started. The moderator brought up his Second Life instance, and in the guise of his Avatar ("Ace Carson") proceeded to give a guided tour, including interacting with 2 other avatars who co-presented. The demo paid particular attention to how IBM has invested in Second Life as a way to better interact with their workforce. Chuck Hamilton, from IBM @ Play walked through their Onboarding Island, complete with detailed documentation for IBM's processes and services. They also are using Second Life for virtual conference participation, saying that the Avatars give more of a presence indicator than just participating in web conferences. The IBM team has built out spaces to support this stronger presences as well. For example, when Sam Palmisano was speaking in China earlier this year, he was also speaking in "China" in Second Life. Another area when they have found Second Life useful is in mentoring. The use of Avatars helps employees feel more comfortable asking questions, or interacting than they might in real life, and they don't have to rely purely on text, or audio communication. After moving their onboarding and mentoring to Second Life, they have found that employees are building more connections, faster. One reason given is that the Avatar-based relationships feel more "real" than pure instant messaging or email-mediated communication. The results, according to Chuck are better relationships, less travel, and a very active virtual world. There are currently 15,000 IBM Avatars.

The audience reaction was just what you would hope. Lots of questions, lots of interest, lots of people thinking about how to apply the technology. There was a fair amount of skepticism as well. ("It's all well and good for IBM with the resources they have. How would this work in a company of less than 5,000 employees? Who has the time or money to invest in this?") But most importantly, this was a topic that reached out well beyond the time allocated for the session. At lunch on Day 3, people were still talking about Second Life, drawing connections between other tools, and thinking about how this might change the game. Will it happen overnight? No. But this is exactly what you hope to take away from a conference: new ideas, new conversations, and new solutions that you want to go explore.

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