Sunday, March 7, 2010

IBM and the Second Life Builder’s Sandbox

The Hidden Business Case or: Fun for Profit:
IBM and the Second Life Builder’s Sandbox
Andrew Sempere/Tezcatlipoca Bisani

Today and tomorrow I am going to post a few essays that Tez has written.

This paper describes the IBM sponsored public building
area in Second Life (known as the IBM 6 Sandbox, or
“IBM 6”). A sandbox in Second Life parlance is a mostly
empty region provided for the sake of practice building. It
is notable that the sandbox concept, while certainly not
unique in Second Life, was never officially in the plans for
IBM’s presence (nor is it today), and yet accounts for the
lion’s share of the traffic to IBM’s servers “in world.”
In addition to playing an important role in the lives of some
IBM employees, the IBM 6 region has also provided a
gathering area and proving ground for some of the most
significant artists and content creators working within the
confines of Second Life, and continues to fulfill it’s daily
role as a casual workshop for hundreds of individuals from
around the globe.
In preparing this paper I interviewed a number of IBM
employees and non-IBMers who I knew to be either regular
users of the sandbox or instrumental to its founding and
operation. This paper contains a very small subset of those
interviews. Unless I provide a full name, assume the names
have been changed or obscured for privacy reasons.
Background
At the end of 2006, IBM formed a special organization
called an EBO (Emerging Business Opportunity) to study
the possibility of virtual worlds for business. It was decided
at that time that IBM needed a permanent public facility in
Second Life. The Lead Architect of that project, Craig
Becker, made a decision to include a sandbox:
“Aside from thinking that we needed an entry area and
three big theatres, we didn’t know much else… one of the
things I ‘snuck’ in there was the sandbox. Some people
grumbled but, at the time, I was one of the few IBM people
who really knew what they were doing [and] …I had the
backing of people like [IBM virtual worlds booster Iain
Hughes].”
“Administration of the sandbox was organic and informal:
not much else to tell -- the 'policing' of it kind of just
'emerged’. people just started showing up. At some point I
had (I think) created an IBM Sandbox group and so I gave
ownership to [one of the first administrators] and a few
others.”
CASE 1: Unofficial Onboarding
I became an IBM employee in October of 2007, as a
professional hire from another company. My own interest
in the IBM 6 sandbox comes from before I began work at
IBM. In late 2006 I was exploring Second Life for a course
that I was teaching. I enjoyed the tools, but I quickly
became frustrated with the lack of a professional
environment in which to create. A friend who was
interested in building sent me to the IBM Sandbox with a
promise that it was “better” a sentiment that I found
reflected in some the responses to my interview questions.
Ed, a 44 year old software engineer who has been with IBM
for more than 15 years, wrote:
“Not owning land, and not really liking the randomness of
public parcels, it worked out. Over time, I liked it because
of the "professional atmosphere". Since many people there
were IBMers, and we know who each other are in real life,
we treated people like that. No overt abuse or sexual comeons.
And that, in turn, meant that non-IBMers who just
wanted to get on with things and weren't there for flirtation
or abuse also were attracted. It meant you could have real
conversations about real things, Second Life and non-
Second Life related. To a happily married middle aged
engineer, that's what I was happy with.”
In the quote above, Ed provides us with several clues as to
why the fact that the sandbox is an IBM property ensures a
professional environment. At the time as an outsider, I was
mostly intrigued that a company I perceived as established
and conservative would be willing to support something
like a public building area in the “wild west” of Second
Life.
Again, Ed speaks to this:
“[As a result of my involvement in Second Life] I won't say
that my opinion of IBM has changed much. But I think the
opinion of non-IBMers I've met has changed an awful lot.
People are surprised that we're there, we're cool, and we
have the time of day for them. I think for the WoW [World
of Warcraft] generation entering the workplace now it has
been a very positive thing for IBM's image.”
Although a fan of console games and veteran of text MUs, I
hadn’t played many MMPORGs and didn’t consider myself
part of the “WoW generation,” but I stuck around the
sandbox and continued building. To say that I was hired
because of the IBM Sandbox would be overly simplistic,
but it is true that when I initially began looking for a more
innovative job I pulled up the IBM job listings primarily
because my opinion of the company had changed
significantly as a result of my interaction in the sandbox,
and because of a particular conversation that I had one
evening while working there. Because of this, my friends
and future colleagues in the sandbox followed my hiring
process and ultimately threw me a virtual party (Second
Life style) when I joined IBM. As silly as this was, I’ve
never felt quite so welcomed to an organization.
The Sandbox was my first contact with IBM employees and
remains a social space where I have made several
significant connections, a sentiment I again found echoed in
Ed’s response:
“Working in Second Life in general has been a godsend for
building up contacts throughout our vast company. I've
been here 16 years and have probably met more
distinguished engineers through the three years I've been
doing virtual worlds than in the 16 years of doing my job. A
chunk of that is directly from the sandbox. But even the
contacts that I haven't made primarily there have often
been related to projects I spent time in the sandbox
developing.”
CASE 2: The Acquisition
Flo is a software engineer from the Pacific Northwest who
began working in 1999 for a company that was acquired by
IBM in 2006. By the time I met her in late 2006 she was an
administrator for the IBM sandbox. I asked her if she had
had prior experience in virtual worlds and she described
herself as “never much of a gamer” who had briefly tried
Active Worlds once. Her interest in Second Life coincided
exactly with the acquisition:
“…I was trying to get my head around IBM and the
enormity of it all when I came across something on [an
IBM internal website] about Second Life and I thought:
‘What the heck is that?’ Also someone from my company
said they had heard it was the way IBM was heading… all
my IBM friends I have met because of the sandbox.”
Many business users of virtual worlds in general and of
Second Life in particular seem deeply concerned with
“appropriate behavior” but as Ed discussed above, a sense
of professionalism is something an individual brings to an
environment, not something the environment necessarily
forces on them. Flo shared a similar thought:
“I have never played games much, so yeah this was all
pretty new and I was very concerned about how I
represented myself and IBM because I was new to IBM and
if I wore the [in-game tag identifying someone as an IBM
employee] then I wanted to be thought of as professional.”
Given that Flo was part of an acquisition (not a course of
action that most acquired employees have a say in), I was
particularly interested in her opinion of IBM and how
involvement in the virtual world environment might have
changed that:
“I think that being involved with SL has helped me be less
bitter about being acquired because I have something to be
involved with outside of my job and the people are so waycool.
It really has changed my view of IBM... I think it is
way too big and very hard to navigate.”
Finally, given that she’s now been an IBM employee for
three years, I asked if she had ever been to an IBM facility
besides her old office:
”No, not even to the one in [the city I work in].”
Ok, so what?
What I have presented is a very small set of anecdotal data.
Even so, I would like to suggest that we can begin to make
a case that virtual worlds provide business value outside of
the usual story that they are cheaper than renting a real
space to show PowerPoint. For the rest of the paper I would
like to outline what I believe that value is and point at some
paths I think would be worthwhile to explore further. At the
moment this comprises a manifesto-like bag of ideas, but
the hope is that it will foster creative thinking and more
concrete work down the road.
To begin with I would like to suggest that that IBM 6
sandbox, in addition to its obvious goal of providing a
space for people to work, fulfills the following roles for
IBM:
1. It provides a space for socializing, practical group
problem solving and meeting which is persistent and
significantly cheaper to maintain than a “real” space.
2. It signals a particular culture of openness, innovation and
self-reliance to prospective employees and customers and
improves public opinion.
3. It facilitates connections between employees that would
not occur otherwise because of traditional hierarchy
(organizational distance) and geographic distance.
All of this is possible as a result of the fact that the forum is
public. Outside of the scope of this paper would be a
comparison to IBMs internal grid, which is designed to
support one single use case (meetings) more effectively.
Preliminary evidence suggests that this is true to a limited
extent, but that it comes at the expense of the value outlined
above. Therefore we proceed under the assumption that the
fact that the IBM 6 sandbox is a public space is crucial to
its function.
Virtual Isn’t Necessarily 3D
The word “virtual” as in “virtual worlds” is often used as
shorthand to describe a 3D graphical environment which
contains avatars. While this is often correct, I would like to
suggest that virtual is not bounded by three-dimensional
walls. The notion of the “paperless” office is a virtual one,
as is email, instant messaging, word processing, the web,
voicemail, cellphones and nearly any technology that
allows you to time-shift or place-shift your work and self.
Certainly in a company as large as IBM, where much of the
work is distributed, it is not the least bit unusual for
employees to have virtual offices in the sense that they
work primarily from home or from temporary spaces called
mobility centers. Furthermore, the trend (again, most
clearly in large organizations) seems to be for this to
increase. The question is therefore not the somewhat absurd
“When will I go to work in Second Life instead of my
office?” but the more likely “How does a persistent 3D
environment augment and support my already virtual work
life?”
The Case for Happy
In seeking business uses for virtual worlds, I am conscious
of the fact that they are a great deal of fun and that in many
business discussions this very fact causes discomfort.
Rather than shy away from it, I would like to embrace the
concept of fun completely – virtual worlds ARE often fun,
and this is not in the least incompatible with business.
The manifesto of the MMPORG game company Ohai
(www.ohai.com) is a concise four point statement which
includes a pledge to “…promote & make personal, joyful
connections with, and among the friends who play our
games. They are unique and worth knowing," as well as a
promise to “waste not time nor pixels. We are no-nonsense,
consistent, minimal, & straight to the point. but with… a
high-quality aesthetic & vibe exuding wit, whimsy, delight,
fun, and joy.”
Imagine if the company or organization you worked for
included those two statements in their own mission: to
promote personal connection and a high-quality, nononsense
but delightful aesthetic. Would you count yourself
as more or less lucky to have found such an organization?
More importantly, given the choice between two similar
organizations, one of which included this language in its
mission, which would you prefer?
The degree to which that question resonates with you may
fall out along age lines, but it is not a function of the tired
“digital natives” argument so much as the degree to which a
given individual has internalized the notion of “work-life
balance” (read: the ability to take your work with you on
vacation and home with you every night after five). For
obvious reasons corporations have long been encouraging
their employees to allow work to creep outside the
traditional 9-5 boundaries, but increasingly the reverse is
also true. Employees want to bring their lives to work, and
among so-called “knowledge workers” at least, the choice
of where to work is increasingly being made along the lines
of the company whose culture fits best with their notion of
life.
In any case companies are built on people, and by now it
ought to be common sense that well treated employees are
happier and therefore perform better. Companies that invest
in social software of any kind (virtual worlds included) for
their employees are signaling an understanding that
interpersonal connection is a key part of that happiness.
Humans are social creatures and well connected social
creatures equate directly to ROI.
Software Will Not Solve Your Problems
Unfortunately high performance is often not required for a
business to be profitable, and profitability (neither quality
nor employee happiness) drives decision making at many
organizations. To address this problem is well beyond the
scope of this paper but more importantly is completely
beyond the scope of any current or future software.
The arrival of social software will not make your
employees happy, nor will it automatically create
connections where none exist. More to the point, it will fail
utterly if the organization does not actively foster a culture
that values social interaction. This is not a chicken-and-egg
problem, it is an incubator-and-egg problem. Software is
the egg – you’ll have a chicken for dinner if you keep the
egg in a warm and nurturing environment, otherwise you
are likely to have a lovely (and perhaps expensive) egg
shaped rock. My advice to any corporation curious about
social software is therefore to look long and hard at your
corporate culture and decide first if your goal is to support
(or change) your internal culture. If the answer is no, you
should reconsider.
Conclusion: What About the Softball League?
Many companies have long understood the value of
fostering social interaction for their employees. Office
parties, company sports teams, potlucks and the more
formal academic and professional conferences, birds of a
feather meetings and even all-hands meetings are examples
of this.
I am not a particular advocate of social software in general
nor of virtual worlds in particular as a replacement for any
face-to-face interaction. Almost all of the value outlined
above (networking, employee bonding, problem solving,
casual conversations) can and does occur in face-to-face
situations. Furthermore, given the current state of
technology, face-to-face situations are always qualitatively
better and are likely to remain so.
Nevertheless, I would argue as the trend for large
companies is towards virtualization and globalization,
social software is better than nothing! Virtual worlds in
particular do provide a semblance of common ground,
which is something that a shared physical office provides
for free, but that is so obviously missing in a distributed
organization.
3D virtual worlds are far from ideal, but as outlined above
they provide some intriguing clues as to how we might
encourage positive corporate interactions, support the
acquisition process, onboard new employees, and increase
the effectiveness of global organizations. Much of the
problems we have experienced (at IBM at least) come down
to design or lack thereof of the software interface, not of the
basic premise that individuals value unstructured social
space. Careful design of environments and software can
mitigate these problems, and many of the perceived social
problems (the specter of inappropriate behavior, for
example), are either largely mythological, diminish rapidly
with experience, or are best dealt with using traditional
means such as business conduct guidelines.
Biography
Andrew Sempere lives and works in Boston MA, as a full
time Design Researcher for IBM's Collaborative User
Experience Group / Center for Social Software, an
instructor and artist. He holds a Bachelors of Fine Arts from
the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Masters of
Science from the MIT Media Lab.
Andrew's artworks have been seen at venues around the US
and Canada, including the Bumbershoot Music Festival,
Siggraph, Boston Cyberarts, and the 7th Champ Libre
Manifestation Internationale Video et Art Electronique.
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