Posted by iBlog on May 13, 2008
It’s not always easy to get new employees to mix well with co-workers—especially when they’re scattered across the globe or speak different languages. Few companies know this as well as IBM (IBM), the computer services provider that last year alone added 20,000 new staff members, many from Brazil, China, India, and Russia.
But IBM may have found a way to overcome new employees’ geographic and cultural barriers. When the Armonk (N.Y.) company can’t get recent hires to mingle in person, it has them interact virtually, using the same kind of 3D technology that runs virtual worlds such as Linden Lab‘s Second Life. “It makes you want to start relationships,” says Chuck Hamilton, manager of new media and learning at IBM@Play, a division that uses social media to foster collaboration. “People who are farther away—this is especially true of people who are not American-centric—get the feeling that they’re not isolated.”
Using software from Activeworlds, IBM builds virtual work spaces that let workers in far-flung regions use avatars, or graphic representations of themselves, to handle such tasks as rehearsing presentations or learning about employee benefits. The experimentation puts IBM in the vanguard of companies that, having tested the limits of marketing in such online environments as Second Life, are now infiltrating virtual worlds to tackle a range of other activities, from meetings to collaboration, from training to employee recruiting.
First Came Virtual Marketing
At companies like Sun Microsystems (JAVA), where upwards of 50% of employees may work outside traditional office spaces on any given day, virtual worlds can help scattered colleagues forge closer bonds. “It’s difficult to maintain a global corporate culture with people so spread around,” says Nicole Yankelovich, principal investigator at Sun Labs, who says the ethos can vary on Sun campuses from Menlo Park, Calif., to Burlington, Mass. “Virtual world technology is a way to bring the company together to build a global corporate culture where people are on equal footing,” she says.
At least that’s the hope. Most big companies, including IBM, Sun, Xerox (XRX), Cisco Systems (CSCO), Unilever (UN), are still in the early stages of using online 3D technology. Many companies embarked on virtual world exploration through Second Life marketing campaigns, but some were disappointed with the results. The chances of would-be customers seeing a company’s Second Life branding, much less interacting with it, are often slim.
As of Apr. 30, there were more than 13.4 million residents of Second Life, but only 340,623 had logged on in the previous seven days. Those users in turn are spread out over 65,000 virtual acres, so foot traffic in any particular place—say, on a company’s branded island—tends to be light. “It’s fair to say we saw a bubble when companies began to market in Second Life, and now companies are entering less publicly but for internal enterprise use than for external marketing,” says Dave Elchoness, founder and CEO of VRWorkplace, a virtual world consulting firm. “There’s not a large population for marketing in Second Life or other virtual worlds,” he says.
A Second Use for Second Life
But corporations are finding plenty of other uses for Second Life and comparable virtual worlds. At Xerox, for instance, a group of employees from Europe and the U.S. meets in Second Life each week to hatch strategies for using virtual world technology.