Saturday, February 16, 2008

Liveblogging MetaverseU: A Conversation with Christian Renaud, Reuben Steiger, and Byron Reeves about Work

"... the second session of MetaverseU featured an informal conversation between Reuben Steiger (Millions of Us), Byron Reeves (Stanford), and Christian Renaud (Cisco) about the future of work. Reeves researches game-like applications of technology to improve working environments, Renaud helps lead Cisco's development of technology applications for dispersed collaboration (and users it), and Steiger has worked in the virtual world long enough to see the effects first hand. “The opportunity for these worlds to be entertaining pales in their opportunity for work,” said Reeves. “If we could figure out how to entertain a couple thousand call center employees and keep them in a virtual world while they were working and they stayed around for three months longer at their jobs, I think we’d have a multi-million dollar business on our hands.” Steiger admitted that this might be the dullest topic of the day, but pointed out that while many people look at enterprise solutions as an inevitable train bearing down on virtual worlds and questions revolve around “when this is going to happen,” it’s still harder to ask “if this is going to happen.” The benefit of virtual worlds, said Renaud, is the possible serendipity of meetings. Work doesn’t go on in conference sessions, but in the halls. Unfortunately, though, no one has quite found that tool to make that happen. “Something the industry needs to understand is to put yourself in your customers shoes,” he explained. “They have a lot of risk in taking this technology on. They might get a lot of benefit, but there’s the risk that this technology isn’t going to be there tomorrow. We need to, as an industry and as customers, put a lot of work together to make this more of an affirming cycle.” For Steiger, one way to approach the question is to look at how Second Life is being used—or not used. “My gut feeling is that it’s being used a lot for work right now,” he explained. “However, it’s being used by small businesses that are virtual in nature, have employees all over the place, and don’t have to adhere to corporate IT policy. If you look at the numbers, tens of thousands of businesses [from academic teams, service spaces, making virtual shirts, just collaboration, etc.] are probably using it and would speak very evangelically. Where it falls down, is that there’s no hosted solution, it doesn’t work behind a firewall, and it’s really hard to have an avatar that looks like you. That’s an important factor for business.” Renaud pointed out that larger businesses are using Second Life in ways it was never intended to be used, and now the criticisms are focused, perhaps unfairly, on why Linden didn’t anticipate that. “There should be a rush of people trying to fill that gap now, though,” he explained. “There’s no one problem meant to fulfill all the use cases. No one is 100% happy with any of the platforms out there.”
At a certain point, though, people still need face-to-face meetings.

Decentralized Work - “If you look at the literature on the future of work without concern for the topics of the day here, my colleagues will tell you that declining costs of communication are enabling decentralization, democratization, and engagement of employees,” said Reeves. “From that comes the conclusion, and it’s true, that half the people at IBM and Sun aren’t in their offices today. It’s just still hard to get brainstorming and efficiency and the juices flowing.” Part of the problem is that businesses are ignoring the potential fun of work. The things that happen in worlds—dressing up as a bunny, dancing, etc.—can have a positive influence on the bottom line for companies. In running a company based on virtual worlds, one of the things Steiger discovered, though, is that remote employees were “appreciably less happy. I think it says less about virtual worlds and remote collaboration than it does about humans.” Part of it, said Renaud, is the intimacy of the cube farm. Employees “catch up” on a minute-to-minute basis. Technologies like Twitter, email, blogs address that, even if they can’t entirely replace non-verbal cues in face-to-face communication. The immediate use case for virtual worlds in the enterprise, said Steiger, isn’t dealing with his clients and partners. 70% of his business is with people he’s never met. The difference is in an employee-to-employee relationship. A hosted, behind-the-firewall solution could make that easier.
There’s no solution, though, to take an avatar and information from that environment to an extranet connecting to partners and then to the Internet for potential customers.

Crossing Domains - One issue that comes up is that some people are simply better at doing business in different environments. When Linden Lab was hiring liaisons for Second Life, they’d find vibrant, successful communicators in-world who shied away on the phone. “The question really is, ‘Who cares?” said Steiger. “Who cares if someone is uncharismatic in real life if they’re successful in what you need them to do. The phone interview may just be a weird anachronism.” It’s not specific to virtual worlds, though, said Renaud. There are always examples of individuals who are personable in person and passive aggressive over email. The instance of virtual worlds is just a new take on it.

Why Not Just Use Video Conferencing? - “As a small business owner with remote employees,” said Steiger, “we’ve struggled to get a solution that allows 10 different people to video conference. That’s the apples-to-apples comparison and it doesn’t exist. If it does exist, there’s still positional expression.” If being in the same place is important, the next big technology is IR consumer-level cameras, he said, that allow users to track their facial expressions. Renaud disagrees. While there’s importance for emoting, facial cues, and gestures, the more important change is that you can’t bump into someone on a video conference. “If you’re going to have a one-on-one talk, I’ll video conference,” said Renaud. “It’s much more high fidelity. There’s the facial cues. But if I don’t know you, how am I even going to start talking to you.” One solution is to mix video with avatars. When an avatar speaks, that’s when the video plays. The rest of the time is a spatial environment where accidental meetings can occur.

What Can We Learn From Video Games? - “You can’t understand the primitive engagement that comes from puppeteering a cartoon character that looks kind of like us,” said Reeves. “When you look at the physiological response when an avatar gets touched, there’s a complementary reaction in the user. Brining those responses in for an ROI presentation is tough, but those responses that we see in the lab give me confidence that the bandwidth for communication is a value add for the engagement.” For Steiger, the engagement measures in Second Life is the proof. The average user engaged in a campaign spends 20-30 hours with a brand. When you translate that to interpersonal communication, it’s significant. “When you look at the enterprise, the question is how do you change we work to allow for playfulness and engage people in a way where they’re not oppressed by work. I hope it’s less about the technology enablers—those are either solved problems or not rocket science. I think it’s going to be more of policy and social problems that are addressed in the big boardrooms.”
The scary thing for executives, he says, is that guild leader gamers could be reporting to stockholders. “IBM just did such a survey [looking for those gamers in management] and found 1000s,” said Reeves. As the gamer generation is growing up and leading the workforce, game mechanics become much more appealing than spreadsheets for getting work done. “To do that is not going to be quick in the enterprise,” said Reeves. “One strategy we’re looking at is to look at the recipe for why these worlds are engaging or why games are engaging and see what you can extract. Can you take the economies from the virtual environment? They’re fun and we know they light up the same neurological regions in the lab as real money does. They leave behind self-representation and 3D environments, but they’re worth looking at.”

What’s Coming Up? And More Video Games - The future of work, at least in part, is making it more entertaining, said Renaud. Warcraft may be fun, but it doesn’t provide a place to build a product. 2D worlds, 3D worlds, wiki worlds are all options. Almost more importantly, he explained, is looking at how to get information to people. As we digitize more and more information, platforms like Netflix find ways to get information to users, but it’s not enough for the rest of the world. A human-centered approach is the answer. Creating a rich presence (across multiple platforms), lets us exchange recommendations and process the exchange of information more effectively. Likewise, as user interfaces improve, enterprise adoption will become easier. For Stegier, the answer to what enterprise technology excites him, the answer is “nothing.” There’s exciting products in virtual worlds, but “I find it heartbreaking as someone who goes to companies to resist change and continue to work in ways that just makes me depressed. It’s inefficient, it’s full of covering your own ass, it’s depressing.” From the perspective that everything is a game, the designers of the game of work were just unaware of what they were doing. “They created a shitty game that no one wants to play,” said Steiger. “If games were like work is, when you died on your Gameboy, it would explode and scar you for life. You might never play again. There has to be permission to fail.” Reeves, in his role at Seriosity, is working to help create better games for work. “When you explicitly try to make what’s implicit, a game with rules, the key is the alignment of the reasons why you play the game with what makes the organization succeed,” he said. Renaud points out, though, that that’s easier for structured jobs. Most of us in the room don’t have those jobs. Most work, according to Reeves, still fits that model. “You’ve got to look at the size of the pain there,” he said. “The pain of collaboration at Cisco is a legitimate pain, but that’s not nearly as bad as what I think about my call center job after nine months. If you could juice that up a bit, whether it’s the game mechanics or the virtual world, that’s significant.”

Bold Prediction Territory: How Will We Work? “There are engagements that you just have to go face-to-face,” said Renaud. “But for everyday work, you can do it anywhere. There are two factors. As a generation, people are just getting more and more actualized and spiritual. People are maybe more family focused or spiritual.” That’s why Renaud moved to the Midwest, and similar trends are happening everywhere. But it’s still the beginning. Millions of Us isn’t that decentralized, though. Out of 30 full-time employees, only 4 are remote. “There are a subset of tasks that could not be accomplished with fully decentralized teams,” said Steiger. “Anywhere with a broadband connection should theoretically be fine. In the area of predictions, the stuff that will get worked out is that people read Malone, deploy Malone, scale, and see the cracks. The truth is that there are some basic laws of human nature that really drive how we work together. That’s the question of how we can represent that.” As we go virtual, recognition gets lost, at least in the early stage. “If I were to make a weak prediction, some company will get this right and kill everyone,” said Steiger. For Reeves, the bigger prediction isn’t simply about decentralization, but democratization. People have more choices on where to work, who to work with, etc. “The expertise that will really drive success is the ability to coordinate, “ he said. While Stanford has more expertise in science in medicine, it doesn’t have the expertise of a major company to turn that into pills to be sold. “That, whether it’s in a guild, virtual world, or anywhere else, is what’s interesting,” he said.

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