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A Corporate Digital Community Goes Virtual

IBM is using Second Life not just for business, but to bridge its own internal cultural divides.

by / October 4, 2007
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For three weeks this summer 40 employees from IBM's global delivery centers in five countries -- as spread out as the distance between Argentina and Philippines -- sat together for hours of intense brainstorming sessions. They sought to identify the key attributes that distinguish IBM's global delivery capabilities from the competition. Nothing new or irregular about that. Brainstorming sessions after all, are pretty common in the corporate world. Still this event was like nothing before. For, no one moved from their homes or offices, and perhaps not everyone was even aware of each other's existence until they met. Yet after three weeks, all of them were pals enough to seek help from each other in planning their next holiday.

These employees met in Second Life, the Internet-based virtual world, which enables its users, called "Residents", to interact with each other through motional avatars. "While the official assignment was purely business in nature," says Christopher Sciacca, the strategic communications manager of IBM's Integrated Operations Division, "behind the scenes [however], IBM expected the experience to help build a culture that extends outside of the countries the employees work in."

Using Second Life for business is nothing new. More than half a dozen global companies have already opened virtual stores or are using the concept of the virtual world in some form to drive business. But IBM is the only company that is using Second Life to not only drive its business but also to build a new form digital community -- one that helps its employees make connections with their colleagues around the world to give it an edge.

According to Tara Sexton, vice president, global communications, IBM Integrated Operations, "community building in Second Life is a unique experience. It is not really surfing the Internet. Rather, it is surfing it with the virtual reality version of yourself. And instead of going around in a flat 2-dimensional website, it is almost like walking around in an IBM building surrounded by virtual products instead of photographs."

"When we meet in person (even if it's only the avatar) the conversation takes on a more personal and human touch," says Daniel Scumparim, server systems operations, IBM Integrated Technology Delivery, based in Hortolandia, Brazil. "It's very different from only a phone call. We all noticed an enhancement in the conversation and ideas sharing during our brainstorm."

Indeed ever since its inception in 2003, this 3D virtual world has grown explosively and has almost become a phenomenon. According to its creator Linden Research, Inc, Second Life, which is free for casual use, is inhabited today by around 10 million Residents from around the world and has over half a million regular visitors.

Its users say that if the World Wide Web has changed the way people communicate with almost anyone, Second Life has given them the chance to meet virtually, in varying contexts, and in a body created by the user thus offering endless social possibilities. IBM chairman, Sam Palmisano, also believes that Second Life is the next phase of the Internet's evolution that may have the same level of impact as the first Web explosion.

But none of these attributes has been the prime driver for IBM to use Second Life or the virtual world as platforms for creating a new cultural community across IBM multiple delivery centers the world over.

"The biggest benefit of the virtual world-concept is that networking increases by leaps and bounds through this medium," says Tara Sexton. "Through virtual world IBM employees can meet people who they would have never met otherwise." And more importantly, for meeting in a 3D environment of virtual world, one neither needs high-end equipments nor access to high bandwidth [like those needed for video conferencing, etc]. All that is required is a normal DSL connection and a personal computer.

"An employee living in areas with no high-speed access to the Internet, for example, can log into Second Life from home," says Tara adding that had it not been for Second Life, IBM would have found it "almost impossible to make 120,000 people that IBM has in its Integrated Operations meet up."

According to Chris Sciacca, the adoption of virtual world networking has been rapid at IBM. "It's new and its hot," he says. Since the company first started experimenting with virtual worlds almost a year ago, over 4000 IBM employees have already acquired their own avatars, and "several hundred employees" routinely interact inside Second Life.

"The employees at IBM's delivery centers are young, average in the mid-20s, and want to use a technology that they use during their free time," says Sciacca. "Plus, it's innovative. People want to work for a company that uses the latest technologies, not older."

IBM is using the virtual world for driving its business as well. For instance, the company has created virtual retail storefronts for clients such as Sears and Circuit City, and also uses this medium to hold training environments for "The Greater IBM Connection". These experimentations, says the company, are part of an IBM-led initiative to collaborate with clients and partners to both conduct business inside virtual worlds and to connect the virtual world with the real world to create a richer, more immersive Web environment.

Small wonder then that IBM is spending big on virtual world. Reports say that IBM has chalked out an investment of roughly $10 million this year to push itself into this medium and having already established the biggest Second Life presence of any Fortune 500 company; the company is now planning to expand its virtual footprints on other popular online 3D media like Active Worlds.

"Every aspect of IBM is becoming more integrated but at the same time the company is much more distributed," says Tara Sexton. Already as many as 40% of IBM employees do not work under traditional office environment but from other places like homes, on the road, or from client locations."

Moreover, 45% of IBM employees have less than 5 years of experience, and about 71 % with leas than 10 years of experience. Besides, according to chairman Sam Palmisano IBM is becoming increasingly integrated in the way it serves its clients while becoming more distributed on the way of how the company deliver for its client

And all that means "significant changes in organizational culture, new forms of partnership among multiple enterprises and segments of society, and many new standards for managing a much more complex marketplace," says Palmisano.

It is crucial for IBM therefore, says Sciacca, that IBM-employees collaborate and leverage its global talent pool, "using whatever the right technologies are, whether that is instant messages, blogs or Second Life."

Meanwhile, being a part of IBM's Second Life community has had a personal pay-off as well for Sciacca. "I am going to Argentina for a holiday next month and now I know whom to contact there to help me with my holiday planning," he says.

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Indrajit Basu is the international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.