olly - Fotolia

Virtual worlds used as business collaboration tools

Consider virtual worlds as legitimate business collaboration tools. Not only might you save travel money, you might spur team creativity and innovation.

If you're a gamer, you've probably ventured into a virtual world, exploring simulated environments with your avatar, dressed up and designed to look as little or as much like you as you'd like. Roaming through a virtual world, your avatar is likely to meet other avatars to chat or collaborate with, depending on the situation. Although virtual worlds are used commonly for gaming, they also can be used as a business collaboration tool. Using virtual worlds for training or in place of face-to-face conferences or meetings will save organizations money on travel expenses, yet still provide employees a unique way to communicate and collaborate.

Virtual worlds for conferences

Although several collaboration meeting tools are available, such as WebEx and Google Hangouts that allow ways to add video to your remote meetings, virtual worlds add a whole new dimension to business collaboration tools, and can be used for conferences, simulating separate rooms for different speakers. In 2007, I had my first experience with a virtual world conference, hosted in Second Life at Sun Microsystems, where I was working at the time. It took time to set up my avatar and learn the basics of getting around, but it was really quite intriguing to see all the graphics used to create the various rooms and even an outdoor setting for venturing out to a courtyard away from "the crowd."

Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, spoke at the All Hands meeting (via his avatar, of course), and was able to show his slide deck and present as though we were all there in person, yet at a mere fraction of the cost. Of course, there probably was a little more "entertainment" than had it been a live conference because various avatars would sometimes suddenly move across stage, undoubtedly trying to figure out how to get back into their virtual seats.

Virtual worlds for training

Grady Booch, at IBM, also a Second Life fan, hosted quite a few YouTube videos in Second Life including video episodes about Agile software development.  Although it's much more common to see videos feature "real people" rather than avatars, using virtual worlds does provide an alternative experience to traditional distance training, which some people prefer.

One such proponent of virtual worlds is AgileBill Krebs, owner of AgileDimensions LLC, who hosts an Agile3D meetup group aimed at helping people collaborate from a distance. Krebs hosts a series of events and trainings using a variety of virtual collaboration tools including Sococo, VenueGen, Jibe, OpenSim and AvayaLive. Though these tools differ in their functionality and level of complexity, Krebs helps participants become familiar with the various tools so that they will be able to pick a tool that works best for their specific needs.

When asked what prevents more people from using virtual worlds, Krebs said, "Virtual worlds aren't always trusted and can be harder to use. It takes time to gain digital literacy and to be able to master voice and the ability to move in a 3D environment. However, once mastered, there are benefits that can be gained."

Krebs attended a year-long program offered by the University of Washington to become an expert in virtual worlds. The classes were taught using virtual world collaboration tools and using the tools now is as natural to Krebs as picking up a phone.

Virtual worlds for innovation

In the paper, "Immersive 3D Worlds as Innovation Platforms," Jeffrey Phillips and Jena Ball point out that 3D worlds inspire creativity and innovation. Virtual worlds give users a platform they can use to create their own custom experiences. Such platforms also can be used to promote innovative thinking and prototyping (e.g., building objects using 3D shapes and modifying the appearance of existing objects). Interactions between avatars are unscripted and thus will result in unique interactions and outcomes based on the uniqueness of the individuals who created the avatars.

Phillips and Ball highlight the following benefits of using virtual worlds, or what they call "immersive technologies," as business collaboration tools:

  • Lower costs
  • Increased creativity and playfulness
  • Increased collaborative interaction and integrative thinking
  • Increased depth and range of ideas
  • Simplified rapid prototyping and customer research

Virtual worlds for team collaboration

Not only are virtual worlds great for formal meetings, such as conferences or large trainings, but they can be a very effective way of fostering team collaboration in everything from your daily Scrum to your Agile planning, retrospectives or even one-on-ones. Many introverts feel more comfortable communicating through their avatars than they do speaking up in a meeting, especially when communicating a minority opinion.

Phillips and Ball report that virtual worlds encourage meeting participation over face-to-face meetings. The creativity and playful nature of the tool will help a team bond as they venture through the virtual world into unique settings not found in the real world. Virtual worlds are an excellent way for a distributed team to be able to create their own common workspace and a place to chat at a virtual water cooler, forming friendships and personal relationships.

A great team building exercise for your team, especially if you work with any remote team members, might be to host a meeting in a virtual world. All team members, even those who may be co-located, should use the virtual world for the meeting. This will help make sure all team members are on an even playing field and can equally enjoy the features the virtual world provides. Continue to explore and evolve until you find which tools work best for different types of communication and collaboration.  

In addition to typical collaboration tools that are abundant in our modern-day digital age, virtual worlds offer unique functions that can foster teamwork, creativity and innovation. Although not for everyone, these tools are worth exploring as another opportunity for distance communication and collaboration. You may find that not only do you save money on travel, but that the team's creativity and communication will be, literally, out of this world.

Next Steps

Benchmarking business collaboration tools

Collaboration tool expert talks about ROI

Dig Deeper on Software design and development

Cloud Computing
App Architecture