As organizations adopt virtual worlds, there is growing confusion about when telepresence or videoconferencing may fit the bill and when virtual worlds make more sense.
Virtual worlds such as Second Life and Qwaq Forums enable geographically-dispersed colleagues to collaborate in a shared, immersive 3D environment. Qwaq is particularly suited for business. For more on Qwaq, see my September 21, 2007 post. Typically, avatars represent each collaborator and there’s audio without interactive video.
At the American Society of Training and Development International Conference last month in San Diego, corporate managers packed a session on using virtual worlds in the enterprise. The buzz was that virtual worlds make more sense than videoconferencing in part because people are getting more accustomed to a gaming-type experience. That supposition is debatable, because tools must fit the situation and the culture. For a performance evaluation, virtual worlds would be a poor choice of tool. Telepresence would work, if a team member is a continent away and a face-to-face meeting is impossible.
On Friday, I had a broad discussion with Chris Thompson, senior director of marketing for Cisco’s unified communications group. Chris, a Canadian, joined Cisco 18 months ago after serving as vice president of marketing for Netopia, which became the broadband home unit of Motorola. Our discussion ranged from virtual worlds to collaborative culture, and the conversation flowed easily and informally perhaps because Chris was relaxed and enjoying the informality of his cottage on the lake outside Toronto.
“If it’s a casual relationship, video is less important,” Chris noted. Such a relationship might include tech support sessions, customer service calls, and some sales calls. In such cases, virtual worlds may offer better opportunities for branding than videoconferencing. Several years ago, there were many predictions that we would soon be using interactive video for customer service calls. This has yet to materialize in any meaningful way. However, if vendors begin thinking differently about telesales and customer service and start considering these transient relationships as opportunities to build relationships over time, interactive video may be useful.
Regarding culture…like many people who work for companies that are adopting collaborative cultures, Chris has had to adjust. He previously embraced the command-and-control approach. However, Cisco has moved away from a competitive, authoritarian culture and has adopted a more collaborative culture in which team members from many functions and regions participate in making decisions.
My sense is that Cisco has made this shift for at least two reasons:
1) Collaboration creates greater value
2) Cisco sells a range of collaborative tools including unified communications and telepresence.
These tools, as I’ve written about extensively, take hold far more effectively in collaborative cultures. So, Cisco clearly wants to set an example.
Chris and I also talked about the merging of real-time and asynchronous tools. Cisco is now launching WebEx Connect, which provides a collaborative space through which colleagues can connect in real time through web conferencing plus collaborate after the real-time session ends. Colleagues who may have missed a web conference can search the audio and listen to key parts of a web conference after the fact. Users can also post comments about web conferences.