Monday, June 2, 2008

Integrating Virtual Environments in the Workplace

NOTE: Another essay from a class I'm currently taking.

About a week ago, Da7id and I had a conversation while farting around Second Life – he asked the question (I’m paraphrasing here): Do you see any possibilities for Second Life in your professional world? I believe I answered maybe – Second Life has inherent strengths, some of which it shares in common with the MUDs and MOOs Churchill and Bly speak of in their article “Virtual Environments at Work: ongoing use of MUDs in the Workplace.” But Second Life, like the worlds this article describes, has inherent weaknesses that will prevent workplace adoption of SL as a professional tool, especially when compared with professional tools such as phones and e-mail which already have management blessings.

All of this may be a generational thing – Da7id and I agreed that in another generation or two, SL and other, more advanced virtual environments, may indeed be the norm.

I believe successful integration of technology hinges on management and participant acceptance of the technology and the nature of the workplace.

It’s interesting to note that the participants in the Argonne MUD Churchill and Bly describe are desk jockeys, or appeared to be so – many of them mentioned using the MUD to avoid having to visit others’ cubicles, and that they maintained an open MUD window on their computers. Bly and Churchill insist that for the MUD strategy to work, “it is clear that there needs to be a critical mass of users (101).” This arrangement works, however, only if the critical mass of workers are bound to desks, or do much of their work at their desks, whether at home or in the workplace. But if the critical mass leaves out a category of worker that is essential to the discussion, the MUD (and Second Life) has its professional limitations.

Where I work, the people who work in Operations aren’t bound to their desks, as their work is in the field, away from their computers. The accepted management technology plan includes emphasis on e-mails and phones. Top-tier operational personnel are assigned BlackBerrys, so they can get their e-mail on the go. Our document revision and approval process involves a computer program that is analogous to a MUD room, though it is limited to asynchronous communication. To enter this “room,” users have to be at their computers. Often when we need concurrence on a document, we have to literally drag our operators to their computers, away from the work they’re doing. They barely have the time to make e-mail work; they simply don’t put in enough desk time to make a MUD work. This is true for many who work here – ranging from radiological engineers to industrial hygienists. To find them in their office at a computer is a rarity. These people lie in the critical path of the work we do – so for the MUD to work, management would have to realize that these operators need more computer time than they’re allotted. As interviewee Rob notes in Churchill and Bly’s article, the computer is not an official Operational tool – the phone is.

Churchill and Bly write further: “Organizational endorsement is a clear factor in the uptake of any technology. Resistance was clear in a number of our interviewees who either were resistant themselves or feared the resistance of those they considered important (104).” Selling a MUD or Second Life would be a challenge, especially considering the limitations of the technology. Those who use the MUD at Argonne obviously sold it as an important tool in their collaborations. Such an effort would equally be needed to sell Second Life. Such salesmanship is possible -- even considering the limitations described later.

I sincerely believe there are professional potentials in Second Life, and other similar environments. But getting the necessary buy-in (and approved computer time) for all participants will be a limiting factor. Churchill and Bly recognize this as a serious problem. It may be up to individual groups to show the utility of using MUDs, SL, in collaborative, creative ways that get the results management wants – management seems flexible in letting us get our work done in any way we see fit, as long as it meets the regulatory requirements and is done in a timely fashion.

Other restrictions include: Hardware requirements, document limitations, and the potential for goofing off and the mere appearance of unprofessionalism.

Hardware – I think it’s a safe bet only a small percentage – if any – of the computers where I work meet the minimum hardware requirements SL asks for. Our computers are an average four years old and were purchased as “glorified word processors,” with limited processing speed and graphics capabilities.

Document limitations -- The MUDs Churchill and Bly write about share a common shortfall with Second Life – the inability to share documents effectively. “We would probably – at least I would probably visit more if I could, for example, send an equation to, say, Marv, and say, “Marv, what do you think of this equation?” writes Jerry, an infrequent MUD user (105). “Right now, if you want to do that, you either have to come up with some method to translate that . . .” Rather than face the extra time involved in making such conversions, and in the interest of preserving document formatting, outside graphics and other issues, SL users who rely on exchanging documents may simply revert to e-mail, a much simpler method of sharing documents. An obvious work-around is to use SL in conjunction with a word processor and e-mail program – but that would easily convince those reluctant to use the collaborative possibilities in SL that SL does not fit the need – why use an elaborate 3-D environment when the word processors and e-mail we have “works better”?

SL could take a great leap forward Limits on the kind of rich textual information that can be exchanged – it’s great for talking, poorer for documents. SL gives option to go to web pages or play movies, power points, for a fee (albeit nominal in most cases) – should also give option to open up common document formats (RTF, PDF, et cetera) and allow those to be uploaded to avatar inventories in order to make the note card tool much more professional. I have searched for ways to do this, but to no avail. Cut-and-paste methodology may work with the SL note cards, but again, the note cards are not set up as word processors, but simply a method of sharing simple texts.

Goofing off/professionalism -- Churchill and Bly write, “A number of people complained about the rich descriptions and the mapping convention utilized in this particular MUD. This was seen to be frivolous, not in keeping with the organization’s image and a distraction when unnecessary test was being sent to the screen (105).” Again, the same can be said of SL. Even in the professional environments we encounter there, there is an element of frivolity that would be distracting to some, adding fuel to their desire to cut SL from the tools they use for work.

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