by Rob Koplowitz

A while back I was invited to a very interesting presentation of some research going on in Sun Microsystems' labs. They were showing off a project called MPK 20. The name of the project is aligned with the naming of the buildings on their Menlo Park campus, MPK 1 – 19. MPK 20, the next building, will be completely virtual. Think of MPK 20 as a private, behind the firewall, version of Linden's Second Life. The idea is for Sun to provide a very rich area for remote workers to come together and collaborate. Their early vision is very much a virtual version of their physical workspace world. The question that occurred to me is, do we need to pursue this path of virtual workspaces?

Let's start with an assumption. The paradigm of bringing workers to a physical office is beginning to break down and it's only going to get worse. A few driving factors:

  • Carbon footprint. Organizations will be increasingly held accountable for the overall effect they have on the world. Asking workers to drive or fly to a physical location in order to do work that can be done virtually is undoubtedly the biggest contributing factor to overall carbon footprint for most organizations.
  • Competition for workers. If you require workers to come to an office every day, your hiring is constrained by the talent pool that is located within commute distance of your office. Would you rather have the best worker available in the world or the best worker within 30 miles of your office? Additionally, workers that commute from long distances are far more likely to become frustrated and leave.
  • Plane travel just sucks! Between delays, the physical discomfort of being shoved into a tiny chair and massive time inefficiency, an alternative to the constant flying that accompanies the life of today's workers is becoming an imperative. Just this week I conducted an all-day meeting via phone and web conference with a client on the opposite coast. You know what? It worked fine. The client saved a ton of money and I got at least 20 hours of my life back by skipping two cross country flights.

I'm sure I'm just hitting the tip of the iceberg here. The point is that tools that allow us to work remotely more effectively are extremely  important and becoming more so. We have a host of tools today including email, IM, Web conferencing and collaborative workspaces that  help with the process. The promise of things like MPK 20 and Second Life  is to bring all of these together  into a single environment that allows interpersonal interactions around a given task, process or area of interest. The "human" element is introduced in the sense that I can share thoughts and ideas with others through the use of our respective avatars in a very natural way.

So far, firms that have experimented with doing business in a virtual world have had varying levels of success. The killer use case to date has been around virtual conferences with presentations as a main focus. IBM, Cisco, Intel and others are conducting customer meeting and conferences in Second Life successfully. The nature of the interaction favors a virtual experience because it creates a context for bringing together a community through an area of common interest. The users and vendors benefit because the attendees can interact far more effectively than in a standard Web conferencing setting. The fact that you can turn to the avatar next to you and converse, or join an interesting conversation is powerful.

It's not clear whether users will gain similar benefits from interacting in this way in more ad-hoc settings. The idea of a globally dispersed group of individuals serendipitously coming together in a  virtual conference and solving the "big problem" is intriguing. The question is whether people are interested in working this way. The issue of training and change management will loom large. Hey, I have an idea. It's your choice: meet me in the virtual conference room in 5 minutes or squeeze into a middle seat in the back row of a 737 for five hours and then meet. Now there's some experiential learning. I'm willing to give Second Life a second look!