EricadriverBy Erica Driver

At the Virtual Worlds 2008 conference in New York City this week I had quite a few conversations about how using virtual worlds in the enterprise can increase serendipitous interactions among people. What’s all the fuss about serendipitous interactions, you might ask? Unexpected, unplanned conversations with people you wouldn’t normally talk with can lead to discovery of new relationships, increased bonding and sense of belonging, discussions that lead to business problem solutions, and all kinds of new ideas and innovations. (For more thoughts on this see the Forrester blog posts Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Interaction and Serendipity: A Critical Innovation Success Factor.)

During gatherings held in the virtual world (“in-world” gatherings, in virtual world parlance) people may be engaging in activities together and also interacting via group or one-on-one voice chat, local area  or group text chat, and instant message. Multiple conversations are flowing at any given moment. High tech companies like Cisco, IBM, and Linden Lab are already using virtual worlds for internal activities like meetings, collaboration, and training, and have been benefiting from an increase in serendipitous interactions among people by:

  • Gathering around an in-world video screen to watch broadcast events. You might gather to watch breaking world news, an important political speech, or a press conference about a major industry event -– just as you would in the real world around TV screens in common areas or lobbies. In the virtual world, people physically located anywhere in the real world can get together at the same virtual video screen, watching the event together and communicating with each other all the while about what the event means — or about anything.
  • Holding in-world idea jam sessions. Many companies don’t host regular jam sessions (brainstorming or idea generation sessions) and those that do are bound by geographical and space limitations. People fly in from all around the company to attend the sessions, and once the meeting disbands people go back to their regular old jobs. By holding jam sessions in-world and taking advantage of the capabilities of the 3D interactive world to record sessions, express positions and opinions, and communicate complex ideas, anyone can participate in an engaging jam session regardless of where they are physically located. And these conversations can be more frequent and even productive in the virtual world than in the physical world because there is no need to travel, jam sessions can be persistent, entire sessions can be recorded, and people can enter and leave ongoing jam sessions as they have time.
  • Reclaiming the dead time before distributed meetings start. Unlike physical single-location meetings, when people gather together and chat outside the meeting room or around the coffee while they’re waiting for the session to start, teleconferences offer little to no opportunity for people to interact with each other before the call begins. Like me, you probably couldn’t even begin to estimate the number of teleconferences you dialed in for and listened to horrible elevator music while you waited for the host to arrive. You may have no idea who else is there listening to the same hold music, separated from you by just a few switches and settings — it could be someone who has already solved a business problem similar to one you are facing but you’d never know it unless it happened to come up in conversation. You may establish a back channel via IM with one or a few participants. But this doesn’t come even remotely close to the opportunities for serendipitous interaction possible when people get together in person in the physical world or the virtual world.
  • Hosting in-world company parties. Organizations often hold office holiday or seasonal parties for people who are local, and bonding and unplanned conversations happen there. But these interactions are closed off to people who are based in other geographies. I heard some great ideas at the conference for bringing people together for a fun virtual party. Like holding a winter holiday party in the virtual world, during which you hold a virtual snowman-building contest and go ice skating, downhill skiing, or on a hot air balloon ride together. How about a mixed-reality event, where on the wall in the physical party room is projected the part of the party going on in the virtual world, and in the virtual world is a streaming audio and video projection of the part of the party going on in the real world. People can text chat back and forth between the physical party and the virtual party using computers set up in the physical party room. For more thoughts on mixed reality events see the Forrester blog posts Good Practices For Mixed-Reality Meetings and Blended Real Life / Second Life Meeting Shows Promise.
  • Guide each other on tours of cool places you’ve discovered in the virtual world. Second Life, as a virtual world featuring user-generated content, is filled with extraordinary creations but sometimes they are hard to find, and they are often discovered through word of mouth. Sharing these discoveries with others and experiencing them together can spark creativity and generate ideas in a very engaging way. "Imagine the possibilities if we did something like this?" is probably something you’ll hear at some point when you go on a Cool Places tour. Make sure people get invited who don’t normally work together — you never know what people will discover through the shared experience.