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A Corporate Digital Community Goes Virtual



IBM Second Life

October 4, 2007 By

For three weeks this summer 40 employees from IBM's global delivery centers in five countries -- as spread out as the distance between Argentina and Philippines -- sat together for hours of intense brainstorming sessions. They sought to identify the key attributes that distinguish IBM's global delivery capabilities from the competition. Nothing new or irregular about that. Brainstorming sessions after all, are pretty common in the corporate world. Still this event was like nothing before. For, no one moved from their homes or offices, and perhaps not everyone was even aware of each other's existence until they met. Yet after three weeks, all of them were pals enough to seek help from each other in planning their next holiday.

These employees met in Second Life, the Internet-based virtual world, which enables its users, called "Residents", to interact with each other through motional avatars. "While the official assignment was purely business in nature," says Christopher Sciacca, the strategic communications manager of IBM's Integrated Operations Division, "behind the scenes [however], IBM expected the experience to help build a culture that extends outside of the countries the employees work in."

Using Second Life for business is nothing new. More than half a dozen global companies have already opened virtual stores or are using the concept of the virtual world in some form to drive business. But IBM is the only company that is using Second Life to not only drive its business but also to build a new form digital community -- one that helps its employees make connections with their colleagues around the world to give it an edge.

According to Tara Sexton, vice president, global communications, IBM Integrated Operations, "community building in Second Life is a unique experience. It is not really surfing the Internet. Rather, it is surfing it with the virtual reality version of yourself. And instead of going around in a flat 2-dimensional website, it is almost like walking around in an IBM building surrounded by virtual products instead of photographs."

"When we meet in person (even if it's only the avatar) the conversation takes on a more personal and human touch," says Daniel Scumparim, server systems operations, IBM Integrated Technology Delivery, based in Hortolandia, Brazil. "It's very different from only a phone call. We all noticed an enhancement in the conversation and ideas sharing during our brainstorm."

Indeed ever since its inception in 2003, this 3D virtual world has grown explosively and has almost become a phenomenon. According to its creator Linden Research, Inc, Second Life, which is free for casual use, is inhabited today by around 10 million Residents from around the world and has over half a million regular visitors.

Its users say that if the World Wide Web has changed the way people communicate with almost anyone, Second Life has given them the chance to meet virtually, in varying contexts, and in a body created by the user thus offering endless social possibilities. IBM chairman, Sam Palmisano, also believes that Second Life is the next phase of the Internet's evolution that may have the same level of impact as the first Web explosion.

But none of these attributes has been the prime driver for IBM to use Second Life or the virtual world as platforms for creating a new cultural community across IBM multiple delivery centers the world over.

"The biggest benefit of the virtual world-concept is that networking increases by leaps and bounds through this medium," says Tara Sexton. "Through virtual world IBM employees can meet people who they would have never met otherwise." And more importantly, for meeting in a 3D environment of virtual world, one neither needs high-end equipments nor access to high bandwidth [like those needed for video conferencing, etc]. All that is required is a normal DSL connection and a personal computer.


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