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April 27, 2008

Work Productivity in Second Life

Friday was one of those days when once I got into Second Life, it seemed like I couldn't get back out again. Some folk might assume that this relates to playing and a lack of personal discipline, but instead it is rather the reverse.

I spent my morning working on email and blogs, then came into Second Life for a meeting of our local Second Life community (which will be described at the SLUM blog). Immediately following that meeting was the regular Metanomics session, followed by a special extra Metanomics session with Larry Pixel of NMC. Somewhere around that time there was another meeting for Immersive Education, but I was too worn out to stay around for that.

During these 3.5 hours of meetings, I had separate private conversations with one of the presenters, a professional colleague from the UK, one of my SL neighbors, a local SL community member, and the Metanomics host. I also took notes of key points from the presentations and participated in the audience discussion (called "backchat"). At the same time, in real life, I periodically tried to make sure my sick son was drinking his fluids, eating lunch, and taking his meds.

This is one of the things I like and dislike about working in Second Life - multitasking. I find I can be so incredibly productive and efficient, but I also find the juggling a bit overwhelming and sometimes stressful. Mostly, though, I appreciate being able to maximise the effective use of my time.

The conversation with the professional colleague was, in part, about the issues of whether or not Second Life is useful for professional productivity, and specifically whether having professional meetings in Second Life is useful.

A Sexual Health Sim in Second Life: Web conferencing: 2D vs. 3D (or both), or ‘Why conduct events and meetings in Second Life?’: http://sl-sexualhealth.org.uk/?p=140

For myself personally, this is a no-brainer. I cannot imagine being as productive and professionally engaged without virtual worlds as I am as a resident of Second Life. (Note: Second Life is one of many virtual worlds, and seems to be currently the most productive one for professional engagement in my areas of interest.) This is not so obvious to people who are not active in a virtual world or Second Life specifically. So let me step back a minute and try to show why it is useful for me.

Firstly, I am a single parent of a special needs child. When I became a single parent, my son asked me not to travel for a while. "A while" became about five years. Traveling is a hardship both financially and even more so for parenting and trying to provide a stable home environment for my child. Being able and willing to travel is essential for many if not most professional positions, and is often a requirement for promotion.

Travel is important for very good reasons. Professional meetings provide opportunities for engagement with other professionals, continuing education, professional acculturation and support, discussion and learning about core issues and trends in the profession. Without a rich foundation in all of these one is at risk of becoming not just socially isolated as a professional but of losing touch with the current standards of practice, and eventually losing what it is that really makes the difference between a professional and someone who isn't.

In Second Life, I participate in professional meetings on a variety of topics on a weekly basis. I engage with other professionals in education, librarianship, technology, science, and healthcare at these professional meetings. I see the same people over and over, know who they are and why they are important to know. I engage with these same professionals outside of the meetings as well. The "hallway conversations" of geosynchronous meetings become conversations in chatrooms, via twitter, by email, on wikis and social networking sites, and other media.

Geosynchronous meetings (meetings to which someone travels) have common outcomes that contribute to your professional productivity. You gather information to apply in your home environment, have useful and enjoyable discussions with like-minded folk, find and share solutions to common problems, are invited to present or publish, are invited to partner on research projects, discover that someone else has already done what you were just about to start, etcetera.

There is not one of these outcomes that does not also happen with Second Life meetings. For myself, I have given two professional presentations in Second Life, taught classes, been invited to partner on grant proposals in collaboration with other institutions, and had many of those interesting and productive conversations that lead to useful outcomes or resources for my parent institution.

Geosynchronous meetings, however, have significantly different costs embedded in the events. Just on a personal level, the costs of the actual travel, hotel, food, and meeting fees are significant. The additional costs and inconvenience and risk of arranging childcare, petcare and home security are also items that decidedly get my attention.

When those costs are extrapolated to all attendees, and extended to include the costs of planning and coordinating the physical arrangements of the meeting, well, frankly it is baffling to me that more organizations don't define virtual worlds as an institution priority as a cost savings mechanism! IBM is one example of a major organization that has indeed made virtual worlds an institutional priority. IBM has at least 26 islands in Second Life, of which one is open to the public and the rest are reserved for the use of IBM employees on IBM business. That says something to me. IBM is far from being the only significant corporate presence in Second Life, but to detail out the corporate landscape of SL should be saved for another post.

Alright, so for the sake of the argument, let's say we've established sufficient cause for shifting some or many professional meetings to an online environment as a cost savings mechanism. There are other ways to have online meetings. Why not just have a web conferencing system? What is special or better about having meetings in Second Life or another virtual world? What are the barriers to having meetings in virtual worlds? Good questions, that can be better answered by others, but I will make a small attempt.

What are the barriers to having meetings in virtual worlds, Second Life in particular? The barriers have mostly to do with the technology itself and learning to be comfortable with that technology. This, too, could be a whole blogpost by itself, easily. To touch on it superficially, software-hardware compatibility is a problem for many folk. If you are buying new computers, make sure they have the video cards currently preferred by most virtual worlds.

What is better or special about having meetings in Second Life. The two words the come up with overwhelming frequency are IMMERSION and ENGAGEMENT. For myself, I have attended and presented at professional meetings in Second Life. Feels an awful lot like doing the same thing in real life. I have attended presentations on web conferencing systems. Perhaps my experiences were atypical, but what I recall most is the awkwardness and technical challenges.

So, perhaps I am prejudiced, but for me, speaking personally, this seems like an obvious choice to make and an obvious direction for institutions to explore. Given the choice, check out virtual worlds for your next big meeting or seminar series.

Posted by pfa at April 27, 2008 10:52 AM

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