digital nation - life on the virtual frontier

Interview Francoise LeGoues

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As vice president and chief technology officer for sales and distribution she spearheaded IBM's efforts to conduct internal meetings in the virtual world, Second Life. She says more than 10,000 IBM employees currently work this way. This is the edited transcript of interviews conducted on Oct. 13, 2009 and Dec. 3, 2009.

Why did IBM start to use Second Life?

There is more than one reason. One is, we're in fact a very young company. More than half of our people have been at IBM less than five years, and that young generation of people that grew up playing World of Warcraft, ... they grew up using this 3-D world. They are used to it.

“On open Second Life, there is weird behavior. But this is the IBM internal environment. We have strong business guidelines, whether you're in [IBM] virtual world or whether you're in person, they still apply.”

And when they started working with IBM, which is now a really global enterprise, we have people in 152 countries, and we really work together. We work with people in India; we work with people in China. And the combination of these two factors, ... it was sort of an alignment of the planets.

We went, wow, maybe if we started using this new technology, we could really work together better, more effectively, and maybe have more fun.

And sitting in iChat groups doesn't do the same thing?

No. We have Webcasts, we do phone conference calls, etc., and they work fine when it's either one on one [or for a] relatively short time. So if you have a 45-minute Webcast, that's fine. If you've got three people discussing something on the phone, that's fine. When you start hitting a problem is when you have 20 people, 50 people, 100 people or even more trying to sit through a Web conference for three hours. There is one thing we can all bet on: that after 45 minutes they are doing something else. You know, they are doing their mail; they are checking their other messages; they are playing solitaire. ...

So this immersive environment that the 3-D Internet gives us is much more engaging, much more human in a way. And it makes it much easier for people to stay engaged and focused.

And these are serious meetings?

These are serious meetings, yes. ...

I'll give you one example. At the beginning of the year, I did my worldwide kickoff meeting in Second Life. There were about 150 people from all over the world. Some people from Vietnam, from India were on, as well as from United States, and one person was in Alaska. And the goal of that meeting was for us to bring each other [together] as a team and know what we are each working on, learn about different projects and really build a team. That's very serious.

So as part of this serious meeting, we certainly needed presentations on the project, [but] we had some games, too, some team-building games. We did some treasure hunts in the meeting. But that's serious, too. You know, we're building a team here. ...

But your software engineer might show up as a raccoon or something.

Actually that's a very good question. Since these worlds came from the gaming industry, for a long time we inherited a lot of this gaming background where people show up as raccoons, where people, for that matter, came with completely different names. You would show up as, you know, a raccoon named King of the Raccoons or something.

Once we started using it as business environment, we realized that that was actually a really big problem. If we want to use it as a business environment, one of the most important aspects of it is in fact for people to be who they say they are, for people to use their real names.

So one of the technological problems we had is that in order to do this within IBM, we had to bring the entire system inside the firewall so that we could authenticate. ... Now we can prove that if I say I'm Francoise LeGoues, when I show up as Francoise LeGoues, I can prove that I am Francoise LeGoues, so that was very important.

Now, people are still a representation of themselves, so most of us have chosen avatars that look like us. They may be a little bit younger, little bit thinner, but they sort of look like us. Some people still like to be represented by something else. There is a person on my team who likes to be a little robot, and that's fine as long as we know this is who this person is, and we can prove it. So the name is important. The representation, I think, tells a lot about the personality of the person, but it's not a show stopper. ...

Are there particular avatars, or stories of avatars, that come to mind when you think about highlights of your experience? ...

There are people who feel extremely strongly about their representation. And it has engendered discussion that I never thought we would have around what is appropriate business behavior in a 3-D environment. When you come to think about it, that is frankly a silly question, because this is not me; this is a cartoonish version of me. And yet there is no doubt that even I care what I wear. I will actually hear myself say things like, "Oh, I have to put on another dress; I wore that at the last meeting." So people really care about their representation.

And so the people who, for example, feel strongly about being a robot, it is often because they've been in this environment for a long time. Maybe they were very used to the gaming industry, or they've been working with Second Life or other virtual worlds for five years or more, and they've grown attached to that part of their persona, and they feel strongly about it. I think that's fine.

And then do people do weird things in there, magic tricks and disappear?

No. People do weird things sometimes by mistake when they are not completely used to the environment sometimes. One thing you can do is fly, and people start flying and get lost, and you have to send a search party to find them.

But what we have found is, this is a business environment. If you go on the open Second Life, there is weird behavior. But this is the IBM internal environment. We have strong business guidelines. People know them. Whether you're in a virtual world or whether you're in person, they still apply. You're not going to behave in a dramatically different way once you're in the 3-D environment. ...

What were some of the obstacles, in terms of people's reluctance to go [into Second Life]?

We haven't had too much of that. We're a company of techies, so our employees tend to like new technology and certainly are willing to give it a try.

We had some technical difficulties at the beginning, which were in fact a very strong impediment. The first version, just 18 months ago, of the internal platform that we use was not voice-enabled, which means to communicate, you had to type; you had to text people. That's just not [conducive] to having a good meeting. So that was a problem.

To answer the question of what type of meetings really benefit from this -- if the goal of the meeting is for me to present something to the team, and I'm going to be looking at charts, well, then a 3-D interface doesn't add much to it. I may as well do a Web conference since I'm just using a flat interface. ...

And what we have found is, those [that work] are the meetings that are, by design, much more collaborative, where we're either trying to brainstorm, where we're really trying to share ideas, ... where we can break into small groups of people that will talk about different topics or wander from one group to another like you would have at a real conference. So that's one of the things we are trying to do now: figure out what kind of environment, what kind of meeting does this really help, and not just deploy it for everything, because that doesn't make sense. ...

And what sort of feedback are you getting from employees on this?

It varies a great deal. We do have people who really have embraced it. We have people who run the majority of their internal meetings on it when they have a very distributed team and really get a great deal of value from it and even now have conferences with clients, where they do meetings with clients or with academia on it, really use the medium.

Now, there are people who don't like the technology as much. There are some people who maybe value the actual direct human interface much more and are willing to travel 18 hours to go to India and meet face to face. And there is value in that once in a while. But it's wearing on the body, and you get tired.

So I think there is this balance of trying to certainly use this when it makes sense, when you can reduce travel, make it much more collaborative; maybe it is more reactive. People, I think, ... sometimes care that we are trying to replace a human interaction, which is not the truth. It's much more [to] make meetings we would have on the phone anyway much more interactive and better. And so I think the ones that resist is the ones that are a little bit worried about losing that human touch.

But as I walk around this building anyway, it seems like a lot of offices are empty, and it's not because there's fewer IBM employees. Why should they come to work if they're going to sit on a laptop?

Absolutely. I have an office here. ... So I could be in my office, but I'd be on the phone anyway, so [working from home] is actually a much better setting. And I do that maybe three days a week, and two days a week I do in fact go to the office and talk to people, and it's a nice balance. ...

My team is more than 50 percent around the world. ... Why am I going to commute? It's bad for the environment; it takes a lot of time for me. ... And this technology will make it possible for me to work from home but still introduce this notion of being able to meet people and be much more in the old workplace environment where in fact you did have a team around you that you would meet face to face. And you would have ad hoc meetings [where] you'd go, "OK, let's go to this conference room; let's have a cup of coffee." You can almost do that virtually while a lot of us are working remotely. ... You saw it yourself; it really does feel real. You do end up making silly comments about the way people are dressed, like you would in the office. ...

So for you, the net effect is that it seems more social rather than less.

No doubt about it. It does not replace those face-to-face meetings that we're going to have anyway, but it makes it possible when we don't have the face-to-face meeting to introduce more of the human interface. ...

So has there been any measurable success from this program?

This is very early, so we're just putting the metrics in place. At a very simple level, what we've been able to measure is how much money we saved by not flying to meetings. So one big meeting we have every year is a meeting of the Academy of Technology, which is about 300 to 500 worldwide technical people. And we saved on that meeting about $300,000. But we estimate that for all the meetings that we ran last year, we saved more than $1 million.

However, that measurement is frankly an oversimplification. It's just hard dollars that we can save. It doesn't measure the time that we save by not having people not fly from China, from India, or the wear and tear on the body, for example.

It also misses, frankly, the fact that when you do a face-to-face meeting, there's actually a value to that, and we don't quite know how to quantify that value and compare it with the value that we get from running the meetings in the virtual world. ...

... Do you envision a day when IBM, as part of what it does, will be teaching companies how to live virtually?

Oh, absolutely. In fact we do have a practice in our service area that starts doing this. So we certainly share our experience. We use ourselves a little bit as guinea pigs. We try it on ourselves; we see if it works. But absolutely, we're talking to clients on what does it mean to have a presence there [in Second Life]? What does it mean to communicate with their own employees, but sometimes also with their clients? What does it mean for a retailer to have a presence maybe above and beyond what they have on the regular Internet? So absolutely, we have this vision, too.

And where do you see these 3-D immersive worlds on the continuum of communication technologies?

I see it as just one more way that we add to our arsenal to make it possible for us to work better together and communicate better together. And we do have a very broad range, starting from the cell phone and the Blackberry to the phone line at home to Webcast to using the Internet to do conference to a 3-D Internet to video conferencing to immersive technology like what we do with Cisco type of technology, where it's much more video type of base.

And as you say yourself, this is a continuum. And one thing that we're trying to address is, what is the right technology to use in the right environment? What is the easiest one to deploy? What is the one that feels the most natural? What is the cheaper, certainly? But I think the most important question is, which one served your purpose at the time that you need it?

So Second Life, for example, or 3-D Internet in general, is great when you're trying to bring a lot of people together. If you want 100 people together, you can't do that by a video conferences. You're going to have [these] 100 little vignettes, it's not going to help. So it's great for that.

It's also great when you want to have a very quick ad hoc meeting. So if I'm at my home, it's 6:00 in the morning, I really need to meet with my team in India, that's a great way to do this. Don't have to set up a video link, don't have to do anything technology-fancy. And we can have this very quick ad hoc meeting. ...

Do you see these 3-D immersive spaces becoming the dominant Internet space?

Predicting the future is really dangerous business, so I'm going to try to be careful here. But what I think is going to happen is we're going to see an integration of all of this technology on a desktop. Whether this desktop is going to look like a browser or ... something else, I'm not quite sure. But when you want to do a quick 3-D meeting, you'll just click on a button, and it will pop up in one side of your screen, or you'll have a video on another side of your screen, or just a good old chatting in the middle of your screen. So my vision is this integration of all of this technology, where you can use the right one exactly when you need it.

And do you see the net effect of this as really just giving everybody more choices? ... Do you have faith in our ability not just in this company, but our ability as just kind of more on consumer-level technology users to increase our agency and our sense of choice over these things?

I think it's not just the choice part that I would emphasize. What I would emphasize is, in the world we work in today, ... this flat environment that Tom Friedman [author of The World Is Flat (2005)] talks about, where we work for people, with people all over the planet -- and at IBM we have 150-some countries we work in -- we have to have better ways to work together. And the way we've done it so far through the Internet, through chatting, through notes, through the phone, has limited how well we can do this. So this is one way to be able to work in this very global environment in a way that reintroduces some of the human aspect that we had lost.

So I don't think it's a matter of choice in the sense that it's not that it's more fun; it's not that it's cooler. It's much more that given the environment we're in, the technologies we've been using up until now are just not good enough, and so we need to go through that type of technology so that we can in fact really take advantage of this globalization.

But do you see the same technologies spilling over into people's social lives and real lives? In other words, do they just sort of move from the work Second Life then into the home Second Life?

I would think so. I mean, think about what is happening with e-mails or other Internet technology and the impact when it started bleeding into Facebook and Twitter, and really, that people are starting to use this technology that at the beginning [was] really devised much more as a way to communicate formally to become part of their life. I mean, we build networks of friends on whatever social network you have. And you do this at work; you do it at home. I see the exact same thing happening here, where you will have a virtual set of friends and meetings that you will have at home as well as at work, because we all have very global lives. My family is in France. It's nice to be able to talk to them wherever. So absolutely. ...

Tell me about the way that playing a game like World of Warcraft in someone's childhood is sort of evolving into a qualification for work.

When you think about what the teenagers are doing on World of Warcraft, they are building virtual teams -- worldwide virtual teams, very sophisticated teams -- with a very sophisticated skill level and very complex teaming environment. Then what they do with their virtual team is they build virtual strategies that then they go and execute on.

When you think about it ... that's exactly what we try to do when we work with our colleagues in India and in China. And so, having this experience, being familiar with this 3-D environment, in this case of World of Warcraft, in fact makes it much more natural to then come to a business environment and say: "Oh, I know how to team virtually. I can do this. I've done it before."

So can the kid watching this show now go to their parent and say, "Oh, IBM says that playing World of Warcraft will help me get a job there someday"?

I think they could! And I think they actually would probably be correct. And, you know, we don't quite ask specifically about it on résumés yet, but it's definitely a skill that is valuable. I may not put it as "I spend eight hours every day playing World of Warcraft," but I think it may be worth putting on a résumé, "I have experience in building virtual teams." ...

posted February 2, 2010

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