My good friend Gina Minks started a lively debate when she took an opposing position to my good friend Anders Gronstedt who vented his frustration with lawyers, IT pros and HR organizations that block the adoption of social networks and virtual worlds like Second Life. Whose side should I take?
Of Second Life, Gina says that “In [her] experience, it’s not an application that can be integrated into an enterprise environment.” I have to agree. The mistake is to think that you integrate Second Life or another other virtual world existing in the cloud into an enterprise. The trick is to work out how to integrate the enterprise into Second Life. Second Life is not just an application outside the firewall like Kenexa’s Brassring or ADP’s payroll services. It’s a constellation of communities, creative individuals, micro-applications, an economy, government embassies, educational institutions, large corporations and small businesses, all evolving in strange and wonderful ways. We don’t integrate the Canadian market into an enterprise any more than we integrate the world of Second Life into the enterprise. It behooves the enterprise to determine whether there’s value in integrating into Second Life, and how its customers, partners, employees, competitors, shareholders and analysts might use this rich and social communication channel to interact with the company.
Gina mentions the problems connecting to the rapidly expanding Second Life grid. These problems are strictly a function of technologies like NAT’ed firewalls and a company’s security policies. They’re not something you can change overnight or inexpensively. However, Second Life is the canary in the coalmine here. If an enterprise can’t manage connections to the Second Life grid which is growing by hundreds of servers per month, there’s no way the enterprise can connect to the sprawling cloud services of companies like Microsoft. (See this short video for a brief overview of a highly dynamic containerized data center that can move around to take advantage of cheaper land or power and faster internet connections.) There’s a big impedance mismatch between the rigid, predictable highly managed network run by IT and the wispy nature of the cloud.
To be fair to IT here, the problem is not just connectivity. Even assuming that there are no virus threats in a typical virtual world viewer, there are compliance and trust issues. IT has to ensure that sensitive content (intellectual property, employee data, customer data) is not made public by an employee exposing such data either by copying it to the virtual world or building an integration bridge between enterprise applications and the virtual world in the cloud. Most IT organizations buy compliance engines from network equipment vendors and are thus constrained by the filtering technology provided by the vendors.
The trust issues in virtual worlds arise from the peculiar insistence that your name in Second Life can’t be your real name and from the absence of any facility for a corporation to attest to the identity of someone purporting to represent the company. This is not a problem unique to virtual worlds as Sarah Palin well knows from her interview with the fake Nicolas Sarkozy.
The challenges of integrating into Second Life prompt some enterprises to implement Opensim, realXtend, Olive, Qwaq or other virtual worlds inside the firewall. It is a great way to expose the company to the capabilities of these platforms for collaboration, data visualization, simulation, training, media production, etc. The costs are probably higher than for Second Life since there are fewer sources of assets (content) and services. Opensim and realXtend are still alpha quality. Qwaq is extremely new and generally requires Smalltalk skills to extend it. The freelance designers and consultants who can meet you in Second Life can’t meet you inside the firewall unless you bring them to your physical facilities or arrange VPN access for them. Even then, it’s extremely difficult for them to bring assets into your private world from the external ecosystem. Without those experienced designers, builders and scripters the learning curve for the enterprise is definitely steep. (We constantly use the word steep when we mean shallow – the time axis is horizontal and the vertical access is proficiency, so a complex system has a shallow learning curve.) The more expensive systems like Olive include rich asset libraries and usually include some packaged consulting.
I know from discussions with Gina that her views are shaped by her particular training challenges. Part of Gina’s group develops technical training for hardware systems still in beta. The technical documentation is incomplete, there are bugs in the products, and demo hardware is hard to acquire in sufficient quantities. Their target audience is the trainers who will train others, and the first teams who will install and support the beta equipment at customer sites. The team doesn’t have time to develop detailed models of storage devices, controllers, connectors, cables, etc., and script them to slide in and out of racks, expose their inner workings and animate the replacement of field replaceable units.
Another part of Gina’s group develops training materials for partners and customers. The challenge here is keeping up with the constantly changing functionality of the software. The production cycle for the instructional materials is already quite long, and having to maintain materials in an additional format could be burdensome, especially when the tools to move assets from one environment to another are limited or non-existent.
Sloodle is the first attempt to wrap a 3D interface around a 2D course management system. It enables the projection of 2D content (course schedules, chat rooms, quizzes, slide presentations, etc.) from Moodle-based systems into Second Life virtually immediately. It’s an interesting first step but doesn’t go very far towards reusing 2D assets in a 3D world. Moreover, it doesn’t attempt to address the issue of presenting animated 3D objects from Autocad or 3D Studio Max into Second Life. The only other 3D VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) that I know of is Edusim, a Croquet-based teaching environment driven by a provider of interactive electronic whiteboards used in classrooms. Some progress has been made recently in bringing Collada-based assets into Cobalt, a new viewer for Croquet-based worlds. Neither of these tools directly addresses the needs of corporate instructional designers or corporate learners.
Proprietary LMSes will eventually adopt a 3D front-end, but whether they adopt the common open source platforms or continue their proprietary practices remain to be seen. The Immersive Education Initiative is working to accelerate the adoption of immersive environments by developing cross-world data standards (Open File Formats) and a open education grid (MediaGrid.org) for the exchange of educational assets (including SCORM-compliant assets used in many corporate environments today.) The MediaGrid should provide Gina’s team with a choice of platforms, tools and basic assets (classroom affordances for example) as well as best practices and a community of subject matter experts to draw on. Her IT organization will still have to solve the problem of connecting to a dynamic multi-platform grid or her team will be denied access to increasingly valuable tools and knowledge.
There’s a lost opportunity here which needs an organizational solution. If the 3D assets had been built by a corporate design group that focuses on long-lived or reusable assets, the ROI would be dramatically different. Imagine that the engineering CAD systems deliver simplified meshes of the new products to this design group. The design group, versed in the virtual worlds technologies that the company uses, prepares assets for Gina’s training team, for the video group doing animations for the launch video, for the virtual trade show platforms used to reach customers far from the trade shows in New York, San Francisco or Las Vegas. They use these assets to populate virtual data centers attached to virtual Executive Briefing Centers. Gina’s team now has options. The first training class may well be done in the conventional way due to time pressure. Learning from this initial training course, her team delivers the second wave of training on a global scale using a combination of simulations in a virtual world, video from the first class, plus real-time collaboration with the trainers and the first wave of experts who are now in the field with some installation experience under their belts.
There’s a precedent for this central group of designers who prepare reusable assets – it’s the corporate presentation or art department that develops the PowerPoint presentations and Flash animations that the rest of the company repurposes for specific situations. Few of us have the time to develop the skills to build Flash animations, but we recognize when they should be used and happily leverage the corporate resources that can produce them.
So far we’ve only discussed training materials originating inside the corporation. For today’s continuous, just-in-time learners access to material outside the corporation is just as important. Most canned content is accessible to corporations for read-only consumption. The challenge comes with multimedia content combined with live commentary from participants (text and/or voice) or with 3D content in Second Life or other public virtual worlds. The compliance issues associated with monitoring content in those interactive channels cause many IT organizations to declare them off-limits because their compliance filters and e-Discovery archivers only work with email or HTTP traffic on port 80. As more 3D content becomes available on mobile phones, this stance will become increasingly untenable.
What about cultural issues? They are really, really tough to change. To give just one example – Anders and I sat through a presentation yesterday where the speaker talked about the confrontational culture in his company. It was prized as being almost Darwinian in its ability to select the best ideas. Despite support from the most senior executives for virtual meetings, the middle and upper management objected that the technologies prevented them from shouting and bullying. It sounded like a company that eats its young.
Perhaps the toughest cultural challenge for companies adopting virtual worlds for training is the participatory nature of many of these worlds. These are not platforms for projecting content and people into the physical world in the way that LiveMeeting or Webex are. They are much more akin to distributed Lego Mindstorms(tm) kits. Leave the room for a little while and someone will combine the parts and re-program them in ways that you didn’t anticipate. The trick is to build a culture that wants to leverage the kind of creativity that a Lego Mindstorms kits generate.