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IBM is looking at the virtual world for all of that. Its employees have had meetings, events and training sessions in-world, both at its own internal site and in Second Life.
It's also looking to use the medium to sell its products and services to other companies. "It's just a very powerful way of meeting, interacting and doing work with other people," says IBM executive consultant Doug McDavid. He says that about 6,000 to 7,000 IBM employees have avatars.
An early meeting took place in the fall of 2006, when IBM workers met in the auditorium on a private island that the company purchased in Second Life. (Owners of such islands can restrict access to authorized avatars, allowing for private exchanges.)
And late last year, IBM ran a training session for project managers using a virtual world built behind its own corporate firewall, says Susan Stucky, who manages the service design group in the Services Research Center at IBM's Almaden Research Center.
The training exercise centered on a fictional company that was changing from auto parts shipping to auto assembly. In this exercise, IBM had to adjust an existing contract with the company to meet its evolving needs.
In two eight-hour sessions, about a dozen project managers located in different offices went in-world to work as a team to renegotiate IBM's contract with the company. Using avatars, the project managers had to designate responsibilities, make proposals and pitches, and interact with the company's CEO and CIO -- everything that would happen in a real-life situation.
Stucky says IBM didn't do a formal return-on-investment study but still found that holding the exercise in a virtual world offered important benefits. For example, she says, it clearly saved the company money. It was cheaper to build a virtual auto-assembly shop for training than to replicate one in real life. And there were no airline tickets, hotel bills or meal tabs for out-of-town attendees; everyone participated from their home offices.
In addition, Stucky says some research has found that people are more willing to take risks as avatars than they are as real-life individuals, which could make virtual training more effective than its real-life counterpart.
The role of IT on this emerging new frontier is far from clear.
When Text 100's Hynes jumped into Second Life, she didn't consult her IT staff. And when Hynes decided to establish a richer presence for her agency in Second Life, she opted to outsource the work, hiring The Electric Sheep Co. in New York.
Aaron Uhrmacher, Text 100's global peer media consultant, says agency executives did seek input from the IT department before outsourcing the work but found that the group didn't have the skills necessary to build an in-world presence. "It was like the early days when you had to build a Web site, [and] you had to hire someone with HTML skills," Uhrmacher says.
So where does that leave IT?
Although the virtual world and its expected future evolution into the 3-D Internet are clearly emerging technologies, analysts, business executives and industry leaders say the push to explore their use in business often comes not from the IT department but rather from others, such as marketing or human resources.