Saturday, March 24, 2007

Space and Place

As I mentioned in an earlier post, virtual worlds such as Second Life are not new. As a matter of fact, around the turn of the century there was a blossoming field of research called CVE or Collaborative Virtual Environments (I even put in my two cents' worth [in Dutch] at the time). With its roots in Virtual Reality, CVE research introduced a new and important aspect to ICT: that of shared virtual spaces populated by avatars. That period also saw virtual worlds on the internet, with ActiveWorlds as the Second Life of that time, albeit with nowhere near the current media exposure. For more on that period, check out Bruce Damer's excellent history lesson over at Terra Nova.

And although most of the products, worlds and research projects from that period didn't last, it is important to take some of the lessons we learned with us. I see a tendency in current virtual world research to not be informed by important CVE discussions of the past. One of the most important discussions of the time focused on the concepts of space and place.

The obvious difference between using a virtual world such as Second Life and a normal website is the 3D aspect. A virtual world tries to create a sense of physical space. This space allows us to see ourselves (our avatars) in relation to others (their avatars), which means we can stand close or far away from somebody, face them when they speak or use rudimentary body language. This shared space also allows us to work together on or talk about objects that we can all see. This aspect of using " shared artifacts" was an important drive in CVE research. It is also presented as an important selling point for current virtual world tools such as Qwaq (see previous post and a discussion I had on Raph's website).

The lesson I draw from the CVE period is that too big a focus on space can make us forget the creation of a place. A place is a space invested with meaning. The easiest example is the home (as a place) compared to the house (as a space). How interesting is it for a company to have a space in Second Life when nobody visits it. Wouldn't it be more useful to create a Web 2.0 style website that actually draws visitors and creates a place to promote your brand?

The biggest impact a virtual world can have is when place and space are combined. A sense of community (a place that I like to go back to) combined with a shared space that makes it possible to " bump into" people and strike up opportunistic conversations [1]. That is were the true power of virtual worlds lies.

[1] Remy Evard, Elizabeth F. Churchill and Sara Bly, "Waterfall Glen: Social Virtual Reality at Work" , in: Elizabeth F. Churchill, David N. Snowdon and Alan J. Munro (Eds), Collaborative Virtual Environments: Digital Places and Spaces for Interaction, Springer-Verlag, London, 2001.

Friday, March 23, 2007

BPM and knowledge workers

In our practice and research one of the areas we focus on, is Business Process Management (BPM) in knowledge intensive organization. We think that there are different approaches for BPM needed for tackling the complex issues of increasing the productivity of knowledge workers, than the ‘normal’ BPM approach.

One of the challenges for improving the work of knowledge workers, is that the high level of flexibility and freedom needed in their work. In some cases every customer request is handled and approached differently every time, but in most cases the case is different, but the basic steps are the same. So one way of using BPM in knowledge intensive environments is defining processes on a high level. Within each part the process the knowledge worker is free to approach the case as he/she wants. We used this approach successfully at the Dutch Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. Here we defined policy making in process of 4 steps. This helped the organization to standardize the work of policy making throughout the organization and manage the process more efficiently. But we think that there is more to be gained, because in this example inefficient and ineffective ways of approaching the work within one of the basic steps is not handled.

A second approach we use is defining the interaction between the primary process between different departments and other processes. In some cases these interactions are widely spread within and outside the organization. In this we don’t only look within the primary process, but also to the links with supporting processes. Currently we are using this approach at the Dutch Province of South Holland, were we define the most important links to the many internal and external actors. This creates an overview of the most important actors of which knowledge worker is depended. In this case we can help the knowledge worker, with creating an overview but also making agreements with the other actors. For example on the quality delivered and time period. Also here we think there is more to be gained, because sometimes the actors to be involved differ on the case. Especially as the complexity of the cases increases, different expertises (often from different departments) are needed. So here the social networks of a knowledge workers becomes a very important influencing factor.

In this log I will discuss the topic of increasing the productivity of the knowledge worker from a BPM perspective, and share our experiences and progress in research on this field.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Framework that works

The last month I've been so busy with my consulting work, that I didn’t have time to do my posts. Off course, there isn’t such a thing as “no time”, just “not taking the time”. Having realized that, here’s a short update.

I’ve made my first yards in the development of the framework. These yards include making a selection of the main pillars on which, we at YNNO believe, a digitization project must rest, such as: Taxonomies, Metadata structures, Authorization schemas, Document Lifecycle, Registration and Inheritance, Search and Retrieval, Archival and Durability, Processes and Workflow, Conversion and Migration, Interfaces, Social Network Analysis (SNA), User interfaces.

Furthermore, I’m also trying to incorporate aspects of Enterprise 2.0 into the framework, with pillars the likes of: Ease of Use and the Rich User Experience, Perpetual Beta, Innovation in Assembly, Freeform versus Control, Emergent, Social and Collaborative.

And last but not least, the first “main beliefs” of the pillar “taxonomies” are already made explicit from tacit knowledge and experience . Mine, to be exact.

If you’re an ECM consultant and have just read the summary of pillars, you’re probably thinking: “so what, that’s nothing special?” Correct. The framework in it self is nothing special. I’ve become conscious of the fact that making the framework work what’s special.

I realized this during a meeting I had with a colleague of mine in which we discussed a project approach he was writing. We discussed the contents, approach, scope and ambitions and I realized that I was already using the framework as a common vocabulary to talk from and to distill my assumptions from. The result was not “well, you could do this and that, probably”, but instead it was “you should this and not do that, because past experience has shown that it works like that", and so forth. And that’s the result only after walking a couple of yards! I’m being optimistic, as always, but the potential of filling the “hollow framework” with working knowledge (made explicit) was suddenly crystal clear to me.

At present I’m busy organizing and preparing an interactive session with my colleagues operating in the field of digitization projects at knowledge intensive organizations. In this session we’ll present our main beliefs and use them the lighten up a discussion and to, ultimately, fill the hollow framework and make it work.

I’m being too optimistic when I say that one session will be enough. Maybe enough for the next couple of yards. That’s not a problem. The other thing I realized during the discussion with my colleague was that the value is not just in the destination, the journey is just as important.

In the next post I'll give some examples of "main beliefs".

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Deja Vu All Over Again

Shortly after Sun showed their MPK20 workspace (see previous post) another company came out of stealth this week with a virtual world collaboration space: Qwaq. With the venerable Alan Kay as one of their advisors, I will not doubt they've given their business model a lot of thought. However, my gut feeling is that they are too soon and have chosen the wrong approach.
I feel Qwaq is making a translation of virtual worlds to a business collaboration context that is too literal. A literal translation of a virtual world to a business collaboration context has been attempted before. Around the turn of the century a virtual world called Alphaworld was a bit of a hype (although nowhere near what we're seeing with Second Life at the moment). This coincided with the popularity of a research field called Collaborative Virtual Environments (virtual reality based collaboration spaces). We then also saw companies trying to capitalize on this popularity with a business-oriented virtual world collaboration space. The one that springs to mind is Blaxxun. The company still exists but we have not seen a large-scale adoption of these kinds of collaboration spaces in the past five years. One of the reasons is off course that there was never a consumer pull for virtual worlds like there is now. It was more or less the hobby of a small number of researchers. The context has changed tremendously, with tens of millions of people using virtual worlds now.
However, I personally don't think that just because there is now a big consumer market for virtual worlds, applications in business like Qwaq will suddenly be succesful. We are just beginning to understand what is behind the current success of virtual worlds like Second Life. It will take a bit more study to understand which aspects of virtual worlds can have a relevance in a business collaboration and knowledge sharing sense. And that is exactly what our research project is trying to uncover.
For now, I would put my money on companies like Raph Koster's Areae which is much more in touch with the gamer community and related aspects of fun, enjoyment and motivation. As described in a previous post, this is the direction that we are currently taking in our project.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Beyond Second Life

The Game Developers Conference that is currently taking place in San Francisco has some interesting announcements that hopefully open the eyes of the world to the fact that there is more to virtual worlds than Second Life.

The most spectacular announcement was Sony's Home: a free virtual world for Playstation 3 users, to be launched this fall. The 3pointD blog posted a video that makes Second Life look like something from the 1990s.

The other announcement was by Sun, which is making its game development platform (Darkstar) open source and showed a virtual workspace based on this platform: MPK20. It is basically a virtual world that Sun employees use to collaborate in teams. It is the first environment I've seen of this kind, other than some experiments in Second Life by the likes of IBM. It is important to keep an eye on virtual world developments at Sun (and others, like Multiverse and Areae) amidst all the Second Life hype.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

A voice you can trust

Linden Lab is reportedly close to including voice in the Second Life interface. Nate Combs makes some interesting comments about the use of voice in virtual worlds over at the Terra Nova blog. Most interesting from the perspective of the knowledge worker is the relationship he discusses between the use of voice and trust. Voice should increase trust, which makes the transfer of knowledge easier. But will the use of voice disturb other aspects of the virtual worlds experience? The issue merits some further investigation.