Sunday, September 30, 2007

What managers can learn from virtual worlds

I gave a presentation last week at a conference in Amsterdam. The conference was about Business Process Management in the financial sector. My presentation was about "What we can learn from virtual worlds, games and the gamer generation". And although the subject of my talk did not exactly fit the theme of the conference, the questions and feedback I got from the audience were very positive and encouraging. You can find the presentation here. It is in Dutch and doesn't contain much text, so it may be of limited use without my talk to accompany it.

In my talk, I argue that many organizations are still bothered by old, bureaucratic structures that limit their ability to function in our network society. I then give a brief introduction about virtual (gaming) worlds, using examples from my recent fieldwork in World of Warcraft. My main point is that enterprises should mimic certain aspects of virtual worlds to make new ways of working possible. It's important not to be distracted by the monsters and dwarfs you see on the screen. That is just a content layer. The social layer above it is where these tens of millions of players are collaborating on complex tasks and new ways of working are emerging.

I gave two specific examples. The first is the mechanism of what I call informed trial-and-error, which enables faster decision making. It is made possible in World of Warcraft by a combination of detailed information about your own performance and abilities, immediate feedback about your actions and the possibility to recover from mistakes. The second is the principle of meritocracy that arises in World of Warcraft: assembling teams based on the skills of participants and to a much lesser extent based on (irrelevant) aspects like age, gender or location.

Let me be the first to point out that all this is not new. My own fieldwork in World of Warcraft only confirmed earlier insights by authors like Constance Steinkuehler. The recent Seriosity study by Reeves & Malone also contains ideas along these lines. The new element is trying to isolate some of the mechanisms we see occurring in virtual worlds and to apply them in another context (i.e., an organizational setting).

What was interesting about the audience response was that they, for the most part, shared my view that these virtual worlds offer a lot for managers to learn from. Especially combined with challenges they face such as accommodating a new (gamer) generation of workers and working across distances with outsourcing partners. The big unanswered question of course is: which interventions are necessary in an organization to actually apply these lessons? That will be the subject of our research the coming year, when we will be testing some of our ideas.
Letting a meritocracy be reflected in your office environment? Embedding informed trial-and-error into your business processes? Exciting times ahead!

No comments: