Sunday, February 25, 2007

Virtual worlds, motivation and knowledge transfer

There is a considerable difference in approach between virtual worlds (such as Second Life) and 'traditional' ICT to support communication and collaboration (the latter is known as computer supported cooperative work or CSCW). Virtual worlds are about entertainment and play while CSCW is connected to work. It is this distinction that provides an interesting tension and a basis for our virtual worlds research project.

The aim of many current CSCW projects is to try to support all aspects of the work patterns of a group in a situation where the group is not in one location. However, it is a well-established fact that ambiguous and informal information is not easily communicated by means of ICT. We often revert to face-to-face contact for these situations. Prominent scholars of CSCW have concluded that this poses a fundamental problem, described by Mark Ackerman as the social-technical gap: ICT cannot support all social aspects of the work patterns of a group. Others have argued that trying to imitate a face-to-face situation with ICT is essentially a dead-end road.

What this means is that CSCW falls short in the area of effective knowledge transfer, because this depends on opportunities for informal communication (as put forward by the likes of Davenport and Prusak). The field of knowledge management has shown that effective knowledge transfer is key in achieving sustained competitive advantage.

When looking at the human-computer interaction taking place, the focus of CSCW as described above can be characterized as a focus on extrinsic motivation. It is not the human-computer interaction itself that is motivating, but it is the outcome of the activity that should supply the motivation. We are motivated by accomplishing a work-related task. The ICT we use seems to be more of an irritating intrusion that is best avoided by meeting in person.

What is missing, then, from a typical CSCW situation is an intrinsic motivation: the human-computer interaction itself supplying the reward. This is what happens in virtual worlds, where the experience of using this technology becomes enjoyable in itself. A review of research on virtual worlds and related subjects gives some indications of the ways in which this intrinsic motivation is created:

  • by giving the user appropriate challenges and rewards
  • by taking the user out of everyday existence
  • by giving the user a first-person perspective with direct feedback (important early work in this field was done by Brenda Laurel)
  • by creating an opportunity for shared activity
  • by allowing the user to see himself within the context of the group.
If organizations do not solely want to rely on face-to-face communication for the effective transfer of knowledge, a new set of ICT tools is needed. In numerous situations, face-to-face contact is expensive in terms of time and money. An effective way to transfer knowledge while avoiding these costs can be very attractive to many organizations.

The current state of the art in CSCW does not supply these ICT tools. The theory presented here suggests that virtual worlds may offer better opportunities for knowledge transfer based on their elements of intrinsic motivation. Following from the discussion above, we aim to answer the following research question:

Does interaction by means of virtual worlds generate higher levels of knowledge transfer than interaction by means of e-mail, chat and online team rooms in groups of knowledge workers with similar features?

We are currently refining this research question in discussions with fellow researchers and clients. We welcome your input. To design a suitable research method, the next step will be to define the elements of the research question and hypotheses in a way such that they can be observed and measured.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Realising a true digital working environment

Another research area we at YNNO are interested in is identifying the critical success factors for realizing and embedding a successful true digital working environment within an organization.

The research focuses on organizations that are knowledge intensive, with mainly unstructured processes, with high specific information exchanges and a workforce for the most part existing of knowledge workers.

For the last couple of years projects have been started within these organizations with the ambition tot transform the status quo of the unstructured and unregulated digital work (working on fileshares and sharing documents through “anarchy digital communication channels” like e-mail) into a true digital working environment:

  • using regulated repositories for information storage en retrieval
  • incorporating and digitizing the (incoming, internal and outgoing) paper information streams,
  • and transferring information and decision processes through predefined, but flexible, workflows

Alas, the track record of these digitization projects isn’t anything to write home about. Many have failed, or have delivered suboptimal successes. In our opinion this past performance is mainly due to the fact that during the course of the project too many pillars on which the digital working environment must rest, have crumbled.

We at YNNO manage, consult and operate succesfully in this field and for these type of organizations. Our experience is that there are key factors to identify which are critical for achieving the desired results. The research we are conducting has the ambition to:

  • clarify and make explicit these main pillars on which a digitization project must rest and, more importantly,
  • our main belief of how these pillars must be designed, build and maintained to be able to realize and embed a successful digital working environment for the portrayed type of organization.

YNNO consultants use these pillars and main beliefs individually from experience and gained tacit knowledge. An example thereof: the metadata structures (pillar) used in the organization, embedded within the ECM application (main belief):

  1. must serve the archival regulations for structuring and maintaining information,
  2. must be effectively and efficiently updated trough optimalization and maintenance processes
  3. but may not in any way “cripple” the day to day business processes of the organization.

This accumulation forms a nice paradox which has to be balanced during the entire project. The daily practice, unfortunately, is al to frequently a shift in to one specific direction: archival, business or IT. If it does, the pillar is made of the “wrong cement” and will not last long enough for the digital environment to “flourish” within the organization. The more pillars crumble, the higher the change the aspired goals will not be met.

In the current state, the total overview of the pillars and used main beliefs only exist within the separate minds of the YNNO consultants operating in the field (or operating near to it). The goal of the research is to bring these minds together and to extract and build an explicit framework from these available cumulative tacit knowledge and experiences.

This framework will (of course) never replace the tacit knowledge present within YNNO, this is not the aspiration of the research. The aim is to built a strong tool, a common paradigm and vocabulary for YNNO to speak from, to communicate about, to fall back on and to have readily available for the projects at hand.

During my research activities I’ll post my findings within our YNNO blog.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Knowledge workers in Second Life

One of the areas of research that we are focusing on at YNNO is the managerial relevance of virtual worlds. Second Life is of course the most well-known example at the moment. It has become a victim of media hype in the last few months. Because of this media attention it has also become a popular vehicle for product marketing, with companies like Toyota, Nike, Philips and ABN AMRO announcing their presence.

Virtual worlds have been with us since the beginning of the 1980s. They started out with communication in text only and since the end of the 1990s we also have graphical virtual worlds with a 3D, first-person perspective. Increasing computing power and available bandwidth fueled a growth of these virtual worlds from the beginning of this century, primarily in gaming environments. Only very recently have non-gaming worlds like Second Life and There gained a critical mass of users. It is important to note, however, that the gaming virtual worlds like World of Warcraft are still several orders of magnitude bigger than Second Life. In total, there are some 15 to 20 million people worldwide (accurate figures are hard to find, but the best available data is here) that regularly spend a considerable amount of time in a virtual world (Nick Yee has reliable data about the amount of time spent in these worlds).

What makes these virtual worlds interesting from our perspective is that new ways of communicating and collaborating seem to be emerging in these environments. Users of these virtual worlds pay no attention to the physical location of the person they are speaking to and will collaborate just as easily with someone from the same town as with someone from the other side of the world.

Many organisations would love to have this flexibility. Especially in this day and age, when the success of an organisation increasingly depends on knowledge workers being able to find each other quickly to reach the best solution, independent of their location. Something seems to be happening in virtual worlds on the internet that might very well be a fit with new organisational forms in our knowledge-based economy.

One of our research projects is aimed at investigating what makes these virtual collaborations successful and at finding out what managers can learn from this. This project started started in August of last year and some of the first results are taking shape.

Watch this space for updates.


This new research blog replaces our Technology Watch blog (in Dutch).