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.
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:
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.