Three days with the IBM Academy in [internal] Second Life

The IBM Academy of Technology used to have an Annual General Meeting where the 300 or so members, along with guests and senior IBM executives, would spend three-plus days in intense interaction, setting our agenda for the next year and taking advantage of chance meetings. Oh, and socializing. It was a highlight of my year.

That, of course, was before the economic meltdown.

Last year’s meeting was cancelled on fairly short notice; instead, we used teleconferences and Second Life to hold the meeting; it was an uneven experience (but having the meeting cancelled did make it easier for me to enjoy a very nice tour of New York, so I wasn’t completely unhappy about the substitution).

I’ve attended a couple of meetings using the behind-the-firewall version of Second Life this year, and, as I’ve written here and here, I found the experience less than thrilling.

This year, they made the unsurprising decision not to hold a physical Academy meeting, which meant that I could expect to spend a significant part of three days in the internal Second Life environment. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it, but I didn’t see any alternative — especially after they got the code working with Snow Leopard, depriving me of what seemed like a great excuse not to participate.

I’m still not a big fan of the virtual environment (and am very happy that one of the nine mini-plenary sessions was held at Almaden so I could see some of my colleagues in person), but it was a far less unpleasant experience this year.

As before, I think that the very best feature of the environment is the spatial high-fidelity sound, which makes conversations, even in a group, much more realistic than a teleconference. In public areas, the sound tended to carry a bit too far — this was good when it let me eavesdrop (and choose to join) a group conversation with a very senior executive; it wasn’t as good when there were a lot of conversations in a small area, as happened during the closing social event.

The team who put the conference together did some innovative things, like setting up the poster sessions so that each poster was in a sound- (but not sight-) isolated room — you could easily have a discussion without being drowned out by conversations in the hall or at an adjacent poster, which is better than a real poster session, but you could see who was in a room as you walked by (one definite improvement this year was the integration with our LDAP directory, so everyone’s avatar was identified with their real name). And poster presenters were given better instructions, too — many came with one-sheet posters which you could actually read in the environment, rather than trying to show a series of slides which needed more screen room than was available.

I still found many aspects of the virtual space to be distracting or counter-productive — there was a lot of tedium involved in getting from place to place, and watching a slide show in-world is not an inspiring experience.

Another interesting choice was the way video messages from senior executives were played — you went to a theater, sat down, and watched as a video was played (at a low frame rate and resolution) on a screen at the front of the room. It reminded me of Apple’s first Mac commercial; I think the video would have been better served up without the trappings (and outside the virtual space, at higher quality).

One social hour went very well — the space was arranged so that I was able to position my camera overhead; I could see the names of everyone who was there, and when someone talked, the green-bar animation made it clear who it was (and the audio quality made dealing with accents much easier, too). And there was even room for a text chat on the screen, for additional comments (both public and private). It beat the hell out of a teleconference.

Using a big screen (relatively speaking — 20 inches, 1600×1200) instead of the laptop’s screen made a big difference; I didn’t have to squint to see things (and I was able to do other stuff on the laptop screen). Using a headset also helped, because then the sound was properly aligned with my vision — the first day, I used the external screen but the laptop’s speakers, and that was a problem. And having a new MacBook Pro with the fast graphics chip helped, too, though it did a number on battery life and made the machine run hot.

I still found no reason to spend any time or effort customizing my avatar, though if it had been completely generic, I might have wanted to do something to make it more recognizable at a distance, but I was fortunate enough to have been used as a test case for “realistic” avatars earlier in the year, so I was already wearing a distinctive aloha shirt. Nor did I see any reason to drink virtual drinks at the socials (though many people did — and some lucky folks were at home with real drinks available).

I’ve been using Lotus Notes for more than 15 years, and I’ve gotten fairly good at making it do what I want — but, with apologies to my Lotus friends, it’s not a tool that I really like. I expect that the same thing will be true about meeting in virtual spaces — it’s going to have to be part of my toolkit, and I’ll get better at using it, but I don’t expect to become a fan. And I look forward to the time when those who are enthusiasts stop trying to convert skeptics and settle for helping us become competent enough to get our work done.

Now, can I tell you about this wonderful Mac-only application I just started using?

A day at the CIO Council

I spent today at the CIO Council; the session was devoted to Enterprise Architecture, a subject on which I am most definitely not an expert, so I stayed relatively quiet much of the day.

But the first speaker, Gary Hamel, wasn’t focused on Enterprise Architecture (I won’t abbreviate it, because when I see “EA”, I think of “Extended Attributes” and OS/2). His talk was on the need for “Management 2.0”; the basic premise is that management, as it evolved at the end of the 19th Century and the first part of the 20th, is no longer delivering significant improvements in organizational performance. Like many other technologies, its development has been in the form of an “S” curve, and it’s reached the flat part of the “S” at the top.

If this were a “normal” technology, you might expect a disruptive innovation to surface, probably courtesy of a small start-up company (see Clay Christensen for much discussion of this), but that’s unlikely in this case. Instead, management needs to transform its own practice.

Gary mentioned three challenges to management in the 21st Century:

1. How do you build a company that can change as fast as change itself?

In particular, he asked a rather pointed question: how easy is it for a first-line worker to get a small amount of money and time to experiment with an idea? Some companies make experimenting everyone’s responsibility (Google’s famous “20% time”), but most companies don’t — instead, they’re monopsonies, organizations where there’s only one buyer/funder for innovation, and “no” is the default answer.

2. How do you build a company where innovation is everyone’s job?

Knowledge is becoming a commodity — creativity is the differentiator. How do you encourage creativity throughout the company, and speed up the process of bringing innovations to the market?

3. How do we build organizations which inspire extraordinary contribution?

He posited a hierarchy of employee contribution:


and noted that the bottom three are becoming commodities, and that the top three are “gifts” — they are not something an organization can compel.

Management was originally invented to turn people into semi-skilled, programmed robots who fit into the org chart and the assembly line, but this is no longer the problem that organizations need to solve. Instead, we need to get employees to commit to organizational goals, and that’s a voluntary activity. Open Source projects are a common area where we see this kind of voluntary commitment, but there are for-profit companies which make it explicit, too, such as Gore and Associates, where employees are explicitly empowered to say “no” to any request, and there are no “managers” (just leaders of self-organized teams). He noted that Gore and Associates hasn’t had a losing year. Ever.

Gary finished by talking about the two dimensions of improvement that management provides: amplifying individual human flexibility and ability and aggregating individual contributions at scale; he claimed that social networking will make it possible to do both more effectively than existing models (the market, which majors in improving flexibility, or bureaucracies, which major in aggregating at the cost of flexibility).

Definitely an interesting talk, and worth the price of admission (which, for me, was the loss of a day at work and four meetings).

The rest of the day was much more focused on the problems of Enterprise Architecture and organizations, and, while the discussions were of interest, I didn’t find myself writing down nearly as much as I did for Gary’s talk. The hallway discussions were, of course, best of all!

And I must say I could get used to the food and drink at the Four Seasons.

It was definitely an informative and interesting day; I’m hoping to be invited to another session.