That was a question being asked at a session at Virtual Worlds Unplugged about how the industry can drive adoption of virtual worlds in the enterprise. The business cases for all sorts of applications seem compelling, and are well rehearsed- from collaboration to e-learning, virtual worlds seem like they could add enormous value to business practices. Yet virtual worlds couldn’t be much further from the ubiquity that enterprise tools like Blackberries enjoy.
Why is that? One suggestion was that the reason that virtual worlds don’t yet have a place in the workplace is because they rarely have a place in the home (at least anywhere other than the child’s bedroom). Social networking, starting to make its way into the enterprise, certainly started as a consumer phenomenon, and virtual worlds is closely related to this. If businesspeople aren’t entirely comfortable with virtual worlds as a consumer, how could they be expected to embrace 3D worlds and avatars and even flying in the enterprise? IBM’s Kevin Aires pointed out how alien virtual worlds often are, even to IBM salespeople: ‘With converting sales people [to virtual world users], you spend the first ten minutes explaining that there’s more to virtual worlds than Second Life.’
I don’t think that the lack of consumer adoption is really what is holding back enterprise virtual worlds, though. Email, for example, was a business tool before it was a personal tool. Blackberries overcame the technophobic tendencies of millions of middle-aged men and women of the ‘I just want my phone to talk and text’ school of thought to become the instantly recognisable badge of a commuter. History shows us that businesspeople can ‘get’ new technology very quickly indeed, whether or not they have experienced it as a consumer. What determines adoption is not something fuzzy like how comfortable people feel with the concept, but about the business benefits.
And the truth is, the business benefits just aren’t clear enough yet. There’s the issues of security, of user interface, of development costs, of old business client hardware to name but a few. These can and will be solved in the near future, and enterprise virtual world providers certainly don’t need to wait for consumer virtual worlds to get their act together to experience huge rewards.