September 30, 2010 — Vol. 3, Issue 9
Project Management Beat
Virtual Workplaces and the Social Networks That Bind Them
Operating in an open and transparent environment increasingly means having a social media strategy and virtual meeting place.
The mere mention of Twitter, Facebook, or Second Life might elicit a cringe response in some, but the reality is that social media are becoming increasingly intertwined in workplace communications. Messages in 140 characters or less and flying avatars are facilitating new conversations that are not going away.
"The Net Generation is a cohort that grew up with the Internet and expects to work with cutting-edge technologies and online applications, such as social networking sites, mash-ups, online gaming, and virtual worlds," wrote Allan Holmes in "Agencies urged to change workplace practices to attract young workers," an April 2010 article published on the National Journal Group's Nextgov.com. But using social media is not just something kids do at home—it's being added to the curricula of business schools at places like Harvard, Columbia, and Boston College, reports Bloomberg Businessweek. Babson College just announced open enrollment for a social media management course this fall.
Creating virtual meeting places for international project teams and learning from how they are used is also in high demand. The recently unveiled Challenge.gov website features a listing for the Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge hosted by the Army Research Laboratory—Simulation and Training Technology Center. This global challenge seeks the best implementation of a virtual environment with a focus on artificial intelligence.
This topic can be increasingly found at meetings like the NASA IT Summit, Gov 2.0 Summit, TED, Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds Conference, the Interactive Learning Technologies Conventions, and, of course, Social Media Week. It has also been prominently featured in Harvard Business Review
, PM World Today
, and PM Network
"I think the serious discussion about social media is just starting now," said Bas de Baar, an independent consultant who writes a blog for IT project managers, in the March issue of PM Network
. Chauncey Hollingsworth's "PMPs on FB? OMG!" explores how social media can be useful for project updates, and notes that, "wikis are a virtual version of lessons learned." Social media can be used to update a team when milestones are reached or if the project is in search of a solution to a problem.
But there are those who caution against departure from real-world interactions. "Technology can do miraculous things," writes Bud Baker in the March issue of PM Network, "but to the extent that it fosters physical or virtual organizational separation, to the extent that we allow it to drive us apart, we are the worse for it."
Concerns about the loss of face-to-face interaction are widely expressed by managers and team leaders. While virtual teams are viewed differently from co-located teams, the question of how to preserve or enhance team dynamics in a virtual environment remains at large. Studies like the Virtual Environment Real User Study (Verus), a three-year project being run by the University of Nottingham; SRI International in Silicon Valley, CA; Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada; and York University in Toronto, Canada are addressing this unknown by investigating online and virtual behaviors in virtual worlds to better understand this new way of interacting.
At the international project level, social media and virtual worlds offer significant decreases in travel costs and overcome some time-zone barriers. International collaboration is challenging for a number of usual reasons like cultural norms and language barriers, but while social media can mitigate some of these, there is yet another level of complexity to consider. Not everyone uses Twitter. Not everyone is in Second Life.
According to Hollingsworth, China primarily uses a social media site called QZone, Brazil and India use ORKUT, Russia uses VK, Badoo is popular in Europe, and MIXI in Japan. In addition to Second Life there are virtual worlds like VastPark and Project Wonderland. With this explosion of these different platforms, many have voiced concerns about a silo effect. Not all social media and virtual worlds are integrated or cross-functional.
"Our experience of the world depends on the actual structure of the networks in which we are residing and on all the kinds of things that ripple and flow through the network," said Nicholas Christakis, author of Connected
, in a February 2010 TED Talk.
In the midst of all the talk about our world gone social, a new conversation is beginning. Innovators like Jesse Schell and Seth Priebatsch believe that games will be the next wave of how work gets done. Take Google Image Labeler, for example, a site that helps Google tag images. Similar to the board game Taboo, two users are paired up and try to describe an identical image. When the pair uses the same word to describe the image, they increase their score and move on to another image. Google gets a more accurate product by motivating a voluntary workforce with a game. The Internet has changed the way individuals connect, but games will change the way we work. We are just entering an era where work will masquerade as play, and we won't even notice.