Why virtual worlds are important for business

(“Ooh, an important-sounding weblog entry! Can we put in pictures of kittens?”

“No, no, this is important grown-up stuff! No kittens!”

“Maybe just at the end?”)

There is a ton of debate and discussion and information Out There about why virtual worlds are, or aren’t, or might someday be, important for business. Important, that is, to people who are wearing their money-making hats to know about, or to use, or to invest time or effort or money in.

There are a lot of smallish reasons that virtual worlds are important, today, for various businesses in various senses. They can fit cost-effectively somewhere between teleconferences and face-to-face meetings for some purposes; they can be at least potentially effective education and training platforms in some use-cases, and so on.

But I don’t want to talk about any of those reasons right now. I want to talk about a much bigger, if somewhat speculative, reason.

Virtual worlds are important for business, right now, because they are going to be extremely important, for just about everyone, eventually.

I believe, in a way that I can’t prove but through intuitions that I’ve come to trust over the millennia, that in the medium term virtual worlds are going to transform the way that we think of and use computers, computing, and information, and the ways that we interact with the world and with each other, in significant ways. At least as significantly as, for instance, the internet, or mobile phones, have done recently.

Even if I’m only halfway, only one-quarter, right about that, there are going to be some huge revenue streams associated with virtual worlds, and there are going to be moments at which pretty much any business that’s out there doing stuff is going to be in a position to capture, or to fail to capture, some part of one or more of those huge revenue streams.

In order to have a good chance of making that capture, a business organization is going to need to have enough people who, when an opportunity related to virtual worlds appears, will be more likely to think “hey yeah, that could work”, rather than “isn’t that that porn thing I saw on CNN last year?”.

So this doesn’t necessarily mean that a business should, today, be moving their weekly manager’s meetings into Second Life, or that your average high school drama class should have their own OpenSim region to meet in. (Those things might be true, or false, but this particular thought isn’t about that.)

What it does mean is that a business should have people who use virtual worlds. Who aren’t afraid to reveal the fact to their management. Who maybe even try using the technology for a business-related thing now and then. Maybe an IT guy who runs a little clump of four OpenSim regions on a spare server in the corner, and gives accounts to whoever happens to ask. Without getting in trouble for it.

And IT businesses, in particular, especially in software and especially in services, should have some pilots going, some studies. Maybe they’re on the shortlist to be cut when revenue is down, but they should be there. In the corner of someone’s eye. Being worked on in what’s left of the skunkworks. Being brought up in the last five minutes of executive briefings, under “ad-tech activities”.

The short-term benefits of virtual worlds have, I think, sometimes been oversold, and that’s led to us riding the usual hype curve more than once.

But if the long-term effects are anything like what I think they are going to be, businesses are well-advised to have, as well as any short-term stuff they’ve got going on with the technology, a culture in which the thought leaders have an eye on virtual worlds, are playing with them, and working with them. And management knows about it and is cool with it.

’cause, ya know, we won’t be selling buggy-whips over the counter forever…

(And in closing:

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