IBM Learning Programs Get a ‘Second Life’

By Staff Report

Dec. 17, 2006

In the new IBM, not only are blue suits optional, but fairy wings are possible. IBM’s recent move to conduct employee orientation and mentoring in simulated computer worlds puts Big Blue on the cutting edge of corporate learning.

It’s also likely to give the nascent field of training in virtual environments such as Second Life a major boost, says Mark Oehlert, an associate at consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

Oehlert works with corporate clients to explore potential uses of technologies such as Second Life, which is a three-
dimensional virtual space where someone could choose to appear as normal as a buttoned-down businessperson or as far out as a fairy with flapping wings.

“The importance of this is going to go far beyond IBM,” Oehlert says. “It’ll definitely be a major spur for companies to at least begin looking at virtual worlds.”

India, China and the U.S., and company interns in China, will use “avatars,” or representations of themselves, in either of two Internet virtual worlds, Plane­Shift or Second Life.

The idea is to expedite orientation, as well as improve mentoring relationships. “New IBM employees separated by thousands of miles will be able to mingle, interact and share ideas in the virtual world before their first day on the job,” Ted Hoff, IBM vice president of learning, said in a statement. “They can learn real-life working skills such as signing up for benefits, developing code as part of a global team, and ramping up sales skills before they meet with IBM clients.”

Hoff says video game play adds a dimension to training because people don’t perceive it as learning. That makes them more willing to take risks and be more flexible in their thinking.

IBM is also looking into creating its own “virtual world” technology for employee training.

Thus far, online virtual worlds for training represent just a drop in the bucket of a corporate training market that reached $55 billion last year in the U.S., says Josh Bersin, CEO of market research firm Bersin & Associates. But he says the technology could help engage a generation of workers who grew up playing video games with 3-D graphics. “It might be very attractive to young employees,” Bersin says.

Most IBM users of Second Life have chosen avatars that resemble the way they look in real life, says Chuck Hamilton, a learning solutions leader at IBM’s learning organization. Company CEO Sam Palmisano, for example, appeared in Second Life wearing a business suit. Still, Big Blue is loosening up on the new frontier. During a tour of IBM’s Second Life facilities, Hamilton appeared in a kilt.

But for a recent meeting that took place in Second Life, IBM officials took pains to make sure avatars weren’t too distracting, Hamilton says. “They asked us not to wear anything moving or shaking or beeping,” he says.

Ed Frauenheim

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