How to Hold a Successful "Virtual World" Meeting

Last Updated May 24, 2010 7:15 AM EDT

To many of us, the jury is still out on whether meetings held in Second Life or other "virtual worlds" are effective or simply a gimmick. I recently heard from one company that had a huge success with a virtual event and the results were interesting enough to pass on to you.

Joe Little is a Senior Learning Consultant at British Petroleum, and he's tasked with finding and assessing ways to keep their teams around the world connected. The case study he shared with us took place on Protosphere, but could just as easily have been done in Second Life, Digitell's Virtual Beginnings or other similar platforms.

Here are some of the surprising findings his group discovered, which might help you evaluate whether to explore these tools for your own remote teams.

Little organized an online event to replace BP's Global Graduate Challenge -- a yearly gathering of the best and brightest new hires from around the world. They used to meet in London for three days of working on projects, networking with each other, and schmoozing the executives. This event cost upwards of $5 million per year and, not surprisingly, fell victim to the budget axe.

The Global Graduate Challenge had the ingredients of a good virtual conference: a (mostly) young, tech-savvy group of highly motivated participants from around the world and an exciting project: imagine the challenges BP would face in 2050 and some possible solutions.

Here are some of the things Little's team discovered:

  • It lowers communication barriers for non-English speakers. The use of avatars and the minimized importance of verbal communication seemed to boost the confidence of participants from the Middle East and Asia. They felt much more confident and on a social par with their Western peers.
  • Don't treat it like a game and people will embrace it. One assumption many people have about virtual worlds is that (mostly younger) people who enjoy video games and are comfortable with role playing will take to the technology much more easily than people who don't play games. But because the organizers focused on the desired business outcomes, even non-gamers quickly got over the distractions and got down to creative problem solving.
  • The technology works better than traditional webinars. According to Little, people actually felt more comfortable using the virtual world than traditional webinar tools. He attributes this to the stability of the platforms. "Most people have been on webinars that froze up or didn't work well. One bad webinar can put a team off using those tools for a long time. These platforms work consistently."
  • Training is essential. Everyone who uses the virtual platform receives a full orientation on the tool and what it can do. Once they understand what they're working with, people feel free to use its full capability to solve the problem they're working on.
While I'm still not convinced that these meetings will become as ubiquitous as many people hope, after speaking to Little, I am feeling less like it's trying to present via Wii and open to learning more.

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