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Business school students may find it cool to float around Second Life but how do older faculty get on with this virtual world? And does this kind of immersive experience make any real contribution to instilling the leadership skills that schools are aiming to develop on MBA programmes?

There is supporting evidence that it does, in the form of recent research into massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) and their ability to help participants develop leadership skills. Popular games such as World of Warcraft, Eve Online and EverQuest have rules and goals in which players interact, form relationships, join guilds or corporations and carry out complex and collaborative missions.

As a recent Global Innovation Outlook 2.0 report from IBM points out, virtual social worlds such as Second Life are not games but do share many of the characteristics of MMORPGS and can develop leadership capabilities as well.

Many of the report’s findings are derived from a study prepared for IBM by Seriosity, a US software company and published last November. It took as its basis the MIT Sloan Leadership Model, which describes four core capabilities needed for effective leadership: sensemaking – the ability to make sense of ambiguous situations; relating – developing key relationships within and across organisations; visioning – creating compelling images of the future; and inventing – turning visions into reality.

Second Life, says the study, reinforces the same sensemaking and visioning skills that games such as Eve Online instils. This game, it says, explicitly reinforces the ability of a leader to go beyond how a task will be completed and instead focuses on what kind of task is best in the first place. In Second Life, doing well – defined as designing activities and building structures and artefacts that others want to use or purchase – requires having a larger vision in addition to an executional plan.

Additionally, says the Seriosity study, players – or residents as they are usually called – initiate all group behaviour in Second Life and some of the activities are quite visionary. “Players build discos, promote political, social and religious causes, organise hobbyists and open up businesses (for example, developing virtual real estate and selling digital clothing).”

The freedom to fail and the encouragement of risk-taking, which can spur innovation are further features of both MMORPGs and some Second Life activities, such as Insead’s business development competitions.

Communicating in a 3D environment can also help leaders get their message across, says the study. In the real world, leaders often communicate with followers about objects that are not present in the same visual space. Even if it is present, there is no opportunity to communicate in real time about the same object while it is being constructed.

By contrast, in Second Life, a leader or teacher can communicate with a follower while they both construct an object such as a bridge. “We know of no other category of software that enables this type of communication while an object is being manipulated in a shared virtual space,” says the study.

Learning experiences

So the research into online gaming does seem to have clear lessons for business education providers. “If leadership skills can be enhanced and supported by the scenario-based experiences of online gaming, why can’t we use them in education, take ownership of these spaces and create potential learning experiences for our participants,” says Steve Mahaley at Duke Corporate Education.

Supporters of using virtual worlds in business education also point out that these 3D environments share some similarities with the flatter structures and boundary-free nature of some modern global organisations. In both, the right to lead has to be earned; leadership is often shared and is based less on personality and more on the ability to mentor followers.

So far, students have shown considerable enthusiasm for the schools’ early initiatives on Second Life. “They think it is a lot of fun and they get a lot out of it – especially the [younger] masters students,” says Robin Teigland at Stockholm School of Economics. Ninety per cent of one masters class wanted to participate in an optional SSE project on Second Life, developing a communication plan for the Swedish tax agency.

Convincing faculty to step into the virtual world is harder, but that is not because of scepticism, say enthusiasts. “Faculty members do their own thing and it is difficult to say to them: ‘Why not set up your avatar tomorrow?’” says Miklos Sarvary at Insead. “There is a reluctance to get through the pain of ensuring they are competent in the environment and to translate their material on to it, which can lead to inertia.”

There can be a lack of confidence among older faculty, too. “They are very interested but they say: ‘I am not a techie person, I can’t do this,” says Prof Teigland.

As with the internet 15 years ago, some faculty will find these virtual worlds easier to assimilate than others. “It takes them even further away from thinking about their craft as something that necessarily happens in front of an audience,” says Mr Mahaley. “Finding the faculty that are willing to go into this 3D space, and learn effective behaviours in it, is going to be interesting.”

As with course participants, he says, there will be a younger set of faculty that has grown up with these virtual experiences, as well as early adopters of this technology of all ages.

From first steps to flight – an avatar’s journey

The best way to find out what business schools are really up to in the virtual world of Second Life is to create an avatar and explore for oneself. The FT’s firewall presents probably insurmountable obstacles to achieving this in the office, so I downloaded the software to my Apple at home.

After dealing with the inevitable technical glitches, I was up and running – or at least walking awkwardly – through the virtual world’s orientation island, learning a few basic tasks. For my avatar I had resisted the temptation to change sex or species and adopted the alter ego Opentill Latte and a “harajuku male” appearance. The surname has to be chosen from a list and the first name can be chosen at random.

I teleported first to Insead’s virtual campus and found myself in the research lab, where I was invited to take part in a market research exercise about training shoes in return for some Linden dollars. The currency is named after the company behind Second Life, California-based Linden Lab.

The research space has been left open to show how complex behavioural environments can be built on Second Life at low cost. It receives many visitors from other business schools, but unfortunately time ran out for me at that point. I had to return to the real world to wash up.

On my second visit to the virtual world I toured more systematically Insead’s extensive campus with its school and library, research lab and public spaces.

It was a quiet Sunday morning and the auditorium was empty. When a class is being held it is full of student avatars.

Navigation can be bewildering for a first-time visitor and I never discovered the island where students have built a maze for improving the performance of virtual teams. I did find out what happens if you deliberately walk off the end of a building: you plummet into a sandy no man’s land.

Exhausted, I found my way to the Insead bar and sat down on one of the curiously shaped lime green and lilac settees to ponder my next move.

After a brief stop at the Intel island – the US chipmaker partly sponsored Insead’s virtual campus – I teleported to the Stockholm School of Economics island. It is designed very differently from Insead’s and has individual buildings such as an auditorium and exhibition area dotted around a rocky, arcadian setting. The open design made it easy to fly over the windswept territory and land in different spots, such as the podium in the “meta­lab”, from where I looked out to sea beyond the armchairs for course participants.

Then finally to Duke Corporate Education’s area – tables, chairs and presentation screens set among trees in a grassy area of IBM’s impressive island. Flying around Big Blue’s buildings, I spotted a power boat just offshore and attempted to land on it, but a slight misjudgment left me on the seabed.

It was time for Opentill to head home for a hot, wet latte.

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