Saturday, December 17, 2011

Using Virtual Worlds To Enable Telework- A Paper I Wrote


This is a paper I recently submitted for a class I took. We had a session on Virtual Worlds. I've known of Second Life for many years, but never bothered with it. I now have an account and am exploring it. While researching this paper, I discovered there does not appear to be much documented support for the idea of using a virtual world to make up for some of the weaknesses involved in telework, like being able to monitor employees and being able to maintain interaction.

I wrote this paper from the perspective of a recommendation to my employer. I have redacted mentions of my employer and specifics of the organization. Rather than leaving [REDACTED] in place of names, I've tried to generalize them i.e. "This organization". I left my reference list, which had to be an annotated bibliography. I'm sure I botched it. This paper was written in APA format. I have not yet received my grade.

UPDATE: I got a B+. I ran out of time at the end and was not able to flesh out the metrics section.


Introduction
            Being “Green” is all the rage today. Companies and government agencies are stumbling over themselves in an effort to be “green”. One area remains untouched in most “green” efforts: the need to have employees travel back and forth from home every day, otherwise known as commuting, in order to perform their jobs from a centralized location. Some jobs, such as service and retail, do require a centralized workforce. Many knowledge jobs, however, do not need to be done from a central office. Technology has been around for years that could allow a knowledge workforce to operate from home, but many organizations are reluctant to take that plunge. Instead, they choose to focus on green tasks such as centralizing data centers and turning off the air conditioner in the evening.  
           This organization is in the same situation. Due to the recent realignment and closure, more than 6000 department employees will be moved to a new facility. The new facility is a “green” facility, but has increased congestion in the area and increased commute time for many employees who could work in a decentralized manner. From a larger perspective, this offsets any green accomplishments gained in building and operating the new facility. Token attempts to offer telework are underway in this organization and supporting contractors. These are not used effectively.
Virtual Worlds as a solution
            Using technology such as Virtual Worlds could allow employees to telework with greater frequency while maintaining the social needs of employees and the accountability needs of our organization. “A virtual world is an online community that takes the form of a computer-based simulated environment through which users can interact with one another and use and create objects” (Wikipedia). One of the best-known virtual worlds at present is Second Life, created by Linden Labs. In a virtual world, avatars represent users. The user controls the avatar which can be present in differing locations within the virtual world. Users can interact and collaborate through text and voice chat. Virtual worlds also allow presentations, video, three-dimensional data modeling, and complex simulations.
Discussion
Many managers are resistant to offer extensive telework because of fears of employees taking advantage of the situation. Most people are stuck in a paradigm that defines work in the context of sitting in a chair at a set location between certain hours of the day. Additionally, workers are resistant to the idea of telework for various reasons. (Wagner, 2004) cites several, including “The need for a live, physical connection with collaborators…” and “…loss of identity and distinction.”
This organization’s current telework arrangement involves issuing employees and contractors laptops loaded with Data At Rest encryption, Virtual Private Networking (VPN) and some connect to a Citrix desktop. Employees are able to telework on a regular or situational arrangement. Regular telework is limited to a few days a month in most cases. Situational is often limited to personnel office announcements that the organization will authorize unscheduled leave or situational telework or special circumstances with prior management approval.
As mentioned previously, virtual worlds could be an acceptable compromise between employees needs for personal interaction, managers’ needs for accountability, and the organizations goals of being “green”. Employees would log into the virtual world through a client on their telework laptop. A virtualized desktop solution (Mueller, 2011) combined with a virtual world could allow the employee to use a personally owned computer, eliminating the need to provide telework laptops. Employees will create avatars, which can be customized to look similar to the employee. The organization can design work environments within the virtual world. These can include office space, conference rooms and other meeting locations, and possibly social areas. If the organization is working on a new project, this could also be incorporated into the virtual world. The recently constructed new facility is an example of this possibility.
The concept of avatars not only allows employees to fulfill social needs, it adds a dimension not available through a teleconference: feedback. Users can command avatars bodies to gesture. This can allow for the raising of hands during meetings and conferences, to prevent employees speaking out of turn or being talked over.
Within the design of the virtual world, projector screens can be placed to allow the display of meeting minutes or meeting slides. This can prevent the need to print out slides prior to the meeting, further increasing the organization’s ability to declare itself “green”. Additionally, meeting organizers can project their video into the meeting. This could be useful for “town hall” or “all hands” meetings and for training. Our organization can maintain cohesiveness without requiring all employees to commute to a central location.
Three dimensional modeling can allow employees to collaborate and analyze data within a virtual world. Data can be presented in multiple dimensions. Employees, as avatars, can walk and fly around the data model to get a view of it that wouldn’t be possible on an Excel spreadsheet or Powerpoint presentation.
As virtual worlds catch on in federal agencies, this technology can allow collaboration across organizational boundaries, while still allowing for telework and reduction of commute time. If our directorate's customers or other organizational directorates, or even if external agencies implement a virtual worlds solution, our personnel could attend meetings and collaborate with counterparts in those agencies through the virtual world. The more employees allowed to participate through telework in the virtual world, the more the proverbial “carbon footprint” would be lowered. This would truly allow the department to claim itself as “green”.
Although this is a fascinating idea, evidence of other agencies or corporations using virtual worlds for telework is not readily apparent through available research avenues. Virtual worlds are, however, being implemented for similar uses. For instance, National Defense University’s (NDU)  iCollege sponsors the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds (FCVW). FCVW advocates using virtual worlds in telework and uses them for conferences, so attendees do not have to travel long distances. (Hackathorn, 2011). NDU’s iCollege uses virtual worlds (specifically, Second Life) to teach DL (Distance Learning) classes.
The United States Army has a program similar to the FCVW: The FVWC (Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge) (Army, 2011). The difference in the FVWC versus the FCVW is the United State Army is challenging developers to come up with a solution. This includes a $25,000 cash prize.
Additionally, virtual worlds are being used by education. One use is to study business, politics, law, sociology, and many others. (Bloomfield, 2007). There does not seem to be any limit to the application of virtual worlds.
Strategy
            To implement a virtual world strategy, our organization should first decide which provider to use. Second Life likely does not meet current IA guidelines. It is also not certificate enabled. Linden Labs or another vendor could be asked to work with us to design a product that is both useable and secure. The FCVW and FVWC could be consulted as to whether virtual worlds exist that meet or could be adapted to our needs.
            Our organization needs to develop policies to govern telework through virtual worlds. Questions to consider include: Will there be standard work hours? Will avatars have to follow a dress code? Must all avatars wear “business casual”, or can users have avatars of vampires, speedboats, and rock stars?
Once a strategy and policies are decided upon and enacted, the key is to execute; to make it happen. The decision could remain “hung up in committee” indefinitely without an implementation plan and commitment.
Metric 
            No doubt, if we pursues virtual worlds as a policy and practice, metrics need to be put in place to ensure employees are at least as effective as they were when travelling to a centralized location each workday. Employees could be required to log into the virtual world during the workday. Avatars go inactive if the employee does not use them for several minutes.  Our organization additionally needs to consider other metrics for work accomplished in addition to time logged. Similar to telework, employees could be required to submit reports documenting work accomplished along the lines of their objectives and position descriptions.
Summary
            If our organization expects to claim “green”, it must find ways around the time consuming and exhaustive (in more than one way) commute. It should pursue policies that allow both business effectiveness and limit the need for employees to travel to share the same point in space and time.


References


Army, U. (2011). Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge. Retrieved 12 11, 2011, from Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge: Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge
Bloomfield, R. (2007). Worlds For Study: Innovation. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Johnson Graduate School of Managment.
Subject Area: Virtual Worlds Overview
Hackathorn, E. (Director). (2011). Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds Overview [Motion Picture].
Synopsis/Summary: This video is an overview of the mission of the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds and possibilities for the uses of virtual worlds in the federal government.

This video is pertinent to my paper because it provides an overview of virtual worlds in the federal government and attempt to get federal employees to collaborate toward bringing this technology into productive use.

Subject Area: Desktop Virtualization

Mueller, E. S. (2011). Business Case: Reduce Printing Expenses By Desktop Virtualization. Washington, D.C.
Synopsis/Summary: This is a paper I wrote for a previous class. In it, I made a case for my organization to reduce our ridiculously high printer expenses by using a combination of virtualized desktops and mobile devices.

This previous paper is pertinent to my current paper because it thoroughly explains the concept and uses of desktop virtualization. It serves as a reference.

Subject Area: Virtual Workplace

Wagner, C. G. (2004, Mar/Apr). Fear and Loathing In The Virtual Workplace. The Futurist , pp. 6-7.
Synopsis/Summary: This article documents various reasons employees are hesitant to work in a decentralized manner.

It is pertinent to my paper because it provides a reference for my point.

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Virtual World. Retrieved 12 11, 2011, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_world

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