Visionaries pitch business modeling in a virtual world

Two IT luminaries gave business the business at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in San Francisco Tuesday.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The bromide of information technology conferences -- aligning IT with the business -- took a refreshing turn Tuesday when two IT luminaries argued that business needs to take a page, or pixel, actually, from the geeks down the hall.

Folks don't want somebody from IT modeling their work. They see it as an intrusion.
Gary Williamson
CIOGeorgia Systems Operations Corp.
Second Life founder Philip Rosedale, who shared the stage with IBM visionary Irving Wladawsky-Berger during Gartner Inc.'s Symposium/ITxpo, kicked things off by showing a video rendering of his Second Life avatar, a broad-shouldered, thin-waisted model of a man. Second Life, developed by Rosedale's Linden Lab, is a virtual world where alter egos transact $50 million worth of business a month and the likes of Circuit City Stores Inc., Dell Inc. and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. have set up shop to get feedback from users.

"The key aspect driving the environment is that it can change," Rosedale said.

Launched in 2003, Second Life is now three times the size of San Francisco and denser than New York. "The world is growing faster than you can see it," Rosedale said. An average 180,000 users a day come to Second Life for an average four hours of use. The place holds more than 100 million user-generated objects.

Second Life has proved an effective marketing tool for companies that have ventured in. Xerox Corp. made headlines in real newspapers when it announced products in Second Life. The "really smart companies," Rosedale said, see Second Life less as a billboard than an opportunity to engage customers in new ways, as Starwood did when it built a hotel in Second Life and invited people to walk through the lobby because it wanted a design review.

Like the Web, Second Life is an open system with open standards. Rapid growth in the past year has tested the company's ability to operate with minimal central governance. Rosedale said he believes self-governance will prevail. "One of the cool things" about Second World is that it combines a high degree of transparency with a high degree of accountability, he said.

Message to CEOs: Get unreal

Virtual worlds like Second Life, in which thousands of individuals interact in complex ways, are examples of how virtualization can solve a problem for businesses, Wladawasky-Berger said.

Just as engineers and architects have used computer-aided design (CAD) tools to model physical objects, business leaders must be willing to use technology to simulate their companies -- to make a virtual model of them -- if they expect to compete in the near future.

That will require business leaders to understand what their companies do, how they are administered and who they impact on a profound level -- indeed, with a precision that heretofore has not been seen, according to IBM's Wladawsky-Berger.

"You cannot model what you don't understand," said Wladawsky-Berger, vice president of technical strategy and innovation at IBM.

Old system models aren't up to the task. Unlike the virtual Boeing 787, which looks a lot like the one that is manufactured, there is no "physicality to help us" model a business, Wladawasky-Berger said. Machines are deterministic and stay put, he said. Businesses and organizations live in a marketplace that changes constantly.

The platforms to model organizational systems will have some characteristics of classical engineering but also characteristics from biological systems that allow these models to adapt and change, he said. "You cannot engineer something if you don't have modular components."

The invisible hand

IBM is working with San Francisco-based Linden Lab and others to scale these platforms so "you have as much technology as you need," Wladawasky-Berger said. Specialized platforms -- simulated training for surgeons, for example -- will be "more heavy duty" than others, requiring an order of magnitude more technology than in general use today.

He likened the evolution of this technology to, well, evolution. Cells commoditized, he said. Darwin's "invisible hand" or some force started aggregating them, and more and more organisms started popping up. IT will extend all the way into people's brains, figuring out how humans think about a store in order to create a virtual store. Alas, the human predicament doesn't change much for many of us in these brave new worlds. Most people will not know what gave birth to the virtual store. "The vast majority of people don't have to know about it," Wladawasky pronounced. The technology, like Darwin's invisible hand, will operate literally behind the scenes.

Gary Williamson, CIO of Georgia Systems Operations Corp. and a former SIM City player, said he was "intrigued enough' by the morning session to plunk down the $9.95 to try out Second Life, though not from work.

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"Rosedale made an excellent point when he said CIOs need to open the corporate firewalls to let people in," Williamson said. "I think they have created something pretty amazing." He also found Wladawsky-Berger's ideas for modeling businesses "quite profound" but said he was skeptical about buy-in from his business colleagues. "Folks don't want somebody from IT modeling their work. They see it as an intrusion."

Dan Richards, a branch IT chief for the California Department of Social Services, saw a lot of "upside" in how virtualization can "change the way we do business." Momentum is building for virtual worlds like Second Life, he said, as competitors enter the marketplace and draw in users. "It's change, and anytime you talk about change it's scary, but we in the world of technology are kind of used to that," Richards said.

Gartner analyst Darryl Plummer, who covers virtualization, said Second Life is "a tip of the iceberg." "Second Life is pretty darn clunky, not very useful in some regards and there is not a whole lot you could do there that you couldn't do in the real world, with email, videoconferencing and so on," he said. But the concept will revolutionize not just how business is done but also the human condition, he said. "By 2050, the first child will be born that does not actually distinguish between the virtual world and the real world, because these virtual worlds will be that convincing."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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