Virtual world could lead to real IT problems

There are many issues with using the likes of Second Life, says Frank Hayes

Using Second Life for business? Yeah, it’s a screwy idea. OK, there are companies that have set up imaginary shops in Second Life and other “virtual worlds”, including Toyota, Reebok and Adidas. And yes, IBM and Intel have made a big deal about using Second Life for some meetings.

But most IT departments don’t need to worry about this yet, right?

Oh yes we do — boy, do we ever.

Here’s why: your most tech-savvy users know all about Second Life. And there’s a good chance they’ve thought about holding some business meetings there — anything from workgroup get-togethers to sales presentations. Maybe they’re already doing it.

If they are, IT staff are the last people who will hear about it.

Remember when your marketing department first started fooling around with the web? They didn’t go to IT — they just found an outside web-hosting provider cheap enough to pay for out of petty cash.

Remember when power users first smuggled in instant messaging? They didn’t ask IT — they just passed the free client software around to everyone else, and it spread.

Today we have corporate-class web capabilities and secure, loggable instant messaging. That stuff is enterprise-ready. A few years ago, when users brought it in, it wasn’t.

And that’s where Second Life is right now.

Well, it’s not ready for most enterprises, anyway. Last year, IBM head honcho Sam Palmisano announced that he has a Second Life avatar, the on-screen character that represents him at staff meetings in the virtual world. And Intel has at least 150 people testing the virtual-meeting waters.

But IBM and Intel are doing those meetings as research projects. They’re figuring out security and regulatory issues — after all, a Second Life meeting is electronic communication. Last month, IBM even issued its first set of guidelines for how employees should behave when they’re representing Big Blue virtually.

Meanwhile, Second Life ’s operator, Linden Lab, just announced that it will open-source the Second Life client software. That means third-party service providers can work on the code to make it more enterprise-friendly, then start renting out virtual meeting space to all comers. Very soon, it could be as easy for a user to set up a Second Life meeting as it is to set up an ordinary teleconference.

But right now, that’s not ready.

And your users won’t wait. Why should they? From their point of view, if they’re already in Second Life , they just have to decide where their avatars will meet to hold their virtual chat. They can even buy virtual land and build their own virtual meeting places, all at petty-cash prices.

From your point of view, it’s unsecured, unarchived electronic business communication — a nightmare, even if it doesn’t cause technical problems.

Yes, you should worry — and then act. You won’t hear about Second Life from users until they’ve got a glowing virtual-meetings success story to present to your CEO. So let users hear from you.

What should you say? You could pre-emptively outlaw Second Life for work, and good luck trying to make that stick.

Or instead you could explain why virtual-world meetings create security and regulatory headaches, and that you’d like to work with them to find fixes for those problems before they start dabbling in this stuff. (That message tells your CEO that you’re on top of the situation, and it puts users on notice that Second Life meetings aren’t approved).

Then start looking for those fixes — whether that means videotaping a computer screen during virtual meetings, or hacking the data stream in that open-source Second Life client, or even distracting users until vendors come up with secure, loggable systems.

Just don’t assume Second Life is nothing to worry about.

That world may be virtual, but the trouble it could cause you is real.

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Tags managementsecond lifevirtual worlds

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