Reinvention Requires A Near-Death Experience

by Erica Driver.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Chairman Emeritus, IBM Academy of Technology, was speaking from experience this morning during his interview by Wall Street Journal Columnist Walt Mossberg at the BIF-3 collaborative innovation summit. By a near-death experience, Wladawsky-Berger was referring to what IBM went through when Bill Gates founded Microsoft and the PC took off. Another example interviewer Mossberg raised during the conversation was Apple, which was in terrible financial straits in the mid 90s and has risen from the ashes to become today’s darling in the consumer electronics and digital music markets. Wladawsky-Berger said that near-death experiences open up the mind to new experiences – they “clean the brain.” These experiences force people to think in new ways and look for new opportunities. For IBM, the Internet became the lifeboat and the company clutched onto it. Later came Linux and other technologies.

I would contend that IBM went through this again more recently, in the Lotus group. Lotus may have had a near-death experience somewhere around 2004, when Microsoft’s market share in messaging and collaboration began to increase, some Lotus Notes/Domino customers began to jump ship, and Lotus revenue growth was at a low. The lifeboat for IBM’s Lotus group is enterprise Web 2.0. This new wave of technology is IBM’s opportunity to change the game, to innovate and deliver solutions to customers that allow organizations to transform the way people innovate, collaborate, and -- in general -- work.

One of the most important technologies in this mix is the 3D Internet. While many are skeptical (as Mossberg put it this morning, referring to Second Life, “What does fake people using fake money, flying on magic carpets and building little islands have to do with business?”), my view is that the 3D Internet will have as big an impact on business and work as the 2D Internet (the World Wide Web) did. Maybe even bigger. Irving Wladawsky-Berger seems to be of like mind -- here is some of what he had to share today:

  • The 3D Internet is the evolution of social networking and collaboration technologies. In Wladawsky-Berger’s view, the killer apps for 3D Internet are meetings and learning and training. At IBM, they have started building sites – both in Second Life and on other virtual world platforms -- for virtual classrooms and conferences. Dozens or even hundreds of people can come together in a virtual classroom or meeting room through their avatars.
  • Virtual worlds are a big improvement over conference calls. IBMers who were participating in meetings in Second Life found the experience of dealing with each other there more "human" than dealing with them in conference calls. Conference calls are "cold" – a group of people dials in at 9AM and talks for 30 minutes for a specific reason. Much of the chit chat that occurs before and after in-person meetings is lost, and with it camaraderie and the potential for serendipitous interactions. In Second Life, people do chit chat at the beginning and end of meetings. They get to know each other. Bonds of relationship form.
  • The virtual and physical worlds will merge into hybrid worlds. The MIT Media Lab is one institution doing work in this area. The lab is doing research into physical-world sensors that control items in a virtual world. For example, a person wearing sensors on their hands may be able to move their avatar’s hands by moving their physical hands. MIT Media Lab is working on the Huggable, a robot that’s being designed to have a full-body sensitive skin with over 1,500 sensors, quiet back-drivable actuators (whatever those are), video cameras in the eyes, microphones in the ears, an inertial measurement unit (whatever that is), a speaker, and an embedded PC with standard wireless networking. The physical-world Huggable is tied into the virtual world. When the child moves the Huggable, the robot’s avatar in a virtual world moves.
  • Watch what’s happening around you. “If you are smart in a company like IBM, which is full of sharp people, you watch what they do,” Wladawsky-Berger says. “When you see them doing certain things you realize you have to change directions. In 2006 we had more and more people at IBM who started to have more and more meetings  in Second Life. These weren't kids, they were people with jobs, dealing with each other.” Guaranteed, you’ve got people working in your organization who use virtual world technology to play games. Some may be using it as part of their social lives. Increasingly, they will look for ways to use it for work.

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