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The Virtual Whirl: More Marriott, less Microsoft

Tateru Nino

It's certainly taking time for people, organizations and businesses to learn how to obtain benefits from virtual environments, and it will take quite some time yet to figure out how to optimize those results. On the plus side, there are many hundreds of thousands of people working on that.

Working out how to effectively operate and manage virtual environments for large numbers of people, well, that's actually taking a lot longer. There are far fewer people actually involved in the process, and the same wheels are being reinvented over and over – and quite often, they seem to be square ones.

Virtual environment operators are ostensibly in the category of service-providers, but generally behave like technology companies instead of service-oriented businesses. Where they should be operating like Marriott, they're acting more like Microsoft.

A major hotel chain where you could potentially suffer personal injury, or property damage or loss averages about 2,000 words of plain-English terms and conditions, organized to be easily skimmed and understood. Second Life requires more than 30,000 words of terms and conditions in dense legalese, and Linden Lab staff suggest you contact your attorney if you have difficulty with understanding your obligations.

Linden Lab, as the most visible of the operators at the present time provides prime (but not the only) examples of the increasing disconnect that the service/technology dichotomy engenders.

For example, in Q3 2008, Linden Lab's user-experience team scaled back their weekly office hour – one of the best avenues for the Lab to discover just what users needed and what would 'delight' them – to a mere once per month. After only only a few meetings on that schedule, Lab staff started forgetting to turn up entirely. Eventually, staff remembered that the meetings existed, and simply canceled them.

Those meetings continued on without Linden Lab, however, and designers from some of the Lab's competitors attend them instead, quietly mingling with the Second Life users who attend, and obtaining information for desirable features and ideas.

It's a repeating pattern. For more than a year, the Lab's volunteer team forgot to attend approximately 60% of their own scheduled meetings with users, increasingly losing touch with volunteers. Meetings resumed after a while, but by that stage the situation had become largely irretrievable, and the programs were subsequently canceled. -- now closed -- was likewise widely criticized for similar problems, failures to communicate and being generally out of touch. Its drive to provide a platform rather than a service is cited as one of the lynchpins of its undoing by many former users that I've spoken with.

Do all virtual environment operators have learning disabilities at the organizational level?

It seems like that, sure, but it is still too early to tell for some of the newer players on the block.

The notion of an organizational learning disability might seem a little strong, but when organizations make the same trivially avoidable errors over and over again, learning from neither their competitor's mistakes or their own, there's little other way to explain it.

Company culture and internal communications are clearly in a state where the business is not able to learn from experience, good or bad. Not in any effective way that might prevent future difficulties or improve service, leastways.

If you want to generate delight for your users and customers, start thinking more like a service than a platform. More Marriott, less Microsoft.

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