Remember back in the early days of the Internet era, when the term “virtual reality” was applied to just about anything that had to do with a computerized representation of some aspect of reality? Everyone was abuzz about the idea of creating virtual representations of almost any situation.
While most of the ideas related to virtual reality seemed to be mostly within the realm of recreation, there were certainly those (myself included) who began to think about how this use of technology could be leveraged for use within organizations.
In fact, those who know me or follow my writings know that I feel strongly that the virtual representation of job tasks and the environment in which they occur are the future of employee selection.
Recently, I have seen a variety of things that provide me with the feeling that we are on the verge of a quantum leap when it comes to how individuals locate job opportunities and are evaluated by potential employers.
One of these recent “aha!” moments occurred when I had a chance to begin goofing around with the fast-growing “Second Life.”
For those readers unfamiliar with Second Life, Wikipedia offers the following definition:
Second Life (SL) is a privately owned, partly subscription-based 3-D virtual world, made publicly available in 2003 by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, and founded by former RealNetworks CTO Philip Rosedale. Users can visit this virtual world almost as if it were a real place. They explore, meet new people, participate in individual and group activities, and, if they decide to visit often, they learn new skills and mature socially (in the sense of learning the culture of the virtual world).
Though sometimes referred to as a game, Second Life does not have points, scores, winners and losers, levels, and end-strategy, or most of the other characteristics of a game.
Second Life client program provides its users (often referred to as Residents) with tools to view and modify the SL world and participate in its virtual economy. The economy operates as a real free market. Residents buy and sell to one another, and the virtual currency is exchangeable for US$.
As of December 2006, ten to twenty thousand users are in SL at any one time. As of October 18, 2006, the number of registered accounts in Second Life reached one million. Eight weeks later, on December 14, this number doubled to two million, and that rapid growth continues.
In my mind, Second Life marks a real step forward in terms of the concept of virtual reality. The reason for this is there are a few key differences between virtual worlds such as Second Life and more traditional, narrowly focused task-based simulations (such as a flight simulator).
These include the fact that Second Life:
- Makes use of the most powerful aspect of the Internet: the ability to build communities.
- Offers individuals the opportunity to learn and grow from their interactions with others.
- Allows participants to express their individuality, effectively allowing them to “be themselves” within the virtual environment.
- Has its own economy that serves as a significant component of what participants are able to do.
- Is open source in that participants are able to invent their own uses for the environment, its economy, and the interactions that result.
The fact that major corporations such as GM and IBM are starting to create virtual businesses within Second Life tells me that the corporate world is starting to see some of the possibilities available to them via virtual worlds.
In fact, GM has established virtual Pontiac dealers within Second Life and has thus begun to use Second Life as a tool to help them build brands.
It is not a stretch to imagine that smart organizations will begin to realize that such virtual brick-and-mortar presence can also be used to help create and reinforce an employment brand. This will provide a key link that will open the floodgates to all kinds of potential ways that a virtual world can be used as a portal and means of information exchange related to the hiring process.
This whole phenomenon brings up an infinite number of possibilities. For instance, how are corporations going to staff their virtual stores? Can such virtual stores be used to collect data about how well virtual employment ad campaigns are working? Can candidates attracted within a virtual world apply for real-world jobs?
As a futurist and an employee-selection expert, the whole Second Life phenomenon has really gotten my juices flowing. I believe that we will see the answers to these questions and more unfold over the next decade.
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While I don’t believe that SL is a venue that can serve to replace existing staffing processes, I do believe that it provides us a glimpse of the future with regard to one of the ways individuals may go about finding jobs and demonstrating their fit with jobs and organizational environments.
I believe this because Second Life provides some of the essential building blocks that will make up the job simulation tools of the future. These include:
- Accessibility to a wide range of individuals who are geographically dispersed, and the ability to bring these persons together on common ground.
- The creation of virtual worlds that go beyond just simple cause-and-effect interactions (i.e., shoot a gun, kill a monster).
- The use of avatars that represent individuals and can manifest one’s own unique personalities and tastes.
- An increased ability for intercultural interaction and the ability to gain experience interacting with those different from oneself.
- The ability to facilitate growth within the avatar such that their experiences accrue and can be measured.
- The ability to share information with other members of the virtual world.
- The ability to evaluate interactions and collect meaningful data from them.
- The ability to create a virtual economy that is driven by many of the same laws and rules that our real economies are bound by.
- The power of branding, using the virtual world to promote real-world experiences and products.
The key to the magic in all of this is not any one of the above things, but rather the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” manner that results when they are combined. While we have a long way to go to tap the full potential of virtual worlds when it comes to employee selection, I can say with certainty that this “Gestalt” aspect of virtual worlds will drive change.
In fact, I predict that in the not-too-distant future, the online application process will go well beyond the current limitations of radio buttons and fill-in-the-blank
self-report measures, instead using avatars and virtual workplaces to allow individuals to try out actual job tasks on which they can be evaluated relative to other applicants or to some set of standards.
The results of this process will provide a much richer picture to both applicants and employers about the job and how well an individual will fit with it. Within the next decade, I think we’ll see some of the following occur:
- Individuals will be able to find employment opportunities via their existence in virtual worlds.
- These will be publicized by organizations who have a virtual presence and who use this presence to promote their brands, employment brands included.
- Individuals will be able to express interest in these opportunities and exchange information that can be used to examine basic qualifications for the job.
- Individuals will be able to participate in virtual job tryouts in which they are asked to complete specific tasks required of them while on the job.
- Individuals will be evaluated based on their task-based and interpersonal-based interactions within virtual worlds.
- Individuals will be able to create and maintain virtual resumes that they can use to help them when looking for jobs within a virtual world.
While simulations already exist that can accomplish some of the above things, the key difference will arise via the following aspects of virtual worlds:
- Increased ability to use artificial intelligence and natural-language processing to evaluate applicant responses and interaction.
- The ability to infer meaning from complex interactions and to use results as part of a decision-making process.
- The ability to simulate real-world work environments and complex tasks with extreme realism.
- Increased interest from candidates such that people will actually enjoy applying for jobs and can be directed more quickly to jobs that pique their interest.
- The ability to use the avatar as a vessel to manifest feelings and emotions.
- The ability for an avatar to grow and learn, and the ability to keep track of this growth and learning so that it can be objectively evaluated.
Just as with the evolution of Internet-based hiring, I feel that the momentum will come through the use of virtual worlds as a way to create meaningful employment brands.
Success in this area will drive organizations to begin using interest in these brands to evaluate applicants. Once this threshold is crossed, the real exciting stuff will begin to happen.
I predict that the first organization that has the foresight to use its Second Life presence as a component of its employment brand will experience huge amounts of interest across a range of demographics (anyone who is doing this, please let me know!).
While baby boomers may not quite get this kind of thing, the workforce of the future has been raised on it, and you can believe that interest in doing things related to one’s life and lifestyle within virtual worlds will continue to grow.
Hang on to your hats. It’s about to get interesting.