This is Part 2 of a speculative view of knowledge management and learning 10 years from now, and how they may be enhanced using 3D gaming/simulation technologies. Read Part I here to get a sense of the overall work environment. This article focuses on the simulation environment itself.
An Immersive Portal Environment
Inside the portal space, my computer and view of my work are completely customized, with a unique appearance and functionalities that reflect my job type, work resources and information needs. In addition, I have a unique personal collection of 3D agents and other interactive objects that perform tasks for me, even when Iâ€™m offline. I plug in my headset to prepare for the training session, and since no one is sitting close by, I decide to direct the system by voice rather than by typing.
I wake up Ricardo, another of my animated agents, whose job it is to document information I want to remember, create libraries of reference materials I use in my daily work, and fetch information when I need it. Ricardo is my personal knowledge manager, and I have trained him to recognize and respond to my voice commands. When I need him to find or save information for me, I can order it without leaving my other work, or typing instructions. Since he uses built-in artificial intelligence, Ricardo is able to learn over time what my specific requests mean, and he has become expert enough to volunteer additional information or resources that I didn’t know about, from both internal and external sources. He is constantly monitoring and researching information I need in the background, and will sometimes pop up in the middle of something I’m working on to suggest a new resource he’s just discovered. He’s a great resource. Right now I want him to sit silently and observe what I’m doing and be ready to save anything I may want to save from my training session for later reference.
Now the fun begins! I click on the traditional looking â€œcorporate educationâ€ icon on my desktop, and suddenly I find myself transported into a three-dimensional world on my screen. Iâ€™m looking at a world designed to look like a modern, but somewhat mysterious looking city, with a mixture of building architectures and landscaping features, and other visual elements I can interact with. I’ve seen other learning worlds at other companies that look like interplanetary space worlds or medieval landscapes, and we’ve been told that in a few years we will be able to choose from among several environments. For now, though, we have only the land of “Metropolis” and its capital city of “Arthursburg”, named playfully for our CEO. The designers had fun creating Arthursburg. It’s full of little inside jokes, plays on words and visual cues that long-time employees recognize instantly, like a statue on the main street of a man leaning on a golf club, with a rabbit pushing a golf ball with his rear leg, and a pub named â€œThe Out Sourcerorâ€. The designers keep it fresh, too. Within hours of a big customer win, media story, annual meeting or fiasco, references have been worked into the Metropolis landscape. The fun factor keeps people coming back to see whatâ€™s newâ€”and we occasionally find their our own names gracing a computer generated character!
When I first joined the company two years ago and set up my account in Metropolis, I was taken to a character creation screen, similar to those in many popular video games. I had to choose an avatar, an animated icon, to represent me as I interact with the Metropolis environment. It’s possible to customize the avatar down to details such as skin tone, body type, overall size, hair style and color, facial hair, eyeglasses, earrings, scars, tattoos, clothing items and colors, etc. Some of the color options, such as pure white or pure black, are not available. In Metropolis, players have an opportunity to “purchase” the rare colors as a privilege once they have achieved certain status and objectives.
The system includes three different races — a very short race called Moris, an average size race called Humanos, and a large race called Talbos. Each race has special inherent abilities that give it certain advantages in interacting with the “world” and solving the puzzles and challenges there. I chose a female Humanos character of medium build, and had fun spending an hour trying on different looks and views until I found the one I wanted to keep. I then got to select three from among twelve other character variables that would enhance certain of my character’s abilities as they performed tasks in the world. I chose night vision (to find information in dimly lit areas), charisma (to enhance leadership and obtain more help from computer generated characters in the world), and strength (to absorb harmful effects without becoming fatigued as fast as others). I named my avatar Kaye. We are required to use our real names for our characters, since this is a business environment and we will be interacting with co-workers. Research has shown that it makes people act just a little more responsibly toward others.
The New Face of Corporate U
My character was then transported into the world, where I was met by a greeter avatar operated by the computer system. Ginny Greeter is standing in a large plaza surrounded by familiar looking buildings that have been designed to mimic our corporate headquarters complex and several of our regional locations down to the carpet designs and artwork. There are also official government-looking buildings, like a Courthouse and City Hall. Just around the corner is an inviting green park area, with a few small shops visible, and in front of the park is a library. Some of the shops are connected with real administrative services. There is a post office, for example, and a printing shop where we can order signs, brochures, name tags, and flyers for business events. Other shops are related to items available for purchase and use within the simulation environment.
Although Ginny is a “bot”, a computer-generated character (CGC) that operates using artificial intelligence and scripts, you would swear there is a human speaking! She can initiate dialogues with new arrivals, as well as respond to conversation, answer questions, and provide helpful hints and tips about the next thing to do when a person or group gets stuck on some activity. Group activities are what make this learning system special. Where most game-like simulations are designed for a single person to interact with the environment, solve puzzles, or discover information in a structured way, a â€œmulti-userâ€ simulation allows a group of people, each connected remotely to the system from their own computers, to experience the system simultaneously, and team up in real time on activities in the simulation world. This teaming opportunity creates dynamics that more closely approximate a real world scenario, and create an immersive learning experience with substantially higher information retention rates than traditional training. Either randomly or as part of a scheduled activity, real world workers log in to Metropolis and use their avatars as extensions of themselves, singly or in groups, to accomplish a variety of learning tasks called “quests”.
Our system currently has about 250 different learning quests to-date, each of which has multiple steps and a reward for completing it. Users can follow a prepared sequence as advised by their HR counselor or wander around in the simulated world and look for computer generated avatars that will give them a quest to do. The system recognizes you when you log in, and knows which quests you are eligible to do. For example, on my first visit, Ginny gave me my first quest to walk over to the library and read a book on avatar actions. It was tricky learning to use the arrow keys to navigate my avatar down the street to the library, enter the door, talk to the virtual librarian, and locate the book I needed. Once I had read the book (which actually appeared as printed pages in a window my screen), I returned to Ginny and she gave me a key to the university complex on the other side of Metropolis. After giving me a few instructions about transportation, she told me to board a realistic moving tram for the university, and I was on my way!
It’s interesting that it doesn’t take long for a person to become absorbed in their avatar’s experiences. I found myself quickly referring to “I”, when I meant my avatar, and that is what most of my co-workers experience, too. The environment of Metropolis is designed in such an immersive way that when, for example “I” boarded the tram, I experienced the speed and lurch of the tram, the slowing for intersections, the sounds of the wheels and creaks and bells and whistles, and the visual sensation of sitting by a window and watching the landscape speed by. When I exited the tram at my stop, I saw not only the University complex, but also the avatars of other employee participants. I knew I wanted to go back and explore the city and the library a little more later, but the first step was to enter the University, find the administration building and sign up for the courses I wanted in the registrar’s office.
You may think I’m giving too much detail here, but it’s necessary. When I tell you I am logging in to Metropolis to take a training class, maybe now you can get a feeling for what I am experiencing. The “I” I’m logging in is my avatar, the classroom is virtual, and the other participants in my class are located all over the country…perhaps in their offices, but perhaps at home in their pajamas with a baby on their knee! All we see is what each avatar does, and all we â€œhearâ€ is what the avatar says in type, although itâ€™s possible to hear the actual voice of the person behind the avatar if the group is using voice over IP telephony to speak with each other as they navigate through the tasks in Metropolis. Today we are all just typing. All the people whose avatars are gathered together in Metropolis see the same things on their screens, but from their own avatar’s location and point of view. The instructor avatar “James” standing by the gate may be a live, human instructor operating an avatar, or it might be a CGC preprogrammed with the information needed to teach the group how to accomplish the components of the learning module/quest. We interact with him the same way either way.
As we stand there waiting for the last two group members to arrive, several people start to experiment with the different actions their avatars can perform. One doubles over in convulsive laughter, another begins to jump in place, another kneels on one knee and pleads, another salutes, another curtseys, another nods vigorously, another cheers, another walks like Charlie Chaplin. The animations make it possible for people to be as expressive as they like, and soon all ten of us are practicing our cheering or jumping or clapping or bowing until James informs us that itâ€™s time to begin by saying, â€œOkay everyone, thatâ€™s enough fooling around, shall we get started?â€
The Learning Experience
Today’s training session is on diversity, a company-wide annual requirement, so James briefs the group on what they have to do next. The overall task is to build a new multicultural housing complex to accommodate the needs and traditions of a wide variety of families, and walk a team of inspectors through it to evaluate the results when we are finished. The anticipated time to complete the course is three hours. There are a number of milestone tasks along the way before construction can begin. Accepting the “quest” creates a log entry for each participant. The group uses the chat capabilities built into Metropolis to strategize about how to accomplish the first task and retrieve the item they each must return to James to complete it. Several of the group members volunteer to split off to strategize about the architecture of the proposed structure, which the entire group will actually construct together from building objects existing in Metropolis. Instant messaging is built into the system, and I see a private message to me pop up from Kim, who will be in my 12:00 meeting, asking if I think we will finish the training in time.
The interaction of players expressed through their avatars reveals personal traits, abilities and preferences more clearly than live face-to-face interactions. There is a safety people feel as they type anonymously behind their keyboards, and qualities emerge that are sometimes unexpected. Some people prefer to challenge the problem boldly, some to do more reading and research first; some prefer to work collaboratively and discuss a problem to reach a consensus about next steps before moving ahead, while others prefer a more singular approach, and will charge out on their own without much notice or discussion; some want to take their time and be thorough, while others want to race ahead and get it over with quickly and move on. Some people use their avatars in amusing ways to entertain other participants as they work through the problems.
Group leaders emerge naturally as they use their expertise, problem-solving skills, and leadership abilities to ensure that the group succeeds in the quest objective. Sometimes younger members will step naturally into the lead. Over time, it’s possible to recognize good group leaders and support their approaches. Some participants show themselves to be noisy or disruptive group members, some are quiet and never contribute, and some are regularly away from their keyboard doing other activities on the side while the rest of the group works to solve the quest problems. This is one of the dynamics that makes multi-user interactive simulations so fascinating and compelling for participants. Human beings are interesting, and you simply can’t predict their interactions in groups.
As the group works together, the environment provides a wide range of learning objects to support the purpose of the training. There might be:
Advertisements, such as billboards posted in strategic spots that present charts and graphs or new company products
Kiosks where notes can be pinned up and tips exchanged
Pictures on the wall in a building that, when clicked, run informational videos (participants can be instructed to view the videos as a step in their quest)
A museum exhibit displaying real historical photos or paintings
A product showroom where models of real world products can be tested virtually and include pop-up help
Interactive simulated computers that show screen shots of software applications
Objects that, when clicked, will fire up a web browser connected to a real world web site with information pertinent to the course content
Teleports that enable a participant to move instantly between two points anywhere in the environment
Objects that the participants’ avatars can pick up and use — for example, a hammer or a pencil or a TV remote control or a pitchfork.
As participants become familiar with the others in their group, they naturally step into roles, just as they might in a traditional classroom. Some will be subject matter experts, some will research the unknown factors, someone will write the notes, someone will facilitate the discussion, and someone will present the results. In Metropolis, some will plan the building, some will research or select the building materials/elements, some will decorate the space, some will work on writing a presentation or marketing brochure on the features of the new multicultural center, and some could even make the presentation to other groups of co-workers at a scheduled time. The system enables a work team to initiate an invitation and email it to prospective audience members, in the same way normal office meetings are scheduled. All company software applications are fully integrated.
The final step of each quest in Metropolis is a test to ensure that all participants learned what they were there to learn. The test is presented as a dialogue with James, the CGC quest giver. He can read the participant’s log and determine if the avatar completed all the required steps, or conduct a Q&A session. If a participant answers incorrectly, context sensitive help pops up a mini-review that enables the person to see what they should have learned, so they can complete the dialogue chain successfully.
In completing my test this morning, I missed an answer that used some terms I didn’t remember. I woke up my reference bot Ricardo and told him to fetch some definitions for the terms I needed, and to display them right away, as well as file them in my “just learned” folder. I also had him enter a reminder into my calendar to review the terms in a week to refresh my learning.
Once the quest/learning objective is completed successfully, each participant receives both verbal and virtual pats on the back from instructor James. He gives the participant a reward, and issues a report to their human resources file, indicating that they completed the mandatory diversity training module. The “reward” is something the participant can use in Metropolis — for example, virtual coins they can accumulate from completing quests and use to purchase items from a virtual Metropolis merchant (who may sell real world items, like electronics, exercise or outdoor equipment, holiday items or vacations from a catalogue). Rewards are sometimes visual badges of accomplishment in Metropolis, like a clothing upgrade or new clothing item, access to a hard-to-obtain hair or item color, perhaps a “title” by their name (for example, instead of just Kaye, it might say “Magistrate Kaye” or “Sergeant Kaye” or “Guru Kaye”), or maybe a color coding of their name to indicate level of experience and knowledge gained over time. Our system awards titles based on experience, actions in the simulation, and time spent assisting others. Research shows that introducing prestige rewards reflecting a participant’s expertise, knowledge and seniority are highly motivating to workers.
A few minutes ago I completed my own diversity training course, and was given 25 virtual coins as a reward. My avatar now has 75 coins and as soon as she collects 100, she will head over to the tailoring shop in Metropolis and have her blue jumpsuit dyed jet black! My next goal for my avatar will be to earn a title. I think Imperator sounds about right for me (evil grin). It will take another two years, since it requires a user to complete so many learning quests, but there are only two Imperators in the company so far — and I plan to put in some personal hours to earn the right to become #3! Besides, it’s not really like work; it’s like playing a game. The company regularly verifies that the value received from the simulation system is substantial, but I still can’t believe I’m paid to do this!
Documenting Team Meetings
Reluctantly, I leave Metropolis and return to the real world, where itâ€™s time for my weekly project team meeting. Today is Presidentâ€™s Day, and though our company doesnâ€™t celebrate, an administrative support person who is revered for her pie-making prowess has baked six cherry pies. She and two of the young male staffers, dressed as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, are pushing a hovercart from desk to desk, and serving everyone in the office today. Pie in hand, I click another icon to start my team meeting. Each of our computers has a built-in minicam, and soon the live pictures of all six team members line up across my screen and we begin talking using voice over IP through our wireless headsets. One of the team has slides she has been drafting, and she presents them on the screen for our comments, updating them as we speak. Another member has found an interesting web site and wants to show us a couple of the features that he thinks we can incorporate into our project. He â€œteam surfsâ€ us to the site using his browser, and demonstrates the features as we watch and comment orally.
A discussion-logging feature in the meeting software has been turned on, so the entire conversation was captured. After the meeting, I run the audiotape through transcribing software, give the results a quick check for accuracy, and then pass it through a parser, which pulls out the relevant commentary based upon my keyword criteria and discards the personal comments and asides. I review the summary, make a few corrections, and have the minutes from the meeting posted in our online team room web site within an hour. The parser automatically generates a copy of the final approved document, tags it by type, title, keyword frequency, date and participant names, and posts it into the companyâ€™s content management system. After an approval step, it will be placed into the knowledge repository, where it will eventually receive evaluation ratings by readers. Within six hours, the meeting notes are available for search retrieval by anyone in the organization (with permission to access these types of documents, of course).
Building the Knowledge Base
The “knowledge base” in which all company information is stored is huge, and requires powerful content management, search, and expertise location tools. Profiles drive everything. Each new employee is required to submit a personal profile to the knowledge system describing their expertise, interests and areas of specialization. As workers complete projects, they are prompted to update their profiles to indicate any new knowledge or experience gained. Profiles are used to determine who subject matter experts are and define the types of information each individual should have access to.
Because so many workers come from other countries and English is not their first language, the system can also perform translations in 56 languages, and link to other internal and external content sources worldwide. This helps everyone to evaluate proprietary content against a high standard. With language barriers minimized, it’s easier to ensure distribution of information to the people who need it most.
One fantastic development is that the world is now the resource for knowledge. No single laboratory or company has all the knowledge it needs for business development or sustained innovation. Open source software and access to information have improved information access across barriers dramatically. This has also led to better ‘surveillance systems’ that monitor technical and market developments, as well as where the talent is. Evaluating new content is everyone’s obligation, and user rankings help to bubble up the most important documents and items in the archives so they are easy to find and use.
In general, the convergence of voice, data and television signals in IPTV has finally delivered the quality and speed improvement in communications that were touted at the turn of the century. The smart devices we use in daily interactions with our homes and offices, like my PDA and notebook computer, as well as my own TV remote control at home, provide dramatic speed and quality improvements, as well as direct interactions with various knowledge bases. The fact that any device can be a telephone, a television, and a digital video recorder has changed how people communicate. Broadcast programs and training modules can be downloaded and recorded at the same time that a virtual Internet meeting using voice and video exchanges is occurring on the same device.
Meetings and conversations are routinely transcribed electronically, and emailed to participants for review and revision before entering them in the knowledge exchange system. People are not tied to their desks or a geographic location in order to have instant access to the best minds in the field, the best education, the best conferences, or the best resources of the organization. Stored text files now may contain embedded video clips or animated graphics or humor that will make the stored information a more complete and dynamic transcription of a personâ€™s knowledge and experience. This has opened entirely new career paths for graphic designers, technical writers, and videographers, since society has become increasingly visual in its information needs and preferences.
Now Iâ€™m shifting back to 2006. Think this scenario is too far out to be believed? Maybe you should ask some colleagues to read it and ask the same question. The reality is that every one of these technologies is being developed or is in use today. As usual, what will lag behind is the cultural flexibility that allows people to adapt and change their processes quickly. Organizations that get the dynamics right first, however, will create competitive advantages that other organizations will be rushing to copy. How do you think KM will be different 10 years from now? Will there even be a thing called knowledge management 10 years from now?