Xianghua Lu, Professor of Information Management and Information Systems at School of Management Fudan University, explores the potential of using virtual worlds for group collaboration.
By CoBS Editor Nicolas Desarnauts. Related research: ‘Dr. Jekyll vis-à-vis Mr. Hyde: Personality variation between virtual and real worlds‘, Juliana Sutanto, Chee Wei Phang, Chuan Hoo Tan, Xianghua Lu.
The universe of virtual worlds has long been ruled by video games. However, this may soon change. With organizations increasingly going global and remote work becoming more common, these simulated environments may provide a solution for collaboration at distance. Nevertheless, questions about the effect of this technology on group interactions have been raised with some positing that people could exhibit different personalities when working through a virtual world. Through her research, Professor Xianghua Lu answers many of these questions and argues how organizations can best employ this technology to maximize its benefits.
FROM SCIENCE-FICTION TO SCIENCE-FACT
Virtual worlds—computer-based simulated environments where users can create personal avatars, explore, participate in activities and communicate with others—have long been used in video games like Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto. These virtual environments are often designed to mimic reality so that users feels immersed in the world and experience a degree of presence. With massive strides made in virtual reality (VR) technology and the appearance of mass-market VR headsets, some have argued that these virtual worlds will one day become indistinguishable from reality.
With organizations more global today than ever before, these recent technological developments provide new opportunities to facilitate group interactions like meetings. Up until now, collaboration at distance has been a challenge due to the nature of human interaction and the constraints imposed by technology. Current solutions such as phone meetings are unpopular and unproductive because people are easily distracted and tend to multitask ineffectively. Virtual worlds, in contrast, are designed to be engaging and focus their users’ attention. Combined with the rapid advances in VR technology, virtual worlds could hence become an effective tool for collaboration at distance—if people are willing to use them.
Indeed, it is thought that people may exhibit different personalities in a virtual world than in the real world—in part because of the anonymity that is typically enjoyed in these simulated environments. However, in an organizational setting, people are likely to know the identities of the colleagues with whom they would interact in a group. Hence, they may make an effort to self-regulate and limit the degree of difference in personality that they exhibit in a virtual world. In her research paper Dr. Jekyll vis-à-vis Mr. Hyde: Personality variation between virtual and real worlds, Professor Xianghua Lu sets out to uncover whether people would exhibit this difference in personalities when working through a virtual world and whether such a difference would cause people to stop using the technology.
BEING YOUR VIRTUAL SELF
Professor Xianghua Lu decided to use the virtual world service Second Life to conduct her experiment. Second Life—which has been used in the past by organizations like IBM and Harvard University—offers a three-dimensional environment with visualizations that simulate real-world settings. It allows users to interact with each other through their avatars and engage in problem-solving together in a virtual environment. These constant stimuli engage the user and remind them of the goal of the activity: to solve a set of problems with the group.
Using a fully-equipped custom-made meeting room on Second Life, Professor Xianghua Lu was thus able to study the effect of using a virtual world on a group of about 300 undergraduate students. To measure potential personality differences, a survey based on seven pre-selected factors such as creativity and honesty was given before and after the students began participating in their virtual group meetings. The students were also asked to rate their satisfaction using the virtual worlds at the end of the experiment—an indicator of their willingness to continue using the technology.
As expected, the findings demonstrated that the students’ had experienced significant differences in their exhibited personalities between the virtual and real worlds. What’s more, a statistical analysis of the findings by the researchers also found a negative association between the variation in personality and satisfaction with the virtual worlds—in other words, the more people felt their personality had changed while working on Second Life, the more dissatisfied they were with the virtual group meeting. This confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that people who perceived a smaller change in their exhibited personality in the virtual world and acted more like themselves would be more inclined to continue using the technology in the future.
VIRTUAL SOLUTION, REAL ENGAGEMENT
Considering the cost of implementing them, organizations want to be assured of the feasibility of using virtual worlds for group interactions like meetings. By challenging the conventional belief that smaller personality differences in virtual worlds would cause dissatisfaction, Professor Xianghua Lu’s research confirmed that these simulated environments can be effectively used in an organizational setting where anonymity is not guaranteed. In addition, qualitative feedback from the students who participated in her experiment suggests that this technology may in fact be better at facilitating group interactions than current alternatives.
As one of the students who took part in the virtual-world experiment stated: “We were all in a conference room that looked just like a room we would have gone into in real life. We even had coffee and fruit as well as a projection screen to show slides… It gave all of us the feeling that we were really in the room together and that we were paying much better attention to the meeting.” This level of engagement may seem unworldly for organizations used to the usual phone meetings that plague teams collaborating at distance. However, with proper management, these virtual worlds can be powerful tools to help people problem-solve together.
One useful suggestion that Professor Xianghua Lu shares in her paper is that the manager of virtual-world group meetings should make the goal-oriented nature of the sessions clear. The researchers also recommended conducting several familiarization sessions before an actual meeting to reduce the novelty of effect that may distract people from their goal. Nevertheless, because of the limitations of the study, more research may be required to perfect the application of this technology. All things considered, however, Professor Xianghua Lu’s findings show that if properly managed, virtual meetings are not only a feasible alternative but can also be more engaging and perhaps even more effective than the current solutions.
TOWARDS A VIRTUAL FUTURE
As organizations increasingly go global there is a need to develop better solutions for collaboration at distance. Although they may have only occupied the realms of science-fiction and video games so far, organizations are showing a growing interest in employing virtual-world technologies to enhance group interactions like meetings. Professor Xianghua Lu’s research demonstrates that this technology can be effectively used in an organizational setting. What’s more, her findings suggest that if properly managed, virtual meetings may help people become more engaged in problem-solving together. Given the real-world evidence, what’s stopping you from organizing a virtual-world meeting?
- Visit Prof. Xianghua Lu’s academic profile
- Discover School of Management Fudan University
- Connect with FDSM via LinkedIn
- Read a related article: PowerPoint’s Surprising Role in Strategy Development.
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