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January 27, 2022
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Technology

We’re thinking about metaverse collaboration the wrong way

Disclosure: Qualcomm is a client of the author.

I’ve been at the Qualcomm Snapdragon Tech Summit in Hawaii this week, where a Facebook executive appeared on stage for a virtual conversation inside Meta’s new collaboration offering. As I watched the discussion, it became clear that the main benefit was more social than collaborative. It reminded me of when I was hooked on the old “City of Heroes” multi-player game. While initially I played it to progress my character, eventually I played just because I’d developed several friends that I liked hanging out with virtually. The experience, while collaborative during game play, became more social between events; we chatted about personal interests, our kids, our work, and got to know and trust each other.

Those were all elements critical to our collective effort to level our characters and complete difficult missions. And its something that collaboration platforms could use.

A few weeks back I described my concern that with the shift to remote work, workers are losing social ties to their companies and co-workers — I know I don’t collaborate well with people I don’t know or trust. I doubt any of us do. What if, rather than starting from scratch with a Metaverse, we instead started with a game engine and blended collaboration efforts with game-based team building elements?

Let’s explore why that might work.

What is collaboration, really?

Collaboration is when a group of people work collectively to accomplish a goal — with the emphasis on “accomplish.” Yet, my experience has been that most collaborative projects aren’t collaborative at all, they are often the blending of work by a bunch of largely independent operators.

Often when we embrace a new concept, we just rename something that was already in place to make old things look current. When we first started talking about collaboration platforms, we were basically talking about older videoconferencing efforts that, over time, got features that made them seem collaborative. But efforts to connect workers to remote meetings, initially to reduce travel expenses and lost work hours due to that travel, largely failed over the years.

If it weren’t for the continuing pandemic and the need to support employees we want to retain in a hot labor market, we’d likely see them fail again — because they mostly try to recreate meeting rooms. But few of us ever collaborate long term in meeting rooms, because collaboration happens dynamically. It’s  often asymmetric,  with people working on different parts of a project, on different timelines, and needing to be near their personal tools and desk.

We’ve even had some companies (like Oracle) try to ban meetings as time-wasting exercises, something I’d support. Too often, meetings seem to gain an organic half-life and go on and on without accomplishing anything. (I remember one time at IBM we met for hours bi-weekly for the better part of a year arguing over who would fund a product fix; two managers eventually  got fed up, came in over a weekend and worked to fix the damn product.)

This was one of the reasons we used to have Skunk Works efforts, which led to some of our best products. We’d take small teams, send them offsite, and get them to work like they were a small company with a clear set of goals; these teams, which did work collaboratively, created some of our least expensive (in terms of development costs) and most popular offerings.

Build trust to collaborate effectively

Teams that don’t trust each other because they’re afraid someone is taking too much credit or not putting in their fair share of effort are common and often underperform. I once worked on a strong audit team that outperformed our peers — until one of the members (not me) had an affair with a married teammate. From then on, the team was effectively dead; trust had been broken.

Now, with many employees being remote, it’s difficult to build a relationship with teammates because we don’t interact outside of work. But with something like the addition of a multiplayer game everyone likes, you could team up and collectively build that critical trust and affection productive teams all seem to exhibit.

Avatars for all?

I remain concerned that critical relationships aren’t being created because of our increasingly remote workforce, with company loyalty and team effectiveness degrading over time. We need a platform that more effectively blends collective and secure game playing — you don’t want employees discussing proprietary projects in open environments — both to take breaks and to build trust within the team.

One thing to consider would be blending collective and clearly collaborative game elements with our current videoconferencing capabilities. This would have another clear benefit: the use of avatars. (You don’t tackle a multiplayer role-playing game without an avatar.) That would naturally help people get used to them, though we’d likely need some restrictions on avatar naming. I’m pretty sure anyone would have trouble focusing on a project led by “Deadeye Bloodborne” or especially Leroy Jenkins.

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