Online games offer serious lessons in business collaboration, says Canadian expert

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) are considered a consumer thing.

But they offer a terrific model for corporate collaboration – fostering a synergy that generates astounding business benefits, says a Canadian expert in Enterprise 2.0 technologies.

It’s not the immersive, real time and addictive qualities of these games that make them so enticing to those seeking new ways to foster business collaboration, according to Deepak Ramachandran, vice-president, Enterprise 2.0 research program, at New Paradigm.

“Rather it’s the way widgets are created and used by players to perform a variety of tasks,” Ramachandran said.


He was speaking at an event organized by the Canadian Innovation Exchange in Toronto last week.

Toronto-based New Paradigm is a think tank founded by author, speaker and business strategy consultant Don Tapscott.

Power users of MMORPG may have their screen cluttered with widgets that tell them what’s going on, Ramachandran noted.

The better you are in this game, he said, the more your screen is cluttered with widgets and the less it’s actually about the game.

“It’s interesting to watch the power users here. The widgets tell them what is going on.”

For instance, he said in a game such as World of Warcraft – a team or guild comprising 30 – 40 people could come together spontaneously to perform a tasks such as slaying a monster, or engaging in epic quests that can span days or weeks.

Over hundreds of hours of game play it’s very difficult to keep track of all those people.

“So one popular widget tells you which of the people in your guild is under the most threat. This technology doesn’t exist in $200 billion enterprises – but it exists in this game.”

Ramachandran noted that the vast majority of the MMORPG widgets are developed by power users and are available on the Web where other users can access and start using them.

“How many corporations do we see doing that?”

Boom, bust…and the louder echo

The New Paradigm executive spoke of the growing influence of the “Net generation” on the workforce.

“This is a generation that grew up bathed in bits. Technology was part of their life at a very early age. They take it for granted.”

Canadian futurist and founder of New Paradigm, Don Tapscott coined the term “Net Generation” – noting that group was the first to grow up immersed in a digital and Internet driven world.

Two years from now the Net or echo generation will be bigger in the Canadian workforce than baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964), Ramachandran noted.

(The echo generation is an expansive term for children born between roughly 1980 and 2001 – though sources disagree on the exact years.  Many echo boomers are the children of baby boomers).

Ramachandran said in North America and Europe, the echo is roughly the same size as the boom. “But in India and Africa it’s around two-and-a half times the boom, while in China it’s one-and-a-half times the boom.”

The stats indicate this generation will have a far greater influence outside of North America, and far more than economics – it’s demographics that will determine that, he said.

“That’s one reason why India and China are having a disproportionate influence – relative to their economies – in the world.”

Ramachandran urged start-ups and investors present at the event to seriously consider this generation when drawing up their product plans and how to position them.

He identified four key trends around Web 2.0 – which if recognized and taken advantage of – can generate explosive business opportunities.

  1. Dialogue and interaction

In the area of product development, ideas and concepts for new offerings need not arise from within the business, Ramachandran suggested.

They could – and often are – provided by the wider community.

He said there’s a major shift from a dialogue between a company and its customers – to a dialogue between customers themselves.

It’s the Facebook concept of the Friend Wheel applied in a corporate environment.

A popular Facebook application, Friend Wheel shows inter-relationships between all of a user’s Facebook contacts. A “good” wheel has lots of data points (people) and chords (relationships).

At a corporate level, Ramachandran said, interaction between customers and channel partners will change the way products are conceptualized, developed and sold.

  1. The Generation Lap

 In most cases, the growth and influence of Gen Y in the workforce hasn’t triggered a generation gap, Ramachandran said.

Rather – for the first time in history – stuff familiar to 16- and 18-years olds is being absorbed and adopted as rapidly by 45- and 65-year olds.

He cited the example of Sermo – the online physician social network founded in 2006 by Daniel Palestrant. The network in is reportedly pulling in revenues of $500,000 a month.

“This online community took off because physicians over 45 years of age participated – not younger doctors.”

The trick, he said, is to find ways of bringing collaborative patterns and systems inspired by the Net generation into the corporate space.

“Among many businesses – even the more conservative ones – there’s a great appetite for this kind of thing,” he said, citing the example of electronics retailer Best Buy that’s going through a transformation – driven by Web 2.0 tools.

“FexEx is doing the same and they are very traditional.”

3. The Social Revolution

Some of the exceptionally successful online communities can serve as a reservoir of great ideas on how a business can foster meaningful interaction between stakeholders, Ramachandran noted.

He cited the example of PatientsLikeMe a Web 2.0 site where patients – particularly those with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) – can trade experiences, treatment methods, tips and more.

Ten per cent of the U.S. population with multiple sclerosis or ALS patronize the site, he said.

“Seventy per cent of them are put up their medical charts publicly.”
Publishing their information allows it to be aggregated with data provided by others and be helpful to others, he noted.

4. The Economic Revolution

While in the “business Web” corporate relationships are strategic
(include just around 5 – 6 key partners), “they are complemented by hundreds of thousands of tinier relationships,” said Ramachandran.

He said in the old corporate model – the customer was outside the company and the talent inside, and all the focus of companies was on retaining talent – as it was their most valuable asset.

“This is changing. We’re bringing customers inside.”

A a baby step is this direction, he said, is the Dell Ideastorm – PC maker Dell’s online community aimed at encouraging customers to share ideas,  collaborate and tell Dell what new products or services they would like to see Dell develop.

Ideastorm represents quite a dramatic transformation in Dell’s corporate practice, Ramachandran said.

“The company came from a place where it was scared of customers, to one where it actually hosts an open environment where customers can post suggestions for improvement – and Dell acts on them.”

He said the transparency Dell has brought to the process is something worth emulating.

“They tell you: ‘these are the ideas we’re acting on; these are the ones we’re still considering.’ It’s totally changed how Dell is perceived particularly in the B2B space.”

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