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by Vault Consulting Editors | November 30, 2007

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One trend that has taken a firm hold in the business world, and especially in the consulting industry is Second Life, a virtual world that aims to be the 3D version of the internet. In SL, users are able to create a fantasy life for themselves: choose a new name, take on a new look, build a dream home, try a new career, fall in love, fly - bringing new meaning to the phrase, "Be all you can be." Others, like Dwight Schrute on NBC's The Office model their avatar (or, virtual self) on themselves, and ponder such things as how to "calculate the exchange rate between Linden dollars [the Second Life currency] and Schrute bucks." A shared set of rules governs the virtual space, but individuals are able to create their own goals, and can even open their own businesses to bring in a steady stream of Linden Dollars (250 of which equal one US dollar). But the characteristics of SL that make it popular as a game also make it conducive to networking and business.

Over the past year, many consulting firms have caught on to the potential gains that Second Life can bring to their business, and have started building a presence in the fantasyland for the purpose of recruiting, marketing, brainstorming and collaborating, among others. PA Consulting Group, for example, dove headfirst into Second Life, so far primarily for marketing feedback and recruiting. The firm's virtual office, which integrates elements of its real-life offices, boasts a number of virtual receptionists (paid in Linden dollars) who guide visitors through the automated communications presentations. PA also builds virtual prototypes for clients, and collects feedback on which designs would be best in reality.

IBM Global Business Services launched its virtual business unit back in September 2006, and has invested $10 million in exploring the benefits of the virtual world. IBM CEO Sam Palmisano has his own avatar and frequently shows up at virtual meetings. IBM uses its SL complex of 12 "islands" to collaborate with customers and to organize "collaborative jams" - brainstorming sessions consisting of thousands of IBM employees connected via the company's intranet.

Bain has also jumped on the Second Life bandwagon, and now hosts invitation-only recruiting events for summer interns. One major plus of these online events is that higher-ups who normally would not show up at traditional recruiting events are putting in avatar time. For example, Steve Ellis, Bain's worldwide managing director, logged into one recruiting event from New Delhi, where he was attending a board meeting. Not surprisingly, companies are finding SL recruiting events to be more effective for younger job seekers. These virtual interviews are not replacing more traditional methods, recruiters say, but they do help narrow the pool of candidates.

Second Life has also opened doors to a slew of entrepreneurial consultants who are vying for their share of Linden (and real) dollars. Some individuals have established consulting businesses of their own, offering strategies to individuals who have created virtual companies. Others, like Dancing Ink Productions, are somewhat more grounded in reality, and develop strategies for actual companies hoping to take advantage of the virtual universe.

The future of Second Life and similar 3D communities, including Activeworlds and Forterra, is far from certain. At this point, companies are still getting their bearings in a potentially invaluable marketplace, and trying to incorporate it into real business applications. As PA Consulting's virtual-world expert Claus Nehmzow recently stated, "We are not sure if Second Life will dominate the space in a few years or if somebody else will and that doesnt really matter. The lessons learned with this new medium are so interesting that it will be easy to adapt them to another world when it comes along," said Nehmzow.

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