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World of Warcraft offers organizational learning lessons

Jonathan Gourlay

Mankind is at a "fundamentally new moment in civilization," in which the half lives of our skills is about five years, said John Seely Brown during his keynote presentation at KMWorld in Washington, D.C. last week.

Brown, the independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, suggested businesses

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embrace new organizational learning processes because "we are entering a world of increasingly rapid change." Brown's remarks opened the three-day conference on knowledge and information management for the enterprise.

"We're on the verge of almost creating a new kind of economy," Brown said, explaining that information and knowledge flow is fast replacing a world of stocks and other assets as a currency for business. He said this shift ought to be embraced rather than resisted to remain competitive. One of the best ways to do that, he said, is to develop organizational learning using enterprise social and collaborative technologies that borrow from online games.

Brown, who calls himself chief of confusion, was the chief scientist of Xerox Corporation from 1992 until 2002, and elicited a few chuckles and genuine surprise when he said he played World of Warcraft. "O.K.," he then said. "I watch from the sidelines."

He said that in the World of Warcraft environment, players take part in two kinds of learning. They learn during the game, of course, but there's another social aspect to the pursuit that takes place after a game has ended. There's an entire virtual community surrounding the game where a "collective indwelling" takes place to improve player understanding using, "after-action peer-based reviews." "It's a very serious, massive learning environment," he said. Organizations would do well to emulate the reviews to help their information management capabilities.

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"What if we create a learning environment where evaluation is based on after-action reviews to continually enhance performance?" Brown asked the assembled knowledge workers and IT professionals. He described World of Warcraft's sophisticated dashboards and analysis capabilities, which enable and entice players to figure out ways to improve their game, and suggested that such user-designed dashboards might do the same for employees.

SAP, Brown said, is making progress in pursuing organizational learning with its SAP Community Network portal. He described it as a "pull-based platform that actually inspires users to want to use it." As users comment on blogs and contribute content to the portal, they become known throughout the organization as effective team members. "It improves your knowledge capital," Brown said, "And, by the way, you get job offers."

Brown called the notion of making discoveries, sharing links to valuable content with co-workers or partners, and annotating your reasons for sharing such links "social bookmarking." When done right, it extends user-specified metadata, adds descriptions and keeps content centrally located for efficient knowledge management, he said. It helps organizations manage important information, generate valuable content and operate effectively. It creates both intellectual capital and social capital.

"Understanding is socially constructed -- often through stories -- and continuously refined," he said. Xerox, for example, was always thorough in its maintenance training for technical representatives, offering hands-on classes and detailed repair manuals for its machines. But the techs never used the manuals and never got better at their jobs.

Xerox lost track of the social aspect, Brown said. Tech reps didn't want to look like fools on-site by pulling out a big repair manual. Instead, they called a colleague or two and did their troubleshooting by phone. Xerox since has developed a culture of learning that combines hands-on training with e-learning capabilities, employee communication using Yammer, and a knowledgebase tool contributed to by employees.

"I think the social networking that one sees in World of Warcraft can be effective," said Patricia Eng, senior advisor for knowledge management at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Eng, who listened to Brown's address, said that while federal agencies generally shy away from using social software, her division of the NRC uses NewsGator's Tomoye product to interact "and share insights on a daily basis."

Eng wasn't alone in taking something away from the presentation.

"I thought the example was relevant and great food for thought on dealing with complexity and interaction in business," said Arthur Dexter, knowledge resources manager for the Federal Transit Administration. Dexter said that while social tools were not widely deployed at the FTA, his group recently implemented a knowledge portal based on SharePoint 2010. "Our tools are neither designed nor capable of managing the level of complexity in the World of Warcraft example," he said, "and I'm not sure they would need to, for our needs."

Brown also mentioned Google+, saying its "circles" and "hangout" capabilities are moving participants into new learning possibilities. "[Google] understands deeply legitimate peripheral participation," he said, explaining the learning that is engendered, and the resultant information knowledge management scales well when context travels with the content.

"Especially in a world of changing contexts," he said, "best practices don't travel all that well."

That's why the context in which the content is shared is important during this shift in organizational learning, he added. Employees are moving away from simply knowing the subject matter, to knowing both the subject matter and where to find it, and from making things, to making things as well as building their context. It will help spark new ideas, Brown said, and has already led to a shift in the way workers identify themselves.

"We used to define our identities by what we wear, own and control," he said. "We now live in a world where identity is defined by what I create, what I share and -- critically -- what others build on."


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