Saturday, September 13, 2008

Finding Real Work in Virtual Worlds

Adapted from the September 2008 edition of my Managing Technology e-mail newsletter. (subscribe here)

Meet one of the newest employees in Missouri's Information Technology Services Division. That's him above, the cute gray cat in the red bow tie. Well, that's what one of his computerized "avatars" looks like anyway.

Avatars are stand-ins for people who use virtual worlds such as Second Life, the popular, almost game-like online universe where Missouri opened a modest recruiting station more than a year ago. And the state's very first Second Life recruit was the small cat whose real-world identity is Ben Rhew, 27.

A 2003 graduate of the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Rhew is exactly the kind of young computer engineer many state and local employers are trying to lure to government work before a looming wave of retirements depletes their ranks. On average, 1 in 4 state government IT employees are expected to retire within five years, according to a survey by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

Government leaders have a mediocre track record when it comes to recruiting the next generation of workers into public service. (See: The Young and the Restless, from Governing, Sept. 2007). But virtual worlds and online communities such as Second Life may offer promising new hunting grounds, especially for young, up-and-coming techies.

Rhew describes Second Life as a "3-D chat room" where "you can pretty much do anything you want" -- especially if you have the right combination of basic programming skills and imagination. The mix of stores, homes, clubs and other hang outs is as diverse as the population of on-screen characters, any of whom can walk, fly or even teleport from one hot spot to another.

Transactions are done in "Linden dollars" -- a currency named after the service's parent company, Linden Lab. But favorable "exchange rates" mean actual U.S. dollars go a long way. Dan Ross, Missouri's chief information officer, estimates that all of his organization's "in-world" recruiting has cost a little more than $200 in taxpayer money so far.

Ross' office was among the first major public-sector employers to use Second Life to search for talent. A large rotating state seal marks Missouri's online outpost. "IT Jobs Now Available," a sign at the entrance announces. "Come in and browse." Inside, visiting avatars can click on screens with Web links to information about the kinds of technology work the state needs done. A kiosk collects contact information for state recruiters to follow up by e-mail. There also are free T-shirts for visitors to add to their avatar's online wardrobes.

Missouri's presence made a big impression on Rhew, a self-described Second Life addict who has created multiple avatars for himself and others. Rhew says he first heard about his state's innovative online recruiting efforts when he began looking for a new job within commuting distance of his home in the Rolla-St. James area. After one brief visit to the recruiting station earlier this year, he returned to attend a "job fair." Other attendees nearly sat on Rhew's diminutive feline avatar, which is only about the size of a typical character's foot. But Rhew made an impression anyway. A rapid-fire series of real-world interviews quickly turned into an offer to work on applications development for the Department of Natural Resources. He started work at his new Jefferson City office last week.

Rhew is as surprised as anyone that his online pastime would help land him a job working in state government. "I never expected this to happen," he says. And he certainly will not be the last Second Life recruit to end up on a public payroll. Whole blogs have popped up devoted to recruiting in virtual worlds. And with many large, technology-oriented corporate employers looking to Second Life and other online communities to identify and compete for talent, government leaders may have little choice but to create their own avatars and follow Missouri's lead -- unless this just turns out to be a fad.

Even Ross -- whose avatar you might be able to identify by his sparkling shoes -- thinks it's too soon to say how important these emerging avenues of communication will be going forward. Nonetheless, the CIO and his management team are working with the staffs of other agencies to examine possible uses beyond recruiting, as well as the right rules of conduct for state employees whose work takes them into this alternate dimension.

So where to start? Second Life's Wiki offers some examples of what various government organizations are up to, while David D'Angelo's blog Recruiting in Second Life is a good source for information on how employers in all sectors are using the service specifically for h.r. purposes. Video links on David's blog (on the right side of the page) also will give people who have never visited a virtual world a sense of what the experience is like.

For those who are ready to take the plunge and try it out, the Association of Virtual Worlds offers a group for newcomers. And once in Second Life, users can find Missouri's recruiting station on "Eduisland 3." As it happens, the state is making plans to renovate its site -- and has posted an opening for a student intern to help.

Some online recruiting is less direct. Governing's May 2008 special report on what Web 2.0 trends mean for state and local government included a section on how a southern California hospital district used Second Life to build a working online model of a planned $850 million facility. The virtual model showcases the administrators' plans for using cutting-edge medical technology, in large part to help the new hospital gain "competitive advantage" in attracting the most qualified doctors and nurses. Here's a video of the simulated hospital.

Apparently virtual reality isn't just for recruiting computer engineers anymore.

(Many thanks to Ben, who goes by Lomgren Smalls in Second Life, for sharing the image of his avatar above.)

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