Case Study: Giving Your Sales Relationships a "Second Life"
April 07, 2009
By Dave Stein
Walk into any customer meeting and odds are you'll find the same thing: the vendor
on one side of the table, the customer on the other. Victories are celebrated and
mistakes are magnified. Blame is placed and defensiveness blooms. Each side
keeps their cards close to their vest. All eyes are fixed firmly on the past.
But Michael Sullivan, vice president of global strategic accounts at Schneider
Electric, has his eyes fixed squarely on the future. Sullivan had the idea of Schneider Electric engaging with
Performance Methods, Inc. (PMI) to harness the Internet platform Second Life. The mission? To facilitate the first-
ever virtual collaborative meeting space between Schneider and its customer, IBM. In this economy, Sullivan's idea of
Schneider Electric employing Second Life saved money for their client and themselves and helped PMI run a
successful event—extremely close to a real life gathering—for both sides.
How Can We Move Forward?
Answering this one simple question, PMI has created and perfected their Collaborative Planning model focused on
the future, growth, and mutual value. Instead of the vendor developing a plan and presenting it to the customer as the
solution, PMI has asked, "How can we get the customer involved in the process?" Ultimately, they bring the customer
and the vendor together at the planning table to:
1. Identify areas ready for improvement.
2. Vet these ideas and make sure they are the right ones.
3. Create a real action plan for growth.
Essentially, Second Life is a virtual world. People create and operate digital likenesses of themselves called
avatars, which can move, communicate, fly, and teleport wherever they need to go. For some, Second Life
is an incredibly advanced video game. For others, it’s the next frontier for the global business community.
The virtual real estate and technology tools for the PMI-facilitated meeting were developed by Anders
Gronstedt of The Gronstedt Group. During the event, participants communicated with one another in text or
via Second Life's 3D spatial voice chat. The technology allows private conversations to be held among
specific groups even while the keynote speaker addresses the group at large, allowing subgroups to share
thoughts, ideas, and reactions in real time. For international business, Second Life supports multiple
languages and offers real-time text chat translators.
Three forces combined to inspire the use of Second Life for this Collaborative Planning meeting:
The economy. In today's economic climate, money must be spent wisely. In this case, you have an in-
person meeting that used to last two days and incur travel, hotel, hospitality, and work-time lost expenses.
On Second Life, the collaboration took three hours and a small fraction of the overall cost. The merits of a
travel-free venue also advance the campaign for a greener planet.
Capable technology. "With Second Life, you can recreate the classroom in the virtual world," says
Gronstedt. "You can do anything you want. Why bring in the constraints of a traditional classroom when you
can have sessions at the beach?"
"You can create virtual role-plays for training," he continues, "view and explore products, build virtual briefing
centers, and walk on top of a bar chart." Indeed, after the meeting, participants were invited to tour and
experience IBM's Green Data Center in Second Life. Interactivity laid the foundation for the meeting's
The newness of the Second Life technology played a role in each company's excitement for the meeting, as
well. When the forum began, it looked and felt immediately like a collaboration, with all of the players
engaged casual conversations. "There was power in that informality," recalls Steve Andersen, PMI’s
president and founder. "It established the tone of camaraderie and cooperation."
Nonetheless, "Second Life isn't utopia—it's a tool," remarks Craig Jones, senior partner at PMI and the
meeting's facilitator. Because the meeting doesn't take place in person, Jones notes, you can't see people’s
expressions, which generates a natural limitation.
"As a longtime facilitator," he explains, "I will say there is nothing better than a face-to-face meeting. But if
you compare it to a teleconference or web meeting tool, Second Life stands above the rest because it's as
close as you can get to reality.
"You can hear the voices, see who’s talking and move [your avatar] around. When you call for participation,
you see everyone react. And unlike a conference call, you know the participants are 'there' and they're
responsive to you in real time."
Andersen notes that the technology isn't over the head the average computer user. "If you know how to work
your BlackBerry, manage your e-mail and shop on the Internet, you can participate easily in a Second Life
meeting," He says. "As with any new platform, you'll need to learn some new skills and terms. But with a few
practice rounds, you'll be ready to go."
The art of collaboration. IBM has been a Schneider Electric customer for 20 years, a strategic account for
10, and a partnership-level strategic relationship for five. As part of their worldwide partnership, Schneider
Electric provides IBM data centers with power, cooling, lighting control, security, HVAC controls, energy
saving/monitoring, experts, and project managers.
Critically, the preparation for this meeting began long before the participants took to their avatars—and this
was a critical step. "Before you can even talk about the meeting, you have to look at the pre-work phase,"
explains Andersen. "Each side typically shows up with a few issues, and we insist that they clear the air
before the Collaborative Planning meeting begins. This forum is an opportunity to grow the business
relationship, and it just can’t be done until both parties are ready to move forward together."
Both Schneider Electric and IBM did their homework prior to their Second Life collaboration. They each
came to the meeting prepared and armed with one vision: the co-creation of value for their work together.
With the goal of growth, the vendor and the customer were ready to stand side-by-side in Second Life,
collaborating to generate solutions and mutual success. In effect, IBM presented their objectives and
Schneider Electric agreed to align with them. These areas of agreement, or places of intersection, hold the
Another tremendous benefit for both companies: During the meeting, Second Life captures all data in real
time. For example, in a live or teleconference setting, a facilitator hears, interprets, and records items
according to their understanding…while the audience patiently waits their turn to contribute. In Second Life,
participants expressed their thoughts at will and in concert with each other, and the technology transferred
their text verbatim to the public white board. The facilitator forges ahead and uses the data real time. More
importantly, all voices are heard in their original form and given equal access.
"As we move toward solutions, it becomes very important to be able to co-create with customers," says
Sullivan. "The process with PMI helped Schneider Electric do this in a structured way. We created a team
with our customer and shaped new solutions around the customer's business drivers. We became a partner
with our customer, and only because of that, we can do new things that we couldn’t do before and can't do
This expansion of client relations, teams and value affects the bottom line directly, offering new services and
capabilities. For Schneider Electric and IBM, it started with their desire to move forward together. The
powerful technology of Second Life supported the activity. It was successful because of PMI’s process of
Collaborative Planning. The result drives growth and innovation for everyone—from the companies
themselves to the end user.
The New View
In Second Life, the meeting room sat right on the beach, the attire was comfortable, and all voices were
heard. There was no delineating "table" in the middle of the room, so the vendor and customer were able to
intermingle at will. Present were white boards covered with the issues at hand, as well as the participants’
brainstorms, intentions, and plans. Instead of spending their time sparring with each other, the teams
worked together to identify potential areas of growth and tackle the obstacles that may have been holding
back their mutual advancement and success. Ultimately, the two sides unified to move forward.
Virtual collaboration sessions aren't for every client and every customer, but when they work, they provide a
powerful and cost-effective way to communicate and get things done.
It’s a Virtual World
by Rita J. King
Slowly, companies are leaving the physical world behind to cut costs, improve
communication, and find new ways to collaborate.
Sandra Kearney sat across from me during our first meeting in early 2007. Between us, a bottle of champagne
bubbled and a platter of sushi beckoned. I had been interviewing dozens of IBM employees without permission from
the company. Kearney (who has since left Big Blue) dropped in on me unexpectedly, wanting to know why I was
snooping around; was I writing a book or an article?
I responded that I had stumbled upon a sizable number of IBMers who were using the Internet in an entirely new way,
and I hoped to document what could be a complete transformation of the business world. For a moment, her face
revealed nothing and she remained perfectly motionless. Then Kearney, at the time IBM’s global director of emerging
3D Internet, began to tell me what the company was up to.
Although it was almost as if we were speaking in person, Kearney and I met that night not in an upscale restaurant
but in Second Life, an immersive, three-dimensional Internet platform where people create avatars to represent
themselves. In such virtual world software platforms, an individual’s avatar can get together and talk with other
similarly constructed digital stand-ins in real time. Kearney, in fact, was in Arizona, and I was at my desk in New York.
Scores of virtual platforms exist on the Internet and are used for everything from entertainment to business to
socializing. An estimated 300 million people worldwide have registered for participation in some form of this activity,
according to Kzero, a virtual world marketing and development company. In 2008, according to trade group Virtual
Worlds Management, venture capitalists and other investors bet nearly US$600 million on more than 60 software
producers involved in the fledgling technology.
In most applications, anyone can register for free to create an avatar. An avatar can be customized down to the
smallest detail to look like the person operating it or it can veer wildly from the physical reality. Communication is
conducted with a blend of text, chat, and mixed media. Translation devices let people surmount language barriers.
Data files can be shared instantly. Movement is controlled in real time by the person behind each avatar, and also
through scripted animations that allow for increasingly realistic movements — instead of looking stiff and motionless,
avatars can shift in their seats, for example, or follow the script cues for other smooth-flowing gestures.
Although viewed as novel and innovative, for much of the past five years or so virtual worlds were mostly pigeonholed
by the media and even the digerati as another way to social network — a multidimensional, more anonymous version
of MySpace or Facebook. Almost completely neglected was the value of the virtual world as a tool for business, for
example, in bringing together global workforces instantly at any time, offering an opportunity for far-flung teams to
share and pore over findings, conducting sophisticated simulations, and training new recruits at a fraction of the cost
of in-person sessions. IBM estimates that, with an investment of roughly $80,000, it saved more than $250,000 in
travel and venue costs for a recent corporate Academy of Technology event and enjoyed more than $150,000 in
additional productivity gains, because these virtual participants were at their computers and able to dive back into
work immediately at the conclusion of the meeting. Certainly, IBM could have enjoyed similar cost savings by holding
these sessions as Webinars or teleconferences — in other words, with people communicating face to face via video,
viewing staid exhibits and illustrations — but company executives much preferred the rich and compelling full-motion
graphics in the virtual world as well as the ability for participants to instantly share their insights about particular
pieces of information and change content in real time.
Today some 6,000 IBMers are linked in virtual worlds. One of the more intriguing applications has been crafted by
the Blue Gene research team, which is developing supercomputing programs that, among other things, explore
biological processes. I (well, my avatar) met with Blue Gene avatars from multiple continents to discuss how virtual
worlds enable them to collaborate more efficiently. They described with enthusiasm a recent presentation on protein
folding, the process by which critical molecules in the body take and maintain their shape, or, if they fail to, produce
such diseases as Alzheimer’s and mad cow. During this virtual world session, IBM scientists generated a three-
dimensional molecule of protein on the screen and slowly depicted its evolution into its final form. This representation
of protein formation then became the centerpiece for ongoing research in different time zones at the same time,
blurring the line between a physical and virtual lab.
Indeed, modeling difficult-to-illustrate ideas and products and sharing them with prospective clients or internal teams
is one of the more attractive aspects of virtual worlds to companies. Northrop Grumman Corporation, for example,
has used this technology to generate mock versions of expensive and complex — and highly classified — defense
equipment planned or under development. Using a virtual network, Northrop has been able to keep customers closely
involved in the design and engineering of critical projects and to lead simulated operational training sessions.
The employment search firm Manpower Inc. is among the most innovative organizations with a high comfort level in
the virtual world. The company began using Second Life in 2007 to reach and organize people who had already been
initiated into the virtual world, or who were interested in starting to. “The virtualization of the labor market is a key
issue as the world of virtual work is morphing into something that will become an integral part of how companies get
work done,” says Manpower CEO Jeffrey Joerres.
In Manpower’s Second Life office, thousands of visitors and job seekers from more than 50 countries have already
experienced avatar-to-avatar communication through employment fairs, live events, and seminars. Manpower even
helps applicants learn how to become more businesslike in their new, unfamiliar avatar form, including lessons on
dressing their virtual alter egos in professional attire. What’s more, traditionally marginalized segments of the
workforce, such as the physically disabled, often find that biases and prejudices against them are minimized in a
virtual environment where avatars, in theory at least, have no disadvantages.
Despite successes in the corporate world, virtual environments are still probably some years away from mainstream
acceptance. In August 2008, research firm Gartner Inc. said in a report on emerging technologies that it will take at
least two to five years before virtual worlds become prevalent for business applications. By then, companies may not
have much of a choice: The need to cut travel, training, and meeting costs, gain substantial access to global talent,
trim back internal redundancy, and increase communications among departments that were once isolated from one
another will force organizations to find new ways (and new worlds) to do old tasks.