Volume 17, Number 26 -- July 7, 2008

As I See It: The Digital Leader

Published: July 7, 2008

by Victor Rozek

Remote management, like remote viewing, is a specialized skill with a small practitioner base and an even smaller number of players who can actually do it successfully. Leading a tightly knit group of people, all of whom work in the same facility--and with whom you can directly interact--is one thing. Leading groups in a distributed world, where people are separated by continents and cultures, and with whom you have no personal contact, is quite another. And although management schools and how-to theories abound, there is really no place to learn the complexities of managing people who aren't there. So what's an aspiring leader to do?

IBM teamed with Palo Alto-based software developer Seriosity to find out. After months of research and analysis, performed by brainiacs who teach at such prestigious institutions such as Stanford and MIT, the definitive answer emerged. . . .

Play computer games.

No kidding, no one spiked the punch. IBM soberly peered into the future of business leadership and saw. . . avatars and castle sieges.

It seems that Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (or MMORPGs if you prefer the short, unpronounceable version) have spawned a vast number of fanatical disciples. Estimates place their worldwide numbers at 50 million, about 10 million of whom play a single wildly popular game--World of Warcraft--and pay $15 a month for the privilege. By 2010, online game revenues are predicted to top $9 billion, at which time World of Warcraft will be renamed World of Revenuecraft. But most remarkable is the amount of time gamers invest in the pursuit of slaying dragons and each other. According to the Palo Alto Research Center, gamers average an astonishing 22 hours a week glued to computers and keyboards--a number more suggestive of half-time employment.

IBM has come to believe that fantasy games abound with unintended rewards for aspiring business leaders. In the world of MMORPGs, players often collaborate by organizing guilds comprised of members who span the country or even the globe. These members are then recruited to perform diverse functions that advance the goals of the group. As in business, task assignment, motivation, performance tracking, and retention are ongoing issues. Having studied guild leaders, researchers concluded that the skills needed to manage dispersed gamers are applicable to real-world challenges that managers face in a distributed work environment.

Like business, games require the ability to make speedy decisions, often without time for in-depth analysis. Seldom is there sufficient information to minimize risk. By design, games are frenetic and unpredictable, forcing leaders to become risk takers. And because game scenarios are constantly changing, players can't afford to lock-in a single strategy, but must modify decisions on the fly as new information emerges and new opportunities present.

Remote collaboration necessitates breaking up huge, seemingly impossible tasks into smaller, manageable projects. Participants are expected to be self-organizing, responsible for developing essential skills, and able to assume changing roles as circumstances dictate. Leadership is cooperative and fluid, and leaders change frequently: If someone is stuck, someone else will step up and take over.

One of the more interesting discoveries is that in a game environment, leadership is a task, not an identity. The implication is that leadership is contextual and almost everyone can play a part. As one of the gamers suggested: "If you want better leadership, why not change the game instead of trying to change the leaders?" Over time, it is possible that the demands of a distributed working environment, one of which is working in relative anonymity, will spawn task-based leaders who will bring more work-focus and less ego to the function of management.

The ways in which games are dissimilar to business may also benefit future managers. In business, failure is a career-breaker to be feared and avoided at all cost. But in gaming, failure is tolerated--even necessary--as a learning experience. Consequently, do-overs are common and techniques for success are built on past defeats. Perhaps one of the reasons for the popularity of online gaming is that you can fail at many tasks and still be a leader who, with persistence, becomes a winner.

Researchers readily admit that gaming is an imperfect analogy for the business world. Participating in games requires an investment of far less skin than operating a business. Stakes are low, and participants are bound only by interest and availability of time. They play when they want, sit out when they want, and leave without penalty. Risk taking has no serious consequences, failure is unrelated to income, and companies do not perish. If participants are paid at all, they receive virtual rewards like "dragon kill points," which most mortgage companies are not yet accepting as legal tender.

In the virtual world there is, however, an immediate link between accomplishment and reward--a strategy that the researchers recommend for keeping a distributed workforce motivated. But for reasons that aren't clear to non-gamers, players crave, and will work hard to obtain, virtual booty. Researchers discovered that having virtual standing is as motivating and prestigious as having, say, money in Real Life--an insight that can only portend bad things for distributed workers. Once corporations discover that almost any reward will serve as a motivator, we'll all get paid in "dragon kill points" tradable at the company Web site for a virtual vacation.

Further dissimilarities to RL include the fact that although gamers formulate strategy, they don't have the burden of setting goals--they simply pursue goals set by the game. Interactions between players can be volatile and direct because avatars behave in ways people would never tolerate if the interactions were happening face to face. Ultimately, if the leader's decisions are wrong, it's only a game. If he angers other players, he doesn't have to face them. If the going gets too tough, he can log off.

In the digital world, everyone is anonymous and no one is accountable.

Although many games emulate warfare and feature violent content, with barely a head fake toward restraint, researchers do not speculate what future leaders will learn from all that carnage. But sometimes the games themselves provide the answer, albeit meekly. In the castle-siege game Lineage, players advance by fighting and killing one another. But in a tiny concession to our higher angels, players are penalized for killing players who don't fight back--a much needed lesson for oil industry executives and energy speculators. (God help them when people do start fighting back.)

Because violence tends to attract young males, 85 percent of gamers are reportedly men. So where can women find digital leadership training free of testosterone poisoning? A search for information about Internet sites dominated by women revealed another growing phenomenon called "bandslash." It's "an online world where rock stars become fictionalized and turned into fantasy," writes David Haldeman for Seattle Sound. And by fantasy he means the sexual variety, not Disney. One can only imagine that managing rock stars--fictionalized or otherwise--must be the digital equivalent of herding locusts. And clearly such a task would have its own unique management challenges. But then there's a daunting twist that must be considered before a woman can create her fantasy. "In the world of bandslash," says Haldeman, "it's all about girls who like boys who prefer boys who look like girls."

Well, no one said leadership would be easy.

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