From here to there and back again

Last week saw the final day of our annual study tour. The topic of this year's tour was the development of new practices caused by the industrialization of technology, but I'll leave that for the short study tour report that we will circulate soon. Instead let’s look at the mechanics behind the tour itself.

From here to there and back again

The original date for the tour was May 2020, but COVID intervened. Eventually it was agreed to delay for one year, and even then it would have to be virtual. To keep things ticking over, we introduced a series of virtual electives, mini podcasts – 11 in all – to build up to the tour. By June, we had 11 research groups (around 70 people) working remotely on the topic, and feeding suggestions into draft lists of interesting companies on the research theme.

Our virtual Map Camp in October 2020 was a success and showed us that we could run a virtual event (in this case for 1300 people) over a day on complex topics. Jane and I had experimented with different formats but did not feel we had enough to create that study tour feeling. After more discussions, trial and error, and lots of failed efforts in 3D headsets, we settled on a system called Virbela to produce the required immersive experience. It creates a sense of space (often through the clever use of audio, something gained from the gaming world) but presents a low enough technical hurdle that most people can rapidly become immersed in the discussion – as long as they can get it past corporate security.

The speakers were selected from the companies identified in the research groups. Some had already been involved in the elective sessions (another point of experimentation), and all were introduced to each other. Jane and I had vastly more interaction with the speakers prior to this tour than with any previous tour. We subdivided the speakers into four themes – immersion, security, supply chain, situational awareness – and we extended the tour days to cater for different time zones. We also scheduled reflection sessions (in Virbela), optional mapping sessions and additional reflection sessions after the event.

The entire tour would be managed through 6Connex (the main platform) and a Miro board was the preferred way to capture the learnings throughout. Most importantly, our own weekly organizing meetings were in Virbela, which rapidly became a replacement office. It does not surprise me that eXp (Virbela's parent company) runs its entire organization of 40,000 people in this virtual world and has no physical offices.

worked better digitally than physical events

 Of course, there were glitches. We had the usual security issues – some attendees couldn't even use Miro boards because of their internal security policy. We adapted where possible but not at the expense of others. Overall, the experience seems to have been positive. Comments from the tour include "the state of play in the industry is further developed than I expected”, "opening my mind to new opportunities", "challenging our thinking on data" and "worked better digitally than physical events".

So, the lessons we take from this tour are not just about the subject matter but about the tour itself:

  • It is possible to create a virtual learning environment that challenges existing thinking. It just takes a lot of work and preparation. Preparing this study tour involved four or five times the effort of previous tours.
  • It is possible to create environments that allow for serendipity and create an immersive and collaborative experience online. We utilized a blend of tools (from Zoom to Virbela, from Miro to 6Connex) and a blend of formats (from armchair discussion to three speaker formats and reflection sessions). Variety, or more importantly diversity, is the spice of life.
  • It is important to think about physical concepts and replicate them where needed in the virtual world. Having audio that was ‘space aware’ gave meaning to the act of walking up to a group's table in a virtual world and helped make the space more immersive. But equally we must think about what we need to leave behind. Though inevitably there will be some exclusion based upon access to technology and corporate security policies, the physical world has a lot of baggage related to status symbols which we don't need to import.
  • The need to experiment and to try things out yourself cannot be overemphasized. One technology leader reported going from "this is a gimmick" to "having their own team start looking into this technology" to "having their own first team meeting in this virtual world" in a matter of a week. The difference is simply exposure to the technology and being mindful of our own inertia. It's why running our organizing meetings in Virbela was critical to the success of the tour.
  • The virtual world enables us to broaden our horizon beyond where the tour is physically based. We could bring together speakers from all over the world into a single space.
  • We should have a bit of fun. It's good to see a group of attendees disappear after a challenging break-out session – not into the physical world but to go play on virtual speedboats. Fun is an important aspect of the creative process.

These lessons are examples of the emerging practices developing from the industrialization of technology – in this case virtual spaces, video conferencing and collaboration tools – which is in turn accelerated by the isolation economy caused by COVID. I say ‘in turn’ because these changes would have happened anyway; we just got there a bit sooner than expected. The study tour itself was a case example of what was being examined, and that is a first for us.

revolutionize the way we do work

As one attendee pointed out, this will “revolutionize the way we do work” … well, our practices will have to evolve. But then, that has happened many times in the past. The industrialization of technology has always led to new practices, whether in the age of electricity or more recently the era of cloud. We always go from here, to there, and back again.

On the subject of change, many of you by now know that Leading Edge Forum is being more fully integrated into DXC technology. So, this was the last LEF study tour. It’s the end of an era as a new dawn beckons. What future study tours will be is the subject of future discussion but whatever happens, the adoption of a virtual world and the lessons learnt need to be remembered


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