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Leadership in 2012:
Virtual leaders show how to lead the way in the future

by Graeme McClure, IBM UK

September 25 2007 - Leadership continues to be a highly desirable skill in the modern employment market and identifying future leaders and training them is an expensive exercise. Recent research into the evolution of leadership in the current high tech business environment has found a new fertile ground in the world of computer gaming. The findings are intriguing and offer considerable opportunities in the identification and training of future leaders in organisations.

The area of research causing such interest are games referred to as massively multiplayer online role playing games (commonly referred to as MMORPGs). The majority of these games are set in mythical and magical lands, but researchers are increasingly finding that there are more comparisons with the real world than meets the eye. Many multinationals are getting involved with online gaming to see what lessons businesses can learn from these online communities and how they work, particularly with regard to leadership.

A paper recently released by IBM states that they believe "online gaming provides a window into the future of organisations and the leadership capabilities necessary to guide enterprises to success." Byron Reeves of Stanford University is also taking the online gaming world seriously when considering the future. "If you want to see what business leadership will look like in three to five years, look at what's happening in online games."

But is this all speculation? Or is there something more concrete to be gathered from this seemingly abstract and detached world? It can certainly be said that there are many more similarities between the gaming and business worlds than are immediately obvious. Both bring together large numbers of people to take on different roles, develop skills and collaborate to achieve goals and objectives.

Both worlds also require leaders to inspire, motivate and coordinate their team. This is one of the main areas where business could learn some valuable lessons from online gamers. In one of the most popular MMORPGs, World of Warcraft, a fundamental aspect of the game is to complete different challenges, or 'raids'. These raids require players with a variety of skills and experience, to work together in order to achieve their goals, which sounds rather similar to how the modern business works. The fundamental difference however, is in how they are managed.

Leadership happens quickly and simply in online games, based on the skills available, and the task that has to be undertaken. Rather than there being a set leader or manager, leadership evolves based on the resources available, and the task that has to be undertaken. Leaders are chosen by the group rather than a higher authority. This means that for each raid, the leader is often someone who has volunteered for the role, been chosen by their peers and has the best skills and knowledge available. Surely this best-person-for-the-job mentality could help businesses to manage more effectively, too?

Also, this method of assigning leadership allows individuals to try out being a leader, in order to make an informed decision about whether they enjoy the role. Critics might say that this is risky, and indeed this is the case, although the risk is minimised due to both the mentality of most gamers and the project nature of working. Many businesses don't allow inexperienced yet talented individuals to take on leadership, due to a fear of failure. As a result, the potential of some employees may not be being utilised, or innovative ideas and approaches being lost. By breaking tasks up into smaller chunks, failure becomes more a cost of business than a complete disaster, and having employees who feel they can try new things has benefits that more than outweigh the risks. By allowing employees to sometimes lead and sometimes follow, they can develop a more complete understanding of how to manage effectively. They can learn from other's strengths and weaknesses, and use this knowledge to improve their leadership skills.

In a survey of gamers carried out by IBM, nearly half of the respondents stated that playing MMORPG's has improved their real-world leadership capabilities, and who could argue? Gaming leaders have to manage other players with a variety of needs (which vary according to character type), skills and ambition (whether they are casual or serious gamers). More often than not, the group are spread throughout different geographies and cultures, speak different languages, and live in different time zones. Bringing such a group together to fully harness everyone's abilities is one of the key issues multinationals are struggling with, yet gamers find that even more difficult concepts such as compelling visions and objectives are simple to communicate over distances and time zones. The reason for this is the wide variety of communication methods available to gamers, many of which could aid managers in today's workplace.

Technologies such as instant messaging, virtual whiteboarding and voice chat allow gamers to interact in real time, so that they communicate effectively with other members who are online. Also, the use of forums and wikis allows individuals to communicate at any time of the day or night, so that members of a team in California and London can interact and share ideas in their own time. Group web pages allow leaders to share visions and news with colleagues over the world. All these technologies will help to support the new flexible working pattern that is becoming increasingly common in the modern, global organisation. Nick Yee, a researcher from Stanford University who has been studying online gamers, found that the multiple forms of communication available to gaming leaders gave them many options when managing conflict - allowing them to keep mediation to a minimum.

Although this is only dipping a toe into the water, we can get an idea of just how much can be learnt from online gaming communities. Obviously, the stakes in the real world are much higher, but the evidence shows that experienced gaming leaders are ideally suited to manage in the new business world. How long will it be until organisations realise this untapped potential and we see gaming credentials on job applications, or new flexible leadership structures in place.

Find out more about gaming, leadership and the implications at Gaming and Leadership Report.

Graeme McClure,
IBM UK
gmcclure@uk.ibm.com


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