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If employees can't come into the office during a pandemic, why not bring the office to them?
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Using Second Life, the popular 3-D virtual world, researcher Colleen Monahan has done exactly that. Monahan, director of development at the Center for the Advancement of Distance Education at the University of Chicago, says the centre recently worked with a large corporation (which she declined to name) to create a virtual human resources department and a situation room for executives.

"We created a space for them to experiment in different scenarios," says assistant director Kevin Harvey. Why not just use videoconferencing? "The walls of the IT system may start to crumble in an emergency," Harvey says. By creating a virtual company, employees will have a place outside of the corporate firewall where they can meet around the virtual water cooler or receive counselling. Unlike videoconferencing, in Second Life, employees meet by proxy, using avatars.

"The power of a 3-D world is a shared sense of space and community," Harvey says. But he also envisions a virtual HR department as a place employees can go for information or support. "An avatar can sit down in a room and counsel them. We demonstrated that to [the business]," he says. Executives could also go to a virtual situation room to meet, get up-to-date information or strategise.

But how did the corporate business continuity planners feel about using a gaming Web site to exchange critical business information? Security is a big concern, Monahan acknowledges, although you can create a private island in Second Life. On the other hand, if your other IT systems are down, a virtual company could come in handy. "You have to have other mechanisms to talk to each other and see each other," Monahan says.

The centre is working on other projects, such as a Java applet for cell phones that provides basic flu information and leverages location-based services and text messaging to direct employees during a crisis. Harvey says he's also seeing increased interest in simulations for pandemic planning. "We'll be building a pandemic flu simulation game next year," he says.