Virtual worlds: the next online banking

westpac Aside from the group discussions on virtual worlds I facilitated yesterday, the only other time I witnessed them discussed at the Enterprise 2.0 Executive Forum 2009, was when Westpac’s David Backley spoke. As we reported last year, Westpac had trialled the use of Second Life to induct new employees in more remote locations.

Backley reflected back on the pilot, stating that it “had worked well and had been a good idea”. That said, the pilot did not continue due to the departure of the project sponsor – there was no key person to keep the momentum going. The learnings for Backley were that it was a concept ahead of its time, and that until the cost of implementation and maintenance came down, it would be difficult to argue a cost-saving case. Given the tens of thousands of employees Westpac has, it’s a pretty downcast assessment of virtual meetings as cost-saver. That said, Westpac’s platform of choice was Second Life. With the growth in alternate platforms, those costs are reducing, but there’s still a long way to go in that respect.

Aside from that, Backley provided some very interesting statistics around Westpac’s internet banking service. Presently, up to 6000 people are logged in to Westpac’s online banking service at any given time, with close to 700 thousand sessions a day. More value is transacted with online banking per day than is done in Westpac’s branches or call centres. When it was launched a little over a decade ago, the expectation was that perhaps a few thousand people Australia-wide would use the service. For me, that’s a key parallel with virtual worlds. It may be a ‘niche’ for business at present, but like internet banking, the public’s takeup is likely to surprise enterprises in a big way.

The other similarity is in platform: the original internet banking options tended to be standalone applications, then they evolved to be web-based. That’s when the rate of adoption exploded. There’s a very obvious lesson there.