Online Collaboration: How Merck Uses Virtual Worlds for Global Meetings

Merck Research Laboratories’ scientists share their research online using virtual meeting software

The Project :: Deploy 3-D meeting software to enable Merck Research Laboratories’ global network of scientists to share new technology and research virtually.

The Business Case :: Every year, the $27 billion drug maker holds a three-day symposium for 500 of its researchers and vendors. Modeled on the traditional poster session, during which scientists exhibit their research results on 4-foot-by-5-foot boards, the event was ideal for knowledge sharing and collaboration. But it was costly to produce, typically topping six figures. And productivity took a hit as hundreds of scientists abandoned their research to go.

In early 2009, Clark Golestani, vice president of IT for Merck Research Laboratories, began to investigate alternatives to the physical meetings. The solution that held the most promise was ProtonMedia’s three-dimensional virtual meeting software ProtoSphere, which costs $75 per user per month, with discounts based on volume.

First Steps :: Although virtual conferences are “the wave of the future,” according to Golestani, the technology was unproven. He applied the methodology IT uses to evaluate emerging technology, which will be familiar to students of the scientific method: establish a hypothesis—in this case, a business challenge and the predicted impact of the new tool—and conduct an experiment to test that hypothesis.

Merck and ProtonMedia spend 12 weeks building a virtual environment for a scaled-down symposium. The design incorporated two large virtual conference halls where posters could be presented to 50 people. Attendees, through avatars, could approach and listen to a presenter speak while reviewing his or her research. In an effort to replicate the networking opportunities of the real-world event, the virtual meeting place contained areas where attendees could gather, chat without interrupting presenters, or engage in private discussions.

Merck held its first three-hour virtual poster session in July 2009, with 54 scientists—eight of whom presented research on 20 posters. The attendees communicated using voice-over-IP and text chat. After the event, 83 percent of users said access to the virtual posters’ information was the same as or better than in the physical world. More than half said the virtual symposium overall was more valuable than the in-person version—and not just because they never had to set foot in an airport. Many reported being more comfortable approaching senior scientists using their avatars than they would have been face-to-face, Golestani says.

Other benefits included reduced travel costs, time savings and “quick access to busy thought leaders who may not have otherwise been able to participate.” Merck continues to experiment with the virtual meeting software to determine its potential for wider corporate use.

What to Watch out For :: Maintaining as much as possible the format of the real-life meetings—from simulating the posters to reproducing the lighting, furniture and floor plans of an actual symposium—was critical to driving user adoption, says Golestani. So was involving “all of the extended key support groups,” including internal business partners, the vendor and IT representatives. “It’s important for all of these groups to feel a sense of ownership of the new capability so it becomes their idea and they are empowered to drive it forward.”

Stephanie Overby is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.

To comment on this article and other CIO content, visit us on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.
NEW! Download the State of the CIO 2017 report