Flying around CPA Island with Tom Hood

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AccountingWEB Managing Editor Gail Perry recently took a tour of CPA Island, the community in Second Life founded by the Maryland Association of CPAs. Tom Hood, executive director of the MACPA, founder of CPA Island, and recent recipient of the AccountingWEB CPA Association Employee of the Year, was her tour guide.

Take a step into the virtual world of Second Life and plan on losing all sense of time. I went "in world" recently with Tom Hood as my guide. Hood is the executive director of the Maryland Association of Certified Public Accountants and the force behind CPA Island in Second Life.

Participants step into Second Life, create an avatar, give themselves a name that is different from their own, and they are ready to start exploring this new world. "There is a little bit of a learning curve, but it usually goes by really quickly," Hood said. "Some people ask, 'How come you can't have your real name?' but it's kind of fun to have your own persona and do whatever you want with it."

"What made us get into this was the work we have done on generations in the workforce. For us it became an issue of, 'This digital native generation who grew up on games and Internet, they're going to make an impact on our work world, and they're going to want things fundamentally different,' and then we found a ton of educational institutions that were training kids in Second Life.

"Second Life is kind of like the kids game SIMS. It was created by a physicist named Philip Rosedale who created Linden Lab in Silicon Valley. Philip Rosedale had this idea of creating a virtual world that will become what we know as the 3D Web," said Hood. When Rosedale developed Second Life, he commented, "I'm not building a game. I'm building a new continent."

"So Second Life is in fact like the 3D Web," Hood continued. "All of the social network concepts that have been mainstreamed out there like instant messaging, friend groups, that kind of stuff, they're all manifesting themselves in Second Life.

"When you start out in Second Life, it's you and the world, and you can create anything you want, pretty much. So everything you're seeing, other than raw land, are creations by people. And that's kind of an interesting idea. What they did is they basically said, 'We're creating this open source platform for you to build your own stuff in, and then you can create, sell, and keep your own intellectual property," Hood said.

The forward-thinking Hood sees some opportunities for using Second Life from a professional accounting standpoint. "I see two things. [MACPA is] going to run about 20 hours of continuing education this year [in Second Life]. One of the things I've learned is that I think this is the future of accounting education, or at least one more tool. This is not the be-all and end-all, but this is another emerging tool. I think that this is going to greatly impact the accounting education and the continuing education markets. And the reason I say that is all the research I've seen on generations and on the latest trends in technology and education would suggest that virtual worlds, online learning, e-learning, are all major trends. So because of that I think that's where this is going to have an impact.

"Let me tell you another thing that I think is going to have an angle for CPAs," Hood continued. "According to Linden Lab, there are over 59,000 profitable businesses in Second Life right now. Twenty-seven million dollars is exchanged every quarter inside Second Life. [This money is] exchanged consumer to consumer, business to consumer, business to business. That doesn't count the outside consulting areas that are done in real currency. So I come away from this with three major trends that got my attention. One would be the generational issue. A trend toward colleges and universities using virtual worlds is because of the Internet, millennial, the gaming generation, that is why the colleges and universities are starting to experiment and migrate to this kind of platform. The second major trend is the learning trend in the corporate learning world. And in there we looked at the top five learning trends from Chief Learning Officer magazine in January 2009, and it lists mobile learning, do-it-yourself learning, flexible learning environments, virtual worlds, and games and simulations. Second Life fits pretty much every one of those. And then the third trend is if there's real business in this virtual world and real money, shouldn't CPAs know about it? There's a real economy in there.

"CPAs need to pay attention, state societies need to be understanding this economy," Hood said. "We're going to be trying to attract these students to the profession and to our membership, and what if we could help our members understand these tools, to help them engage this generation even better? As we start to really think about a global world, this environment is truly global."

On the Island

Hood gave me a tour of CPA Island, the MACPA's home in Second Life. After a few initial missteps, it became easy to move around. Avatars can stand up, sit down, walk, and even fly. At CPA Island we strolled through training and presentation facilities, trade show floors, kiosks, a media center, office space, and even break rooms (where my avatar stopped for a quick Red Bull). At various places throughout the island, we saw places where we could access PowerPoint presentations and direct links to schools and accounting firms. Several accounting firms and universities already have a permanent presence on CPA Island, as does Financial Executives International. The 3-D effect makes you feel like you're really in these rooms, whether it's sitting in the audience, speaking at the podium, or touring the booths.

"All the development on the island was done by my son who's an accounting student at Salisbury University," Hood said. "I remember talking to Don Tapscott (author of Wikinomics) who said, if you guys ever want to keep up with technology, hire an 18-year-old kid. My son was a high school AP computer kid, and in 10 minutes he had it down pat. We bought two islands."

The MACPA oversees all of the activity on CPA Island. "We built it, we started it, we're the only ones who are here. We'd like to have a central place where CPAs could come to find out stuff that's going on in the virtual world as well as the real world. We're thinking about creating a package where we give you an office, you have a presence, you can put your branding on there, you can use the meeting rooms that we have, and you can participate in the open events that we have," Hood explained.

This year the MACPA plans to broadcast its Biz Expo events both in Second Life and real life, and with a virtual trade show in Second Life. "We're going to do this for all of our sponsors," Hood said. "We're going to teach all of our sponsors all of the social media tools that we use before the expo, and then at the expo we're going to demo them, exhibit them, and talk about them with a 'How do we help business?' perspective. We'll let all the attendees know how to connect to all of the sponsors with these tools."

Hood may not have a crystal ball, but he's not at all reluctant to attempt to look into the future. "There's a part of me that says, in this kind of new world that we're in, no one knows what the short term or long term has in store for us right now, we're in some uncharted waters,'" Hood said. "The emphasis is on how do we do things differently, better, more productively, how do we save money. If you can have a sense that you're in a place with someone and you can meet differently, could this really cut down on business travel, can you do real things using this kind of tool that are better than conference calls or WebEx? I'm not sure what those answers are, but in addition to the whole generational and education stuff, I think there are some good business-type things that could happen in this kind of world."

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