Avatars are creeping into business environments and will have far reaching implications for businesses, from policy to dress code, behaviour and computing platform requirements. In fact, Gartner predicts that by the end of 2013, 70% of businesses will have behaviour guidelines and dress codes established for all employees who have avatars associated with the organisation inside a virtual environment.
Avatars are two- or-three dimensional objects that most often resemble a human and are often animated and controlled remotely by a person in a virtual or 3D internet environment. In a business setting they are used as visual representations of people.
“As the use of virtual environments for business purposes grows, businesses need to understand how employees are using avatars in ways that might affect the business or the business’s reputation,” says James Lundy, managing vice-president at Gartner. “We advise establishing codes of behaviour that apply in any circumstance when an employee is acting as a company representative, whether in a real or virtual environment. Addendums, specific to virtual environments can be added as required.”
Gartner has identified six tactical guidelines that organisations can follow to make the best use of avatars in the business environment:
* Help users learn to control their avatars – For most people, controlling and using an avatar is not viewed as intuitive or easy, but like any skill, after a few sessions a user can master the basics. The platform being used can also be an important factor, but improvements in optimising virtual environment memory have lessened this issue.
* Recognise that users will have a personal affinity with their avatar – Users often take pride in their avatar and dress them up or down. For businesses, this is where dress codes can come into play, if the avatar is being used for company business. Early efforts with avatar appearance have often been viewed as an inhibitor to adoption but this issue should fade as quicker and easier methods of configuring avatars become available.
* Educate users on the risks and responsibilities of reputation management – Organisations can avoid problems with employees mixing their personal and professional avatar interaction and activities by suggesting that employees use one avatar for their work interactions and another avatar for personal activities.
* Extend the code of conduct to include avatars in 3D virtual environments – Just as with social networking sites and individual web pages where employees participate as representatives of their employer, an avatar's behaviour and appearance are a reflection of the individual and the company they work for. Companies with codes of conduct for other web activities, such as blogging, should be able to extend those policies into virtual environments. However, because 3D environments add the visual dimension, they will need to make sure that their policies also cover dress codes.
* Explore the business case for avatars – Justifying avatar use in a business setting is becoming easier, in part because avatar use is gaining wider acceptance. Training and virtual meetings are the top use cases, and one of the main reasons for the increased use of avatars is cost.
* Encourage usage and corporate pilots – Looking ahead, one of the biggest uses of avatars appears to be for online meetings. Web meetings are emerging as an important new use case for virtual environments, and this may be a good point at which to start learning about the issues and opportunities surrounding users and avatars. Businesses may find that they have a willing and ready population of users who are familiar with avatars and their usage. Pilot testing is still the best option for starting to understand the issues that businesses will face with increased avatar adoption.