Crafting Business Avatars: An Authenticity Exercise

by cv harquail on October 19, 2009

We all need to stop playing around with how we represent ourselves visually online, at least where work is concerned.

That’s what Gartner Consulting advises. They released a report last week proclaiming that Enterprises Must Get Control of Their Avatars. The animated avatars that an organization’s employees use when they participate as organization members inside virtual environments, as well as those cure little photos on Twitter, need to be proactively managed by the organization. Why? Because these avatars are representing the organization. They are affecting the corporate brand and reputation.

Business Avatars are an Important Trend

mad men avatars.jpgAs crazy as it might sound to worry about controlling avatars, avatars are becoming big business. The corporate avatar trend went public in 2007, when IBM established guidelines for how its employees would use avatars and participate in business situations in virtual worlds like Second Life.

You might not have realized that the use of avatars in business settings is growing. With the rise in online virtual meetings, virtual training & learning simulations, and virtual businesses, not to mention social media within and across organizational boundaries, business avatars are becoming more and more common. Simultaneously, the processes for adapting and crafting an avatar’s appearance and movement are becoming both more sophisticated and easier to use.

Since avatars are becoming more common and easier to individualize, there will be more and more variation across avatars representing any one company. What will all these different avatars do for the organization’s image, reputation, and brand?

We don’t know yet. And, with many organizations still experimenting with the basics of Twitter, Yammer and Facebook, they aren’t paying attention as employees choose and use their avatars for other work purposes.

The use of avatars for business has gotten ahead of our understanding of how to use avatars well.

Business Avatars are Counter-normative

Business Avatars are not “normal” avatars. If you say “avatar” to your average business person, they’re thinking the movie, not the 3-D animated visual representation of themselves somewhere virtual working away.

If they know about avatars online, then these employees are probably thinking about the kinds of avatars are common in online games. Although it was predicted (way back in 1996) that businesses and employees would adopt avatars as professional tools, this growing use of avatars actually goes against the grain of the norms of conventional avatar use. (Yes, there is such a thing as conventions of avatar use.)

Business Avatars vs. Entertainment Avatars

In gaming communities there are well-developed norms and practices for avatar creation. For example, entertainment avatars are often created as someone or something very different from the actual person behind it.

Researchers who compare and contrast the “real” person with the virtual avatar note how, on several dimensions, the real person and the avatar are on opposite ends of a spectrum.

Avatars are expected to be:             Real People are expected to be:

about play                                                       about work
safe, fun, without consequence                   serious, having consequences
fake, artificial                                                genuine, authentic
idealized, fantasy                                          factual, truthful

new_xbox_experience_05.jpg

These contrasts between entertainment avatars and the ‘real people’ behind them are similar to the incipient contrasts between Play Avatars and Business Avatars.

This sets up a challenge for employees and organizations — we now have to take a fantasy based, entertainment-oriented activity – avatar crafting — and remake it as a professional activity.

Crafting Business Avatars: An Authenticity Exercise

Business avatars need to reflect the organization’s identity, and employees need to learn how to craft avatars that express the organization’s identity.

While the Gartner report identified six tactical guidelines that organizations can follow to make the best use of avatars in the business environment, their list of tactics doesn’t include a process for employees’ individual and collective avatar crafting. Here’s the missing, seventh tactic:

Make the activity of Crafting a Business Avatar an organizational authenticity exercise.

What if organization members worked together to figure out what business avatars from their unique organization should be like?

What if, for example, they could discuss together:

  • How do we represent this organization, its identity, and its values, through the animated avatars who represent it in virtual environments?
  • What should avatars from our organization look like, to express our values??
  • What should they wear to express our identity?

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(Note, I’m not suggesting that all the avatars would need to look alike. Rather, they should individually and collectively express something about the organization.)

Organizations absolutely do need to take charge (though not “control”) of the avatars that their employees use to represent their organizational selves. Organizations can do this by imposing rules from the top down. Alternatively, organizations could use avatar crafting as an authenticity exercise.

As an authenticity exercise, the process of crafting business avatars can invite individuals and organizations to think consciously about what it means “to be” the organization, to be “themselves” at work, and to be organization members in virtual work situations.

There’s a lot more to consider about business avatars, including how they might serve as Brandividuals, and how avatars might need an Organizational Dress Code… so I’ll post about these topics later this week. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think about Business Avatars…. is this yet another opportunity for organizations to control us? Is organizational oversight necessary?

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