Have your avatar call my avatar: Doing business virtually

Jonathan Reichental wouldn't show up at his Tampa, Fla., office sporting a Mohawk, but he opted for the edgy haircut when he ventured into the virtual world.

"When I first had my avatar, I had a Mohawk, lots of muscles and was very tall -- everything I'm not," he says.

But Reichental, director of IT innovation at PricewaterhouseCoopers, says others were distracted by his avatar's appearance, "so I bought a suit and shoes and got a haircut."

Now his avatar, while not a picture-perfect replica, looks more like him.

The virtual world allows endless options for how one can look, behave and interact with others. That's part of its charm, but not necessarily part of its business value. Companies that plan to move some activities into the virtual world need to consider standards for employee appearance and behavior.

So far, such standards are no more homogenous than the corporate cultures that spawned them.

Chris Badger, vice president of marketing at Forterra Systems Inc., which provides enterprise-level virtual-world technologies, says an avatar's appearance can closely mimic that of its real-life counterpart. But regardless of such capabilities, he says, companies and employees should be comfortable with how avatars look.

The issue goes beyond the merely cosmetic, he says. If your colleague's avatar is a fuzzy pink bunny, for example, how do you know it's your colleague you're talking with and not some fuzzy pink prankster?

Badger says companies are learning to balance creativity with authentication. Some, for instance, allow employees to have creative avatars as long as their full names and titles are continually displayed along with them.

Some companies rely on their existing policies to govern in-world activities. "We haven't felt a need to have a specific policy on virtual worlds, because the policies are already there," says, Jonas Karlsson, a researcher at Xerox. His avatar has green skin and spiky hair, while that of CTO Sophie Vanderbroek bears a strong resemblance to her real-world self.

On the other hand, IBM developed a set specific virtual-world guidelines, including these: "Use your good judgment," "Protect your -- and IBM's -- good name," and "Make the right impression." The guidelines also state, "Your avatar's appearance should be reasonable and fitting for the activities in which you engage (especially if conducting IBM business)."

IBM also warns employees to protect intellectual property, reminding them that the public virtual worlds, such as Second Life, are open societies where proprietary information should not be discussed, even on private islands that offer -- but can't necessarily guarantee -- privacy.

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This story, "Have your avatar call my avatar: Doing business virtually" was originally published by Computerworld.

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