Virtual Worlds Affordances for Organizations
Summary and Keywords
Virtual work has become critical to competing in the global information economy for many organizations. Successfully working through technology across time and space, especially on collaborative tasks, however, remains challenging. Virtual work can lead to feelings of isolation, communication and coordination difficulties, and decreased innovation. Researchers attribute many of these challenges to a lack of common ground. Virtual worlds, one type of virtualization technology, offer a potentially promising solution.
Despite initial interest, organizational adoption of virtual worlds has been slower than researchers and proponents expected. The challenges of virtual work, however, remain, and research has identified virtual world technology affordances that can support virtual collaboration. Virtual world features such as multi-user voice and chat, persistence, avatars, and three-dimensional environment afford, in particular, social actions associated with successful collaboration. This suggests that the greatest value virtual worlds may offer to organizations is their potential to support virtual collaboration.
Organizational scholars increasingly use a technology affordance lens to examine how features of malleable communication technologies influence organizational behavior and outcomes. Technology affordances represent possibilities of action enabled by technology features or combinations of features. Particularly relevant to virtual world technology are social affordances—affordances of social mediating technologies that support users’ social and psychological needs. To be useful to organizations, there must be a match between virtual world technology affordances, organizational practices, and a technology frame or organizing vision. Recent studies suggest a growing appreciation of the influence of physical organizational spaces on individual and organizational outcomes and increasing awareness of the need for virtual intelligence in individuals. This appreciation provides a possible basis for an emerging organizing vision that, along with recent technology developments and societal comfort with virtual environments, may support wider organizational adoption of virtual worlds and other virtualization technologies.
Virtual World Affordances for Collaboration in Organizations
To compete successfully in today’s global information economy organizations have turned increasingly to virtual work arrangements (Hardin, Fuller, & Davison, 2007), which promise benefits such as rapid innovation, lower costs, and greater work–life balance. Technological advances have transformed virtual work (Bjorn et al., 2014; Schmidt & Bannon, 2013), enabling knowledge workers to work anytime and anywhere (Yao et al., 2017). A report by Strategy Analytics predicts that the global mobile workforce will reach 1.75 billion in 2020 (up from 1.32 billion in 2014) and will account for 42.0% of the global workforce (Luk, 2015).
The difficulties of virtual work, however, are well documented (Gibson & Gibbs, 2006; Gilson, Maynard, Jones Young, Vartiainen, & Hakonen, 2015; Watson-Manheim, Chudoba, & Crowson, 2012). Research shows that virtual work can lead to isolation (Golden, Veiga, & Dino, 2008), decreased interaction (Isacn & Naktiyok, 2005), and coordination costs (Daniels, Lamond, & Standen, 2001). The loss of a sense of community resulting from virtual work led some employees at IBM, an early adopter of such arrangements, to say that the company’s initials stood for “I’m by myself” (Johns & Gratton, 2013). Further, physical separation and division of labor can result in less natural collaboration, fewer serendipitous encounters and hallway conversations, and decreased innovation (Johns & Gratton, 2013). Activities that rely on social interaction such as creative collaboration are challenging for distributed employees working in virtual settings. As a result, when relying on virtual work, many organizations either decompose tasks within projects such that the work can be decoupled (Olson & Olson, 2013; Zigurs & Khazanchi, 2008) or fall back on face-to-face interaction for complicated or ambiguous tasks (NSF, 2008; Olson & Olson, 2000). In either case, some of the touted benefits of virtual work are forgone.
Some organizations have responded to these challenges by minimizing virtual work. Yahoo concluded that employees are more innovative and collaborative when they are co-located, and it curtailed its work-from-home policy in 2013, affecting 200 of the organization’s 12,000 employees (Tkaczyk, 2013). In 2013 Honeywell banned telework, as did Best Buy in 2016 (DePass, 2016). IBM made a similar decision in 2017 (Kessler, 2017).
Virtual worlds, and other virtualization technologies, offer promising solutions to some of the challenges that led these organizations to curtail virtual telework. In particular, virtual worlds may be able to support the creative collaboration and innovation that research shows are critical to many organizations (Gartner, 2019; Leadem & Entrepreneur, 2016; Montoya, Massey, & Lockwood, 2011; Watson-Manheim et al., 2012). Collaboration requires social interaction and common understanding (Clark, 1996; Clark & Brennan, 1991), which may be facilitated by virtualization technologies.
Virtual worlds are three-dimensional virtual environments that are experienced simultaneously by many users (Castronova, 2005) who interact and navigate through digital representations of themselves (avatars) to create and manipulate objects and interact in the shared space (Nah, Eschenbrenner, DeWester, & Park, 2010). Virtual worlds are predominantly social spaces, “defined by the joint, collaborative, and goal-directed activities of their users” (Koles & Nagy, 2014, p. 178). They afford individuals and organizations interactivity and engagement across time and space as well as the ability to incorporate 3D representations and spatial references (Dodgson, Gann & Phillips, 2013). These social activities help to create common ground (Sutcliffe, Gonzalez, Binder, & Nevarez, 2011).
Virtual worlds are a virtualization technology, a category encompassing virtual worlds, virtual gamespaces, and also virtual and augmented reality technologies. Virtual world gamespaces are defined by their gaming purpose with rules, levels, and objectives, whereas virtual worlds are focused on socialization and content creation (Spence, 2008). Virtual worlds users do play games in virtual space but engage in many other activities such as education, collaboration, support groups, and content creation as well.
Virtual worlds can be controlled with a keyboard and mouse and are displayed on a two-dimensional screen (Schmeil & Hasler, 2012), whereas virtual reality technologies fully immerse users in a digital environment usually using specialized equipment such as headsets and motion detectors. Thus, in virtual reality environments, users experience a first person perspective, seeing the world from inside the avatar, whereas in a virtual world users may view the virtual world from a third person perspective. Virtual worlds can be experienced simultaneously by many users, who can interact socially with other users, whereas virtual reality technology isolates users from others and distractions in the outside world to a greater extent than virtual worlds. Virtual reality environments may thus provide a more complete sense of immersion but may also lead to a sense of being isolated in a digital space. This isolation and lack of a third person, helicopter view in virtual reality has led some to suggest that virtual worlds may be better suited to multi-user coordination than virtual reality technologies (Burden, 2014).
Fairly recently, the use of virtual worlds has been increasing. The number of registered accounts in virtual worlds rose to an estimated 1.7 billion in 2011 (kZero, 2012). Buoyed by the increase in users, organizational interest in virtual worlds grew. In 2008, Harvard Business Review cited virtual worlds as one of the most promising technologies for business (Hemp, 2008). IBM, Coca Cola, and Nike were among the organizations that pioneered a presence in virtual worlds, using them for meetings, market research, and online conferences (Koles & Nagy, 2014). Despite initial interest, however, adoption of virtual worlds by organizations has been slower than trade experts and academics predicted. Studies show that 90% percent of corporate virtual world projects failed within 18 months (Gonsalves, 2008), and many organizations have abandoned their virtual world presence (Yoon & George, 2013). In 2009, and again in 2011, Gartner reported that virtual worlds lay at the bottom of a “trough of disillusionment” (Gartner, 2009, 2011). Recently, virtual worlds have been replaced in the annual Gartner report by virtual and augmented reality, which Gartner reports have similar potential but have also been slow to take off (Pettey, 2018). The need for solutions to the challenges presented by the global information economy, however, remains. Organizations are increasingly reliant on virtual work, require the results that come from collaboration, and face pressure for innovation.
This article explores this conundrum, addressing the question: Given the need for virtual work and the apparent benefits of virtual worlds, what prevents organizations from taking advantage of the affordances offered by virtual worlds? It reviews the trends in organizational adoption of virtual worlds and draws on studies of technology adoption and affordance, with a focus on social affordance, to discuss the barriers that may have slowed the adoption of virtual worlds. The article suggests that to be useful to organizations, there must be a match between virtual world technology affordance, organizational practices, and a value-constructing frame or organizing vision for the technology. Deeper appreciation of the influence of physical organizational spaces on individual and organizational outcomes and increasing awareness of the need for virtual intelligence among scholars and practitioners suggest a potential, emerging organizing vision.
Organizational Use of Virtual Worlds
Virtual worlds emerged in the 1990s as gaming platforms. Business organizations became interested in virtual worlds in the early 2000s when Linden Labs introduced Second Life as a virtual space and economy, rather than as a goal directed game. In the five years following its introduction, users created more than 8 million Second Life accounts (Jennings & Collins, 2007), building social, educational, and commercial venues and exchanging an in-world currency that could be converted to U.S. dollars. Early adopting organizations used virtual worlds for prototyping, demonstration and marketing, and education. By 2007, 50 well-known organizations, including Adidas Reebok, IBM, Cisco, and Disney, were engaged in Second Life (Rose, 2007). Universities created distance education programs and private worlds for simulation, experiential learning, and collaboration (Jennings & Collins, 2007). While prototyping and demonstration applications saw some success (e.g., Maxell, Aguliar, Monte, & Nolan, 2011; Tahmincioglu, 2008), neither marketing nor educational outcomes met expectations (Cyphert, Wurtz, & Duclos, 2013). Table 1 summarizes examples of early organizational use of virtual worlds.
Table 1. Early Organization Use of Virtual Worlds
Rangel College of Pharmacy, Texas A&M Health Science University
Offered an elective, case-based course for second- and third-year doctor of pharmacy students. Students and instructors met in Second Life to discuss cases focused on drug safety and effective communication with patients (see Veronin, Daniels, & Demps, 2012).
U.S. Navy Submarine Learning Center
Distributed instructors and students, represented by avatars, interacted with each other and accessed live tactical simulations. The schoolhouse included an orientation training trail, classroom, laboratory, study hall, and simulation range (see Aten & DiRenzo, 2014).
U.S. Navy Naval Undersea Warfare Center
Virtual world prototyping replaced physical models to visualize spatial command and control relationships.Collaborative virtual prototyping allowed program managers, technical experts, and members of the fleet to remotely collaborate and contribute to design a Virginia class attack center (see Maxell, Aguliar, Monte, & Nolan, 2011).
Global virtual team met in a virtual world to develop a software toolkit for building virtual worlds. Team met weekly to collaboratively develop software code in the virtual world (see Aten, Nardon, & Stanko, 2016).
Coke created on online island within virtual world there.com. The site allowed Coca-Cola customers to buy clothing and accessories for their avatars using reward points culled from codes on Coke bottle caps (see Story, 2007).
Marketing and advertising were among early organizational applications of virtual worlds. Organizations sought to build brand recognition and to sell and market-test digital representations of products. They created spaces in which customers could interact with others and objects. These efforts, however, resulted in limited returns (Rose, 2007; Semuels, 2007). Virtual worlds failed to deliver the audience required for successful, traditional marketing efforts (Cyphert et al., 2013). Although 70,000 users logged on to Second Life at a given time, their avatars were spread over digital space. Reaching large numbers of users through traditional means such as billboards or storefronts was infeasible (Au, 2007). In 2007, Gartner predicted that by 2011 80% of Internet users and organizations would have an avatar (Gartner, 2007). While there were 1 billion virtual world users by 2011, users between the ages of 10 and 15 formed the largest segment (KZero, 2012), providing a limited market. Additionally, many users experienced a steep learning curve and failed to make return visits to virtual worlds (Hansen, 2009). Reports suggest that virtual world use has plateaued, with Second Life, one of the most publicized virtual worlds at about 500,000 users, though use of other virtualization technologies is likely to increase (Gartner, 2019).
Training and education was another early organizational application of virtual worlds (Berge, 2008), in particular in health care (for a review, see Ghanbarzadeh, Ghapanchi, Blumenstein, & Talaei-Khoei, 2014) and security and emergency services (e.g., Alexander, Brunyé, Sidman, & Weil, 2005; Aten & DiRenzo, 2014). The steep learning curve, however, affected educational use as well, with students reporting frustration with virtual world platforms (Sanchez, 2007; Thomassen & Rive, 2010). One longitudinal study of MBA students found that their acceptance of virtual worlds decreased over time even as their perceived self-efficacy in using the technology increased (Luse, Mennecke, & Triplett, 2013).
Early organizational interest in virtual worlds followed by slow organizational adoption could reflect overhype and disillusionment, which often occurs with emerging technologies. Alternatively, slow adoption could also reflect a failure of virtual worlds to provide organizational value. Scholars have explored the technology’s potential value to organizations using a technology affordance lens.
Technology Affordances of Virtual Worlds for Organizations
Organizational scholars increasingly use a technology affordance lens to examine how features of malleable communication technologies—technologies that enable a wide range of behaviors and the creation of additional tools—influence organizational behavior and outcomes (e.g., Faraj & Azad, 2012; Leonardi, 2011; Orlikowski, 2007; Treem & Leonardi, 2013). Technology affordances represent possibilities of action enabled by technology features or combinations of features. The concept of technology affordance builds on Gibson’s (1977, 2014) explication of how physical features in the environment suggest, or afford, possible actions (Hutchby, 2001). Norman (2004) elaborated the concept to include physical and visual features that suggest functionality and means of interaction with artifacts and computer systems. Subsequently, technology scholars have further elaborated the concept to include technology users’ goals and perceptions and the relational context (Faraj & Azad, 2012). From this relational perspective, technology affordances emerge and are realized through the enactment of relations between a technology and action given individuals’ goals and abilities (Faraj & Azad, 2012). The technology affordance concept thus links actors’ purposes with the capabilities afforded by technology within the constraints of social relationships. Particularly relevant to virtual world technology are social affordances: “the relationship between the properties of an object and the social characteristics of a group that enable particular kinds of interaction among members of that group” (Sutcliffe et al., 2011, p. 154). As Sutcliffe and colleagues (2011) explain, social affordances of social mediating technologies, such as virtual worlds, support users’ social and psychological needs.
Scholars have explored virtual worlds from many perspectives and definitions of virtual worlds, and the features and affordances they offer have evolved with the technology over time. Bell (2008) proposes a synthesis of previous definitions, focusing on three characteristics of virtual worlds: virtual worlds are synchronous, persistent, and represent users with an avatar. Virtual worlds allow real-time communication and interaction between multiple parties. They are persistent—they do not shut down when users leave, and they can’t be paused. And users are represented by a digital representation, or avatar, that has the ability to perform actions and is controlled by the user in real time. In addition to these, scholars highlight three-dimensional physicality as a key characteristic of virtual worlds (Chesney, Chuah, & Hoffmann, 2009; Hakonen & Bosch-Sijtsema, 2014; Meuller, Hutter, Fueller, Matzler, 2011). These characteristics afford social interactions and affect, suggesting that the greatest value virtual worlds may offer to organizations is their potential to support virtual collaboration (Dodgson et al., 2013; Kohler, Matzler, & Fuller, 2009; Tapscott & Williams, 2006).
Virtual World Affordances for Collaboration
Collaboration is a process of co-construction and mutual engagement (Lipponen, 2002) by interdependent collaborators (DeChurch & Mesmer-Magnus, 2010) working intentionally toward a shared goal. Co-construction requires communication and coordination. Innovative co-construction, in particular, requires that individuals draw on mutual knowledge to share ideas that are not fully formed (Eisenhardt & Tabrizi, 1995; Hargadon & Bechky, 2006; Koppman & Gupta, 2014). Collaboration also requires mutual engagement, that is, engagement with the task (manifested by joint production) as well as engagement with other collaborators (manifested by attunement to others) (Bryan-Kinns, Healey, & Leach, 2007). Individuals who are mutually engaged in collaborative activity modify, contribute, and build upon each other’s contributions. Successful creative collaboration thus requires social interactions including, communication, coordination, and engagement.
Communication, Coordination, and Common Ground in Virtual Worlds
To coordinate and contribute to one another’s’ work, collaborators must make assumptions about what others know and how they will act on that knowledge (Enfield, 2000). This process, called grounding, allows individuals to achieve a state of mutual belief that they have reached an understanding sufficient to interact in concert (Clark & Brennan, 1991). Individuals achieve grounding by drawing on and creating common ground—the knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions they infer they share (Clark, 1996; Cramton, 2001; Monk, 2008).
In face-to-face settings, contextual and visual cues provide common ground, which facilitates mutual knowledge creation. A lack of common ground is a key barrier for virtual collaborators (Cramton, 2001; Monk, 2008). In an often-cited study, Cramton (2001) identified lack of common ground in virtual teams as the mutual knowledge problem. This problem contributes to the many challenges that make virtual collaboration difficult, including failure to communicate and retain contextual information, difficulties understanding the salience of information, differences in the speed of access to information, and misinterpretation of information (Bjørn & Ngwenyama, 2009; Cramton, 2001; Hinds & Mortensen, 2005).
Mutual knowledge supports situational awareness—knowing what is going on so that one can figure out what to do next—and is key to successful collaboration (Malhotra & Majchrzak, 2012). Situational awareness provides context, which supports interpretations of communication and action, reduces coordination effort, better allows individuals to move between individual and shared activities, and allows team members to anticipate other’s actions (Gutwin, Greenberg, & Roseman, 1996). Virtual worlds can facilitate the situational awareness essential for collaboration (Montoya et al., 2011). The use of avatars and 3D objects fosters situational awareness by providing digitally represented physical cues and contextual information (Hakonen & Bosch-Sijtsema, 2014).
Like more traditional communication technologies, virtual worlds afford users the ability to interact across time and geographic distance. Participants can interact through proximal text-based discussion (i.e., chat) within a defined radius of the user. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) allows real-time speech communication. And private text-based communication (i.e., instant messaging) and group text allow synchronous or asynchronous interaction. These social affordances in combination with virtual worlds’ persistence, embodied representation, and 3D physicality allow users to interact in a manner more similar to interaction in the physical world than do traditional information communication technologies (Alahuta, Nordbäck. Sivunen, & Surakka, 2014).
In virtual worlds, visual human caricatures and the ability to create 3D representations can approximate the non-verbal communication cues that supplement verbal communication between co-located team members (Antonijevic, 2008). Users react similarly to avatar proximity as they do in real life (Bailenson, Blascovich, & Guadagno, 2008; Gillath, McCall, Shaver, & Blascovich, 2008; Yee, Bailenson, Urbanek, Cahnge, & Merget, 2007). Avatars play an important role in turn-taking and making meetings enjoyable (Sivunen & Hakonen, 2011), which can support collaboration.
Virtual worlds allow dispersed team members to call up and control project-relevant documents and communications channels and to share and manipulate them within the shared virtual space, simulating the real-world ability of co-located people to access and manipulate visually represented knowledge in the same time and place. Users can also communicate through successive manipulations of the environment. This form of communication, called stigmergy, occurs when one user modifies the environment and another user responds to the new environment at a later time (Bonabeau, Dorigo, & Theraulaz, 1999). Users can rearrange workspaces, edit and add to models, and react and respond to previously developed ideas or objects through nonverbal and often asynchcronous co-construction.
Creative Engagement in Virtual Worlds
Scholars have recently grouped technology affordances into categories including activity and affective affordances (see Shin, 2017; Zhao, Liu, Tang, & Zhu, 2013). Activity affordances afford particular behaviors or actions such as co-production of digital objects. Affective affordances produce an emotional state that may precede the choice of taking an action or implementing a behavior (Shin, 2017). Virtual worlds afford a sense of social presence, immersion, and trust (Bosch-Sijtsema & Haapamäki, 2014), which can support collaboration.
Multi-user synchronous interaction, persistence, embodied representation; and three-dimensional physicality afford users a feeling of social co-presence, that is, users have an active perception of themselves and each other in a space (Hakonen & Bosch-Sijtsema, 2014; Nowak & Biocca, 2003; Reeves & Read, 2009; Sallnas, 2005). Virtual co-presence is the feeling that others are in the same room and supports a feeling of shared context (Bente, Krämer, & Eschenburg, 2008; Ma & Agarwal, 2007; Schroeder et al., 2001; Zhao & Elesh, 2008), vital to successful collaboration and lacking in other types of technologies that support virtual work.
Dodgson et al. (2013) find that co-presence, adaptability of space, and virtual representations of people and artifacts differentiate virtual worlds from other information communication technologies and that virtual world technologies can support organizational learning. The sense of co-presence provides opportunities for co-creation of spaces for specific purposes with appropriate locational cues that help structure collaborative activities. The authors argue that virtual worlds are not antithetical or complementary to work but rather that by allowing “the freedom of action associated with play … [virtual worlds] can potentially provide a model for work by constructing a more fulfilling sense of self” (Dodgson et al., 2013, p. 14).
In virtual worlds the subject–object distinction that exists between people and information in computers disappears (Bricken, 1991), affording a sense of immersion or being present within a shared space with others. Immersion facilitates the development of interpersonal affinity, trust, and emotional involvement to a much greater degree than more traditional information communication technologies. Trust, in particular, is an important component of collaboration in virtual work (Javenpaa & Leidner, 1999). The use of avatars can affect users attitudes toward, and trust of, others. For example, users react similarly to avatar proximity as they do in real life (Bailenson, Blascovich, & Guadagno, 2008; Dotsch & Wigboldus, 2008; Gillath et al., 2008; Yee, Bailenson, Urbanek, Cahnge, & Merget, 2007). And research shows that use of avatars can increase cross-cultural understanding (Diehl & Prins, 2008) and influence sexism (Fox & Gailenson, 2009) and racism (Peña, Hancock, & Merola, 2009).
Virtual worlds may support engagement by affording forms of creative action that are impossible in the real world. Individuals working on innovation project teams in virtual worlds are able to alter their representations of self and shape the world around them with relative ease and at no cost. Users can modify their appearance and their surroundings. They can construct their environment absent space and resource limitations of the physical world and render the invisible visible and the abstract concrete by creating visual metaphors, maps, simulations, representations, and prototypes. Virtual worlds allow users to simulate potential and fanciful actions. Users can fly through space, build prototypes quickly, and experiment with different physical representations of themselves. Dodgson et al. (2013) find that virtual worlds afforded opportunities for playfulness, which helped IBM overcome difficulties of organizational learning.
Organizational Adoption of Virtual Worlds
Despite argued benefits, organizations have been slow to adopt virtual worlds. Initial interest waned, and many organizations abandoned their early efforts. Yoon and George (2013) examine why organizational adoption of virtual worlds has been slow through an empirical test of a model derived from the technology-organization-environment framework. They find that mimetic pressures drive organizational adoption of virtual worlds. Because many organizations are not successful at adopting virtual worlds, other organizations are not induced to adopt. Technological factors, perceived benefits, and compatibility do not have a significant effect on organizations’ intent to adopt virtual worlds, contrary to diffusion of innovation theory. These findings suggest the utility of a socio-cognitive perspective on technology adoption to understand organizational adoption of virtual worlds.
Socio-Cognitive Perspective on Technology Adoption
The socio-cognitive perspective on technology adoption seeks to explain the adoption processes of equivocal, emerging technologies. Equivocal technologies are accompanied by many often-conflicting interpretations and incomplete, exaggerated, and ambiguous information (Rosenberg, 1994). Such technologies make new activities possible, but specific applications are often unclear and their adoption iterative and experiential (Berente, Hansen, Pike, & Bateman, 2011; Dodgson et al., 2013; Swanson & Ramiller, 1997). Individuals and organizations must make sense of equivocal technologies, constructing their uses and value rather than just applying them (Berente et al., 2011; Daft, Lengel, & Trevino, 1987; Weick, 1990). Technology frames are an important contributing factor to this sensemaking.
A technology frame is a repertoire of knowledge that individuals use to impart meaning and make sense of technologies (Davidson, 2002; Orlikowski & Gash, 1994). A technology frame guides individuals’ interpretations of “what a technology is and whether it does anything of value” (Kaplan & Tripsas, 2008, p. 293) and influences interpretations and assessments by shaping how individuals categorize emerging technologies relative to other technologies and also the performance criteria they use to assess technologies’ value (Acha, 2004; Kaplan & Tripsas, 2008). Incongruence and shifts between technology frames inhibit organizational adoption of technologies (Davidson, 2002; Orlikowski & Gash, 1994).
Research on technology commercialization suggests that proponents of equivocal technologies must construct a value logic that matches what is possible with what is valued (Kaplan & Murray, 2010; Maine & Garnsey, 2006; Maine, Lubik, & Garnsey, 2012, 2013). Because virtual worlds emerged from computer games, their connection with organizational efficiency and productivity is not immediately obvious (Dodgson et al., 2013). Increasing studies support the argument that cognitive frames influence the adoption of virtual worlds (Berente et al., 2011; Bosch-Sijtsema & Sivunen, 2013; Dodgson et al., 2013; Hakonen & Bosch-Sijtsema, 2014; Nardon & Aten, 2012).
Berente and colleagues (2011) draw on Swanson and Ramiller (1997) to define an organizing vision as “a reciprocal dynamic that forms a central mechanism of sensemaking around inchoate technologies” (p. 687). Shared cognitive schemas, or organizing visions, make information communication technology innovations more tractable (Berente et al., 2011; Swanson & Ramiller, 1997). Similar to a technology frame, an organizing vision guides the perspective of others and provides an interpretation that others can draw on to make sense of a technology. Berente and colleagues’ (2011) analysis of discourse around organizational adoption of virtual worlds finds active efforts at sensemakng consistent with many traditions. Individuals are making sense of virtual worlds through rational arguments emphasizing costs and benefits, through arguments anchored on experiences with other phenomena, through storytelling about personal experiences with the technology, through imitation of others, and based on standards. Concerns center on lack of control and present technological limitations of virtual worlds. Arguments in favor emphasize positive personal experiences. Assessments of the value of virtual worlds vary with the analogies individuals used to make sense of the technology. These findings are consistent with those of Nardon and Aten (2012), who identified interpretations of virtual worlds suggesting three mental categories: virtual worlds as a medium, virtual worlds as a place, and virtual worlds as an extension of reality associated with different criteria for assessing the organizational value of virtual worlds.
Competencies for Collaboration in Virtual Worlds
Although virtual worlds afford social actions and affect that support collaboration, research suggests that users will need to develop team- and technology-specific practices to fully take advantage of the opportunities the technology provides (Chudoba, Wynn, Lu, & Watson-Manheim, 2005; Hinds & Bailey, 2003). Examining the individual behaviors and skills needed to succeed in virtual workspaces, Makarius and Larson (2017) elaborate the concept of virtual intelligence, which they define as “the ability to recognize, direct, and maintain cognitive resources in a virtual work environment” (p. 168). They argue that virtual intelligence encompasses three competencies: recognizing, directing, and maintaining cognitive resources.
Virtual workers must be able to recognize that the virtual context is different from a traditional work situation and requires attention to different types of behaviors and stimuli as well as the ability to filter out distractions that are not typical in face-to-face settings (Makarius & Larson, 2017). For example, virtual workers may need to be able and willing to adapt their behavior for working in virtual environments, such as by articulating their thoughts and actions as they conduct work so that other team members can construct a rich visual representation of the action being taken and of the strategy and thought processes behind the action in the absence of cues that are often present in a face-to-face setting (Aten, Nardon, & Stanko, 2016). Virtual workers will need to use technology to conduct communication on multiple (often simultaneous) levels and in multiple timeframes.
Virtual workers who recognize that “virtuality inclines them toward higher level (more abstract) construals of their virtual co-workers will be better equipped to direct (or redirect) their cognitive resources to plan actions that are more appropriate to the virtual context” (Makarius & Larson, 2017, p. 169). Virtual workers may need to accept contextual ambiguity and adopt alternate perspectives and identities.
Finally, successful virtual workers need to be able to maintain cognitive resources through monitoring and updating representations and knowledge to accommodate changes in the plastic, virtual environment (Makarius & Larson, 2017). Virtual worlds can allow individuals to see, feel, and experience situations and ideas in ways they might not otherwise be able to experience them. They can model and visualize new products or walk into life-size prototypes and understand how different elements are spatially related to one another in a visceral way, which allows them to learn, communicate, and expand how they think.
While there has been a fair amount of organizational investment and experimentation with virtual worlds, adoption and results have been inconsistent. Nevertheless, the pressures that drove the initial organizational interest in virtual worlds remain. Organizations need to succeed at distributed work, require the results that come from collaboration, and face increasing pressure for innovation.
To make sense of new information technologies, organizations must develop cognitive schemas, skills, and practices that complement the technologies (Attewell, 1992). Virtual worlds are an equivocal, malleable technology not originally developed for business purposes but rather for game playing. Organizations have struggled to make sense of the technology and to create an organizing vision or frame that constructs the business value. The slow adoption of virtual worlds reflects these challenges.
The basis for long-term organizational value of virtual worlds is still being established through sensemaking. The use of virtual worlds for serious, focused organizational objectives will require an organizing vision that allows interpretation of the technology in a way that constructs organizational value, linking features and affordances with needs and competencies.
This article suggests that organizational understanding is evolving to focus on the value of virtual worlds, and similar virtualization technologies, as a social medium for collaborative activities. Social spaces provided by virtual worlds first drew participants and remain a key advantage, offering unique platforms for people to socialize, embrace novel experiences, and acquire new skills (Warr, 2008). The social affordances of virtual worlds, such as the ability to create and co-create malleable, digital representations of people and objects within a space, may be the most profound advantages of this and other virtualization technologies. These social affordances have the potential to provide unique benefits that other technologies do not and may form the basis for an organizing vision that will allow organizations to reap the benefits that research suggests virtual worlds may provide.
Virtualization technologies are still evolving. Recent developments, along with younger users’ familiarity with such technologies, are making organizational use more feasible. Virtual worlds are becoming increasingly easier to deploy and use. Further, within the larger context of virtualization technologies, virtual worlds are one component within a larger emerging experience ecosystem.
Research should continue to investigate how virtual worlds might be adapted for organizational use. Can a focused design process reflective of the experiences and lessons learned through past efforts support organizational success? How can emerging innovations affect the way virtual worlds can be deployed for organizational purposes in the near future? And are innovative management practices that might lead the way for more reliable and robust usages of virtual worlds technologies?
Research has recently highlighted the importance of the influence of physical space on organizational behavior and outcomes, showing that physical environments shape attitudes, interactions, and behaviors (Elsbach & Pratt, 2007; Zerella, von Treuer, & Albrecht, 2017). Work is now performed in more fragmented workplaces that activate different types of presence (Hofma, Avital, & Jensen, 2017). Research considering virtual space as a workplace and exploring the effects of digital representations on virtual workers is rare (Hyrkkänen, Nenonen, & Axtell, 2016). Virtual worlds present a fruitful ground for exploring and developing theories to explain and support the role of digital representations of physical space and their effects on virtual work.
Despite initial interest, organizational adoption of virtual worlds has been slower than researchers and proponents expected. The challenges of virtual work, however, remain, and research has identified virtual world technology affordances that can support virtual collaboration. Virtual worlds allow social interaction through multi-user, synchronous interaction, persistence, embodied representation, and three-dimensional physicality. The social interactions afforded by virtual worlds are associated with successful collaboration, suggesting that the greatest value virtual worlds may offer to organizations is their potential to support virtual collaboration.
This article reviewed trends in organizational adoption of virtual worlds drawing on studies of technology adoption and technology affordance to inform a discussion of the barriers that may have slowed organizational adoption of virtual worlds. It suggests that organizational adoption of virtual worlds requires an organizing vision that constructs value by matching the affordances provided by virtual world technology, organizational practices, and organizational needs. Scholars’ and business leaders’ growing appreciation of the influence of physical organizational spaces on individual and organizational outcomes and increasing awareness of the need for virtual intelligence provides a possible basis for an emerging organizing vision that, along with recent technology developments and societal comfort with virtual environments, may support wider organizational adoption of virtual worlds and other virtualization technologies.
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