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February 24, 2010

Would It Be Better If the Boss Were a Cartoon?

My favorite part of online learning is the possibility with immersive simulations of exploring a world in which the boss could be a cat or dog, or any cartoonish incarnation you can think of. Thanks to avatars, your boss won’t necessarily look like your boss in a Second Life-like learning simulation. I also think I’d prefer my co-workers if they were tigers or rabbits (depending on personality type) instead of their usual boring selves.

The future of online learning is perfect for the innovation movement because it has the potential to force employees to think of their work environment, and the world at large, in much broader terms. Sure, everyone knows the “Lioness” is really the Sally the Boss, but it’s liberating to interact with the avatar representation of herself rather than the staid, predictable person called “Sally” who shows up at roughly the same time every weekday (9:30ish, usually) to slouch in her chair in her cluttered office.

Adding avatars to online learning in an immersive environment also, and maybe more importantly, allows participants to step out of their own shoes, and try on the persona they wish could inhabit in the “real-world” office, but are too repressed to try. Would Sally the Boss or The Lioness interact more boldly with subordinates and colleagues?  Would she put forth ideas she wouldn’t communicate in person as herself, and collaborate with people she ordinarily wouldn’t dare to due to “real world” personality conflicts?

One of the more interesting questions about immersive online learning that makes use of avatars is how it affects interaction between co-workers, and whether it impacts emotional intelligence. Could a person who’s not emotionally intelligent offline suddenly find themselves at ease with other people in a world of avatars, and therefore, able to charm them more easily, and more easily understand the social cues they’re sending? Conversely would those adept at real world, or “first life” interactions, suddenly find themselves uncomfortable in social settings (if online interaction between avatars can rightly be called “social)?

When I visited an innovation laboratory last fall, I was told the ideal space for innovation is one that’s as plain as possible, so, presumably, the potential innovators feel they have a blank palette to fill up with their ideas. Could an avatar be that “blank palette” in a self-representative form?  The avatar, like the empty room, can be outfitted anyway your the learner likes, and as enthused above, can even take on non-human forms. Instead of filling up a room with scribbles and physical models of plans, the innovator with an online avatar can fill up a representation of him or herself with the plans, maybe even morphing him or herself into whatever the innovation is hoped to be. For instance, let’s say the innovator is planning a new hotel with a novel design or a new software product with an improved interface. What if their avatar became the hotel or improved interface, so as the innovator interacted with collaborators their “face” would be the face of the work in progress?  It would be the avatar version of the old “medium is the message” approach.

Another article I recently wrote about the impact of physical space on the learning process also makes me think avatar-populated immersive learning spaces are ideal for innovation and worker happiness. My interviews for the article uncovered that a learning environment in whichworkers sit in one place for the span of an hour often is much less effective than one that’s dynamic, in which employees are asked to stay on their feet for at least part of the time, completing tasks that keep them in motion, such as following the literal “steps” of a physical learning map. I also discovered work spaces impact how much learners absorb in on-the-job training. Some companies feel so strongly about allowing workers to customize their work stations they invest in cubicle gardens in which workers are able (and encouraged) to grow vegetation in their cubicle walls.

The problem with creating personalized work stations in the “real world” is it’s costly. In an immersive environment, your work station is whatever and however you design it. I’ve always thought it would be fun to work on the edge of a swimming pool diving board. That way when I get tired of my assignments, I can jump in for a swim. I may not be able to float away the hours in between business calls but my avatar, the sophisticated me as a Labrador Retriever, can. I don’t know if my business colleagues will take me seriously as a Labrador Retriever, but that really shows there’s a problem with them, doesn’t it?

What does the future of e-learning at your company look like?  Will avatars in an immersive learning environment set free the innovative spirits of your employees?


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For web conferences you should try http://www.showdocument.com ,
Great for online teaching and collaborating. I use it for working on my designs with other in my field.
Its free and pretty simple - you just upload your file and invite others to view it together.
- Laura W.

Lee @ Caspian Learning

Great idea about using alternative avatars to represent work colleagues. Of course, I'm sure this kind of setup would always be open to some abuse which could potentially open up a pandora's box of 'bad avatars', where the boss in question's avatar is something very unflaterring...

We've found when we develop Immersive Learning Simulations that to truly create an evironment that users can relate to needs some level of 'simulation', that allows the trainee/employee to relate on a much more immersive level than something that could potentially be more be more abstract, such as the avatars in your suggestion.

That's not to say either way is the most appropriate however, for large defence contractors or global corporations, having the boss as a monkey or something for fun's value may not go down too well. It would be fun though :-)

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Never really thought about it that way, great idea.


corporate training have a solid history of producing and nurturing their students to be involved, well-rounded, active and contributing leaders in their global community.

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