Despite the hype, only 11% of enterprises have adopted virtual worlds to augment their work, says a new report by Forrester. Virtual worlds have been around since about 1995, but it took businesses half a decade to realize the potential value within the enterprise.

But the research released this week isn’t just an outline of the market: it’s a how-to guide for doing business in a computer-generated universe. Vendors may not have done a very good job of marketing themselves to the enterprise to date, but there’s still a huge opportunity for your company to get virtual, if you know how.

The Sweet Spot

Virtual worlds exist to replicate complex social interaction in a digital space. The unique opportunity is real-time, three-dimensional work where a group can simultaneously focus on a nearly unlimited number of activities at once.

Consumer users of worlds like Second Life tend to replicate complex social activities like killing each other and having sex. The enterprise has mostly failed to see that there are business-specific interactions that virtual worlds are perfect for. Rather than just being an eccentric conferencing option, there are things that are hard for distributed teams to do without a virtual world. The three key functions that Forrester highlights include:

Social Networking

This is the obvious one, but it’s still largely discounted by business. Using Second Life or would bring a whole new meaning to the phrase “virtual water cooler.” Static profiles and friending are boring compared to hosting a virtual event to get to know your co-workers.

Real-time Collaboration

There is a ton of great collaborative software focused on text-based interaction. But the value of collaboration in the virtual world is the same as in the real one: multiple people can work on an infinite number of tasks at once, but still have group cohesion and physical proximity.

Interactive Training

Interactive training is one of the most exciting areas for a business to explore. There simply is no other technology that lets distributed teams simulate things like emergency preparation, medical response, and battlefields. The other key benefit is that mistakes mean less in a virtual world, giving your team room to experiment.

What to Avoid

Forrester says that virtual worlds are ripe for use by business, but the way that vendors have presented themselves has been off the mark. This has led to most enterprises having a poor idea of what virtual worlds are good for. The two key points to remember for businesses and vendors are:

It’s not about the avatar. Flashy graphics are not the point. Consumer participants in virtual worlds spend a lot of time obsessing about their avatars. But this is business, not entertainment. If the avatar is good enough to simulate a good basic approximation of who you are, then it’s a non-issue.

It’s not just conferencing. A virtual world is not just an unusual Web conferencing solution. It is a space that simulates the whole range of human activities, including work-related ones.

As Forrester puts it, “virtual world vendors need to limit their focus on the quality of avatars, stop trying to compete with other collaboration solutions, and start building relationships with other collaboration providers.”

Image credit: Antonio Bonanno