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Profiting by Playing Games

The use of gamification to drive increased productivity or learning is catching on, as employers find that game-playing is successful in driving desired behavior -- especially with generations that grew up using social networks and online games.

Thursday, October 27, 2011
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Are we having fun yet? More important, are we having fun while we increase productivity or knowledge?

Apparently, the workforce at LiveOps Inc., a call-center vendor in Santa Clara, Calif., can answer in the affirmative to both of those questions. And so can employees at organizations as diverse as Hosting.com and the United Kingdom's Department for Work and Pensions.

LiveOps and the other organizations are among the employers who have firmly jumped on the gamification bandwagon as a way to liven up the workplace (no matter where it may be), and boost productivity, learning and innovation -- depending on the objective.

Gamification, which differs from the traditional use of video in the workplace, is based on using game mechanics and game theory to drive behavior by injecting some fun and a sense of community into the workplace.

"Gamification definitely is changing the way we manage our workforce," says Sanjay Mathur, a former partner at Accenture and vice president of product management at LiveOps, which uses its gamification strategy to help improve the performance of its 20,000 independent call-center contractors located throughout the United States.

"Gamification describes the broad trend of employing game mechanics to non-game environments such as innovation, marketing, training, employee performance, health and social change," says Brian Burke, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner, which predicts that, by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.

By 2014, says Burke, a gamified service for consumer-goods marketing and customer retention will become as important as Facebook, eBay or Amazon, and more than 70 percent of Global 2000 organizations will have at least one gamified application.

At LiveOps, Mathur says, the company began awarding agents in 2010 with virtual badges and points for tasks such as keeping calls brief, collecting positive customer feedback and other performance metrics. Leader boards then allow the agents to compare their achievements to others, in a fun, yet competitive, context. 
 
"In the past, with e-learning, there were some interesting uses of video, like 3-D rendering," says Mathur, noting that LiveOps uses tech elements from Bunchball, one of the leading vendors in the gamification space. "But with gamification, you are taking advantage of behaviors people do anyway. If you look at today's consumer, they are more tech savvy and experience many more virtual social interactions."

LiveOps applies gamification strategies via a portal called My Work Community to its agent/contractors, who handle calls seeking roadside assistance, technical support and general customer service.

"It gets them to look at what they are doing and how to improve. And it allows our contractors to see how they are performing against their peers," he says. "We are trying to motivate them to know where they stand and decide what they can do to improve. What's interesting for us is the alignment of gamification with performance." 

Beyond that, Mathur says, gamification is helping LiveOps build a culture around its contractor base, so they are engaged around the work they do and feel like part of a larger, successful team.

So far, success has been reflected by business results. Since implementing its gamification platform, several agents have reduced call time by 15 percent and sales have improved by between 8 percent to 12 percent among certain sales agents, says Mathur, adding that the company has seen an overall two percent increase in revenue.

Right now, more than 60 percent of its agent community participate (it's voluntary), and 90 percent of those contractor/agents check in weekly to compete in new challenges and review their performance, he says.

In another twist on the gamification concept, Spigit, a "crowd innovation" company based in Pleasanton, Calif., is helping companies power employee- and consumer-driven innovation. Spigit's application occurs on a number of platforms, including Facebook, Jive and SharePoint -- and Spigit also offers its own social-networking platform for internal, enterprise-wide application.  

"We specialize in solving the problem of innovation in the enterprise, getting employees and customers to help solve business challenges in new ways," says James Gardner, Spigit's resident gamification expert. "We use gamification techniques, but the focus is innovation."

Gardner says the key is to motivate employees to do things above and beyond their normal workload. Applying game dynamics, he says, helps motivate them to think outside the box, so to speak. Box is an apt metaphor, because the concept of Spigit grew out of the old suggestion box.

"Of course, the suggestion box never really worked," Gardner says. "The thing we do is make the idea extremely transparent and fun to work on. The crowd does it for the fun of it, but the results can be dramatic."

Dramatic is a good description of how Spigit worked for the U.K.'s Department for Work and Pensions. Using the Spigit platform, DWP created "Idea Street" to generate ideas from its workforce of 120,000. Idea Street is a social-collaboration platform with the addition of game mechanics, including points, leader boards and a "buzz index."

Within the first 18 months, Idea Street had approximately 4,500 users and had generated 1,400 ideas, 63 of which had gone forward to implementation. So far, the DWP has invested in Idea Street projects with returns totaling £21 million (about $33 million) in benefits.

Gardner says the primary motivation for employees is increased recognition, with the end game being the creation of an innovation-based community of employees and boosted savings.

"This happened by applying psychological techniques of game theory to get ideas, and also to do something with the best ideas," Gardner says. "Anyone can collect ideas, but doing something with them is the trick, and a much bigger challenge. You can use it to tackle large, strategic problems or small, incremental issues -- but actually acting on the ideas is key."

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Hosting.com, a provider of cloud hosting and recovery solutions in Denver, Colo., is using a gamification platform from Big Door, based in Seattle, to drive its training efforts.

Dave Arnold, training manager at Hosting.com, says the gamification technology has been embedded into the learning-management system, and the company awards points for actions taken within the company's training objectives. To inject fun into the award concept, the company uses a Harry Potter-based theme.

"We want it to be motivating, but also wanted to keep it lighthearted and fun," Arnold says. "The key to keeping this interesting is continued innovation, the need to create more levels, more rewards, and as a practitioner, the need to evolve the program."

So far, after only three weeks of use, Hosting.com has had 32 employees already earn the first "prize" it awarded, a special T-shirt. Arnold says the company expected to reach that level within two months.

On an individual level, one employee completed every required training module in the first four days, accumulating 1,567 points in the process.

"It really started out with a bang," he says, adding that by using Big Door-provided analytical tools the company saw a huge amount of activity the first week. While that activity has tapered off a bit, the total number of quizzes employees completed has jumped from 76 to 94 in September alone.

Ring Nishioka, COO at BigDoor, says, "It's common for employers to have online portals, but gamification goes beyond that to inject some real fun into processes that often lacked that element."

The company's platform, he says, will differ from company to company and culture to culture, but the overlying critical objective is to ensure the rewards resonate with the specific user group. In other words, while badges and points will motivate some employees, that may not work with everyone.

"It certainly can be fun, but for us, gamification is about driving loyalty and engagement using a game mechanic to generate those behaviors," Nishioka says. "We don't think this is a fad. Our parents had Green Stamps at the gas station, a successful example of the game mechanic, only now it's done online."

Most of all, he says, while gamification may have evolved out of the consumer or social-networking arenas, today it's very applicable in the workplace, especially with generations who grew up using social networks and online games.

"It's a logical extension of what people are already doing," he says. "Employers may want it to be gamified, but at the end of the day, they also want people engaged and the impact [to be] real."

LiveOps' Mathur says he can't foresee the gamification concept becoming the latest failed HR flavor of the month any time soon.

"As social technologies continue to penetrate our work and personal lives, these techniques will be even more relevant and used for a long time," he says. "I absolutely believe that gamification, or whatever it's called in the future, will stick around."

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