Let's Play!

Increasingly, HR is using elements of game playing to motivate employees and change their attitudes about training.

Saturday, June 16, 2012
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Almost everyone loves games. Online training? Not so much.

The four-year-old Deloitte Leadership Academy, based in Sydney, Australia, is hoping to use the reasons for the first statement to ameliorate the problems inherent in the second.

The academy, tasked with providing executive-education programs for Deloitte consultants, did a bang-up job of collecting educational material and formatting it for virtually all mobile devices so consultants could turn downtime into learning opportunities. But the hoped-for enthusiasm for the service just wasn't there.

Says James Sanders, product and client manager at Deloitte Australia, "Training is not the first thing people naturally think of doing when they have time off. Usage [for mobile academy programs] was not nearly as high as we had hoped."

The company had to find a way to get consultants excited about taking courses. So it turned to a well-known behavioral fact: People like to accumulate awards. From Scout merit badges to "likes" on Facebook, people enjoy the game aspect of collecting visible kudos and moving upward through the ranks.

So, using software services from Badgeville, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based technology company, the academy began providing virtual onscreen awards for various behaviors. The process -- called gamification, because it uses many of the psychological factors that engage people as they play games -- is fast becoming a trend.

Washington-based Constellation Research predicts that, by the end of 2013, more than 50 percent of all social business initiatives -- projects involving many individuals through social media-type systems -- will include an enterprise gamification component. Stamford, Conn.-based consultant Gartner projects that enterprise systems will reach the 50 percent gamification threshold by 2015.

The academy's gamification program consists of 12 competencies such as managing learning teams, development of self and development of others. When users do certain predictable actions -- completing 50 percent of certain courses, following 10 other users on Twitter, commenting on a specific number of other users' comments -- they get a badge that represents that behavior.

Consultants can also receive badges for activities by other users, such as when 10 people comment on their posts. And just to spice things up a bit, there are a few badges for secret activities -- those for which consultants don't know ahead of time a badge will be awarded. These may pop up at any time like matching fruit in a slot machine.

The badges, which are awarded automatically by the system, can then be posted on LinkedIn and other social-media sites, providing bragging rights and possibly a career boost. The academy also provides a leaderboard that shows users' progress in completing activities rather than just those earning badges.

The academy is just now rolling out the system in a pilot. But Sanders says early feedback is very encouraging. "People are signing up for the badge system quickly after they are eligible for it," he says, "and the comments I've heard are very positive."

Badging and leaderboards are two forms of gamification now catching on in enterprise systems because of their potential to motivate people to play on and on, and to look forward to coming back for more.

"There are psychological factors in well-designed online games that involve the users so intensely that they want to keep playing and have fun while doing so," says Ray Wang, principal analyst and CEO at Constellation Research in Washington. "By analyzing those factors and replicating them in enterprise systems, we hope to encourage those behaviors that the company feels is important."

Gamification experts point out that people play games voluntarily, not because they are told to. That's evidence of a very high level of motivation, which HR would love to engender in corporate employees.

"We've known for a long time that many mobile users play games on their devices in their spare time. What if we could get them to have a similar experience when doing a job?" says Josh Bersin, CEO at Bersin & Associates, a membership-based HR research and advisory firm, based in Oakland, Calif.

At this point, enterprise gamification is still new and is just being tested at a few companies. But HR executives looking for ways to encourage positive behaviors could do well to understand the concepts and, possibly, to experiment with at least some basic gamification tactics.


Cohesion Catalyst

Gamification not only yields predictable results and measurable actions, it also, more importantly, engenders transparency. Users -- and everyone else -- see how they are doing relative to their peers through badges, leaderboards, levels, ranks or types of avatars.

While it can be used to motivate individuals, it is more often part of a group system, allowing people to compete both against themselves -- i.e., striving for their personal best -- and their peers. It provides peer recognition and a sense of corporate coherence, even for those who rarely communicate with others.

If any company needs the cohesion provided by gamification, it's LiveOps. Based in Santa Clara, Calif., the company provides contact-center applications and services to many organizations such as the Automobile Club of America.

But while end users have a single number to call for service, LiveOps' contact centers are far from centralized. They are staffed by hundreds of independent contractors working out of their U.S. homes. LiveOps staffers may work for multiple companies in half-hour shifts.

The isolation of these workers often left them uncertain about their status in the company. "It was very hard for people to gauge how well they were doing compared to people who have worked for a [LiveOps client] for a similar period of time and to see how quickly they were improving," says Sanjay Mathur, LiveOps vice president of product management.

The problem is compounded by the fact that each organization LiveOps works for has its own set of success parameters, many of which include multiple criteria. A sales organization may be focused on how many customers make a purchase, the average size of each sale and the results of the consumer survey. A service organization may want most problems solved during the first call and might also limit each call to less than five minutes.

In the past, LiveOps posted statistics that contractors could use to compare their performance to others. But it was hard to determine how important each criterion was. Contractors were also prone to try to match their performance with top achievers who may have worked for the company for many more years, creating unrealistic and discouraging goals for themselves.

Says Mathur, "We wanted to change behaviors using a light touch; to reward incremental improvements not just when they become top performers."

The company has implemented gamification by San Jose, Calif.-based Bunchball, which makes gaming engines. The LiveOps system automatically issues virtual awards based on multiple criteria. In some cases, the online awards lead to virtual rewards, such as the ability to create a personal avatar, or to real-life rewards, such as the right to apply for certain opportunities within LiveOps. But, in general, the award is its own reward. "Most of our people find it very exciting to see a new badge on their screen when they log in," Mathur says.

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While the results of the Bunchball project have not yet been tallied at LiveOps, Mathur says he has seen the time for the onboarding process, one of the tasks for which users get a badge, shrink substantially.

Customizing Awards

The Deloitte Leadership Academy and LiveOps carefully designed their gamification programs so badges and leaderboard positions are automatically applied at the completion of specific actions predetermined by the company.

Not all gamification implementations require such careful design work. For instance, Anne Benedict, senior vice president of talent management at Mediabrands in New York, says her organization simply gives all of its employees the ability to award badges. "The system is basically self-starting and self-sustaining," she says.

Using Rypple (recently acquired by in San Francisco) social-media products, Mediabrands' employees can give an online badge to anyone and for any reason such as creating a great presentation, playing an important role in meeting a group project goal or providing a lead to a customer.

While, in the past, this sort of assistance would have garnered a private "thank you" and, if the supervisor had taken notice, a positive note in an annual performance review, the user now gets immediate and very public recognition. Besides being visible to everyone, the badges accumulate on the Rypple page.

"Seeing the number of badges grow is a very rewarding experience," Benedict says.

So far, Mediabrands has created a few standard badges, such as one for excellent collaboration and another for thinking outside the box. But some users are allowed to create their own badges.

Eventually, the company may place rules on a few specific badges, such as allowing them to be awarded only by executives or limiting the number that any user can award. "We will probably have a hierarchy of badges, with some worth more than others," Benedict says.

Rajat Paharia, CEO of Bunchball, understands Mediabrands' challenge and agrees with its solution. He says companies implementing online badges and awards have to be careful not to trivialize them by making them too easy to get or too numerous. "Creating some special badges does solve that problem," Paharia says.

But, Paharia adds, there are other ways to increase the importance of badges. He says some companies allow employees to use the awards like frequent-flyer miles to gain privileges, which can range from being allowed to play a video game for 10 minutes to being able to take a cruise.

In addition, he recommends using the employees' accumulated awards as part of the annual performance review. "Employees should know how well they are doing throughout the year. If an employee amasses an above-average number of awards but gets a below-average performance review, something is wrong," he says.

While there are a number of considerations when creating a gamification system, when implemented strategically -- and with openness to course corrections and multiple iterations -- it can be highly motivating for virtually all employees at any level. Unlike many other new technologies, gamification acceptance isn't related to age, analysts say.

"Studies have shown that the elements of games that engage users are inter-generational," says Gabe Zichermann, the New York-based chair of the Gamification Summit and editor of Gamification.Co. "Even people who have never played a video game in their lives will find factors such as immediate feedback and achievement levels engaging."

While optimistic projections from analysts are very encouraging, it is probably too early to predict with any certainty the role gamification will play in enterprise systems. But unlike with some technologies that require an all-or-nothing approach, companies can choose which gamification factors to experiment with. And it is likely that many companies will opt to try at least a few.

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