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Next-Generation HR

Up until now, many HR executives may have considered iPods, online games and blogs as distractions from "real work." However, some companies are finding they are invaluable for recruiting and training.

Monday, January 8, 2007
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Deloitte is playing games with its future employees.

New York-based Deloitte & Touche USA offers a curriculum for high school students entitled "Business Smarts." The concluding exercise, called "The Virtual Team Challenge," is a competitive, accounting-based video game. That's video game, as in the pastime that usually falls much more into the realm of play than of work. Nonetheless, the game has been so successful in getting teens interested in pursuing accounting careers at Deloitte that the company has decided to build the game out into a larger, more involved simulation.

This is not inexpensive, and ROI is difficult to calculate. But the cost is well justified in the eyes of Stan Smith, Deloitte's national director of Next Generation Initiatives, a group started in 2001 to help the company lure new generations of workers to its ranks.

"The need was best expressed to me by a focus group participant who said, 'You need to meet us where we live -- which is in simulations and games -- because that's where we spend our time, and that's how we'll get to know who you are,' " says Smith.

While some baby boomers may puzzle over the logic of presenting elements of work via a medium that looks like play, the truth is plain to Smith: This is not entertainment for the sake of entertainment. It's how these kids learn; it's how their brains have been trained to think.

If playing video games, bantering on blogs (Web logs) and using iPods strikes you as a suspicious use of company time, you're not alone. Nonetheless, innovative companies are beginning to explore all three. iPods can be used to deliver audio and video training to employees who are on the road. Video games, embedded with lessons, can turn what could otherwise be dull, static training into enjoyable and interactive learning sessions.

Blogs can help recruiters effectively "soft sell" some of the best and most proactive candidates out there. Are these approaches a bit different? Yes. Are they effective? Time will tell, but the answer so far seems to be, "Most definitely."

Game On!

"What the iPod, the blog and the video game all have in common is that they really speak the language of the new generation of employees," says Scott Randall, president of BrandGames. The New York-based company, which developed Deloitte's original Virtual Team Challenge and is developing the expanded version for rollout in early 2007, boasts a client list that includes Merrill Lynch, PepsiCo and the National Football League.

"Speaking their language" is ultimately about engagement. What good is e-learning, says Randall, if a library of data is sitting unused and unread? So what if games look like play? If they get people involved, then at least those people are paying attention.

"Think about just the idea that your workforce is engaged in your training," says Randall. "How many executives can honestly say that?"

Deloitte's game is played in teams by high school classes. It's a vivid simulation in which teams are given the task of organizing a rock concert that will be used to raise money for the United Way. Students are charged with selecting vendors, selling tickets, getting concessions and choosing the band. They have to track the money and negotiate various business dealings, just as they would if they were working at Deloitte for real.

"A simulation allows for a real-life situation [in which] people have actual choices to make, and they learn from their choices," says Smith. "I think it behooves us to show that there is a serious purpose to these games -- a business purpose -- and that information is being transmitted in a way that it really hasn't been before."

BrandGames creates most of its games de novo as custom solutions to a company's individual problems and needs. The cost of these custom games starts in the six figures, and the bad news for HR is that lack of a hard ROI may make it as hard a sell to the CEO as are most educational programs. According to BrandGames' Randall, the value of the simulations is that they paint a realistic picture of what the company is truly like.

"It's too expensive to bring the wrong people in," says Randall. "It costs two and a half times an employee's salary to get rid of them if they don't fit. This isn't all just about how many widgets we can sell. It's about organizational efficiency."

Wherever, Whenever

Efficiency -- particularly of time -- is a major selling point for iPod technology as well. While Apple's iPod is best known as a trendy music player, the widespread availability of mp3-format audiobooks has allowed the iPod to trump the car cassette deck or CD player as the best way to listen to educational audio programs while traveling. The advent of the video iPod has only expanded this ability.

"The iPod makes information extensible, so I don't have to be at my desk," says Pete Hammett, director of the Client and Assessment Services Group at the Center for Creative Leadership, a nonprofit educational institution based in Greensboro, N.C. "If I'm on the road, if I'm traveling, if I'm at home, it's just a terrific way to make the material available when I have the time."

And for exactly that reason -- infusions of information when time is available -- CCL is looking to implement an iPod-delivered educational product provided by Chicago-based Pearson Performance Solutions called "50 Lessons," a library of more than 500 three- to five-minute video "nuggets of wisdom" from C-level executives of companies such as Domino's Pizza and Williams-Sonoma.

David Fabianski, president of Pearson Performance Solutions, says he uses the product himself, citing a time while traveling that he sat in his hotel room for a brief video pep talk by Domino's Chairman and CEO David Brandon. Because 50 Lessons is also available via the Web, he could have watched the video in his office, but the beauty of the iPod is that it allows busy executives (the target audience of 50 Lessons) to make use of time that would otherwise be wasted.

Hammett says there has been little resistance to iPods, despite the fact that they look like entertainment devices. "We're not seeing a tremendous push-back from the more senior executives. Even those who might have a bit of up-learning to do are appreciative of the fact that they were exposed to some technology that, quite frankly, they need to be exposed to because that's where the world is going."

Ultimately, Fabianski adds, what's appreciated is the ability to learn the material. Resistance to iPod-delivered education loses a lot of momentum the minute an executive is able to view Lessons on her iPod while in a cab that she would not have had time for in the office.

"I've had individuals in my organization who have made major, fundamental errors in managing a client relationship, and that client is no longer with Pearson," says Fabianski. If a short iPod video viewed during a flight allowed someone to learn from the mistakes of another exec instead of his own, would that client still be on board? Perhaps. Prevent a mistake here, save a client there, and the return seems promising, if hard to quantify.

Pearson's video iPods come pre-loaded with 50 Lessons at a cost of $500 apiece (the subscription price for the Web-based version of 50 Lessons starts at around $20,000 per company). Another option for companies is to buy normal iPods and load them up with content.

This latter approach is more extensible, opening "out-of-the-office" learning into areas such as language instruction, business know-how, motivational courses and so on. If a group suddenly needed to learn Spanish, they could load their iPods with Spanish Berlitz courses. And if the company then expanded into Austria, the same iPods could be loaded with German courses. Video iPods currently retail from Apple for about $250 to $350, with volume pricing available.

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Blogs By Experts

One real advantage to another new HR trend -- recruiting blogs -- is that it's easy to start slow, with a minimum of cost. Blogs can be started for free at sites such as Blogger.com. Blogging got its start as folks around the Net decided to begin recording their thoughts on everything from politics to gardening and linking to other sites they considered compelling, but the upsurge of industry blogs, written by specialists at individual companies, has led to a whole new way of recruiting.

"Whoever it is who's writing a blog will quickly become recognized as an industry expert," says Steven Rothberg, president of CollegeRecruiter.com in Minneapolis. "This is going to lead to them being able to recruit more people and better people."

Organizations can start a company blog, but Rothberg says this is rare. It's more common for proactive, individual recruiters to start their own blogs (with or without official sanction from the company) to discuss their respective industries. Candidates who share their interest will -- if the blog is popular and oft-linked-to -- run across it while searching for information. It's a natural leap for them to look to their favorite blogger when they're ready for a job in the field.

"What blogging is great for is engaging candidates who have lots of choices -- the best candidates, the stars," says Rothberg. "They are not just going to work for any organization that offers them a position and a paycheck. They want to work for the best."

Jason Warner, director of North American recruiting for Seattle-based Starbucks, is a good case study. Warner, who hires recruiters, has a philosophical take on recruiting and a genuine interest in talent acquisition. The blog, located at meritocracy.net, isn't a Starbucks venture. It's a Jason Warner venture, filled with his personal takes on the issues surrounding recruiting.

"The stuff I'm blogging about is not aimed at the fat part of the recruiting industry -- the 'bell curve' of topical discussions," says Warner. "For example, I don't really want to talk about how 'employee referrals are one of the best sources of talent.' It's so tactical and so embedded as a topic. What I want to talk about are things like organizational transparency. What are the implications of knowing way more about a candidate? What are the implications of them knowing way more about us?"

The answer to this question seems clear, as the blog's exposure sometimes puts Warner in the sights of the candidates who come to see him.

"I've interviewed candidates who have come in having read my blog, or having read things that were written about me on the Internet," he says.

Warner doesn't necessarily think of his blog as a way to find new talent. The objective of writing is not to summon candidates to his office. Instead of corporate-speak, the blog reflects his personal style, containing such tidbits as the metaphorical connection between football-passer ratings and organizational efficiency. Indeed, most successful blogs convey an informal, down-to-earth feel, allowing candidates to see the real person and to find out what he or she believes. Despite all of this, the business advantages remain.

"At some point," says Warner, "I suspect I'm going to have a captive audience of fairly sophisticated recruiters reading my blog on a regular basis, and I think that might have value to me as I go to hire recruiters."

Ultimately, all of these technologies boil down to finding new and, hopefully, interesting ways to convey information -- to engage employees or recruits. It's not about iPods, or blogs or video games.

"Technology is an enabler," says Pearson's Fabianski, adding that it's still the message that's important, and that new technology simply offers new ways to spread that message. "Old ways are not necessarily going to work in a new era."

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