Monday, March 11, 2013

Don't Game your Employees

I want to talk about a 12-letter word that really drives me crazy.  It’s the buzzword of the year: Gamification. Gamification was coined by Nick Pelling in 2002, according to Wikipedia.  What does this word mean, and is it really the way of the future? Or has it jumped the shark?

Gamification, as defined by Wikipedia as "Gamification is the use of game-thinking and game mechanics in a non-game context in order to engage users and solve problems. Gamification is used in applications and processes to improve user engagement, ROI, data quality, timeliness, and learning."

How exactly does Gamification improve engagements? Sales teams have always used a form of Gamification—they call it sales incentives, but let’s not be nitpicky. Yes, sales incentives are a nice goal or target, but money, vacations, cars? At a certain point the incentive desire runs out. Staying employed however never goes out of style.

Picture yourself working for a large company that has offices around the world. You love your job and your company (stop laughing), and yet you find yourself going through the motions of your day-to-day work. You do your job well, and customers love you, and your blog is top notch. What does the company offer you to keep you interested? Maybe they promote you but there is no game in that (well, there is, but let’s not talk about politics).

What would you suggest they do to keep you engaged? And what if your company has 10,000 or 100,000 people in it? Do you think HR can keep up with the individual Gamification-type incentives for each person? Some companies have found a way to reward everyone along the way, but blanket “gifts” are not the same as ones deserved by individuals. But this is the crux: what if you don’t care? Gamification doesn’t necessarily succeed in improving this user's engagement.

Gamification: the way of the future?
I am not so sure that Gamification really works in other areas either. Martin Keen from the great IBM Redbooks organization recently wrote on this blog how his view of Gamification can make you do almost anything, but I take the opposite view.

My view is shared by Jane McGonigal, who recently spoke at the IBM Connect 2013 event in Orlando. McGonigal, according to Wikipedia, “has distanced her work from the label Gamification, listing rewards outside of gameplay as the central idea of Gamification and distinguishing game applications where the gameplay itself is the reward under the term ‘gameful design.’”

Playing a game, and doing so until you beat it, may make you feel great. We all do this at some point, but then what if we do not? It took my son three years to beat my high score on our pinball machine, but do I now have a need to beat his score? Not really, because maybe I am not that competitive. This is my point: Gamification may not work in the ways expected because your staff or your customers may not care about your Gamification. They may care only if there is a truly valuable prize at the end. PS - my son asks me daily when will I play again and beat his score.

Can Gamification work for someone who is not interested in winning or lacks a competitive drive? Klout tries to encourage people to be more active in social media. Their system is in my opinion not valid, let alone even based on a practical algorithm, because it measures your social ability. What if you just use LinkedIn, for instance, as much as others use Twitter or Facebook? You lose, or have a low Klout score, so there are no perks for you.  What if you take vacation for two weeks and do not login anywhere or anytime?

In business, I believe feedback is actually more important than Gamification in providing incentive for workers. Unlike say a sporting game, in the workplace you usually don’t have the option to do a task over or try again. If I win or lose it makes no difference in the grand scheme of the company or my bonus. While I enjoy some competitive situations, what I like to see from a company is better training and development of employees. Useful feedback trumps Gamification for me.

What if I am a Type A personality for only a few items in life instead of everything? Are you trying to use Ggamification to change habits or get check boxes ticked off on your goals for 2013? I made everyone write a blog post, do a youtube video and open a Linkedin account, there we got social. Check.
Gamification to develop skills

I don’t think gamification works well for skill development either. You can pay for training, set up an online learning system and watch everyone’s progress to completion. Hopefully the employees actually watch it and don’t just answer the questions at the end because they were written for easy passing. Certification tests can be cruel or they can be easy—but in either case what you get at the end if you pass is usually a digital certificate to print. Or, maybe a bonus if your company does that type of reward for the effort.  What should you get? I don’t know, but something more rewarding than that. (We should put this one up for crowdsourcing, I bet we could get some great ideas. If you think crowdsourcing works, this is possibly another blog post topic someday.)

Since most people are sheep and follow their leaders or do what they are told, we can’t fault the companies for trying to impose Gamification to incentivize them. However, for those of us who are on the fringe and are more vociferous and less easy to manage, we may need a stronger level of Gamification. Reining us in will cut against the grain, but letting us run amok may not work either. But as long as we are producing, bringing in more sales or views to our blog posts, the only game in town is our jobs, I guess.

Want to use gamification with better design to enhance your applications? Brian Burke, research vice president at Gartner, predicts that by 2014, 80 per cent of current gamified applications will fail to meet business objectives primarily because of poor design:

“The challenge facing project managers and sponsors responsible for gamification initiatives is the lack of game design talent to apply to gamification projects. Poor game design is one of the key failings of many gamified applications today.”

And I agree wholeheartedly. If you run a sales game, are the only people that can win in sales? What about your customer support reps who keep those customers happy? What do you do to help them? A virtual badge? I don’t think so. Plan your games corporate wide, but be realistic, so anyone can win and be a part of it.

I do what I do because I enjoy it; no Gamification comes into play or likely would if I was exposed to it. If you need to incentivize me, the Gamification reward should include a free trip to IBM Connect in Orlando in January. For that I would be game to play.


  1. Gamification does work for things you want to do. I works as feedback loop (think Endomondo, RunKeeper, Fitbit etc.) I do agree it won't work for things you don't care for. The gray area: things you personally don't care for, but you have accepted as "survival necessary" (e.g. meeting a goal in your corporate balanced score card like # of customer visits - where you actually only care about $$ - this is sales after all).
    The big danger IMHO is to start abusing gamification for micro-management and to push people further and further - see the infamous M$ ranking system. The temptation is great. We'll see

  2. Point taken regarding sales, but that is incentive, not gamification, to me at least.
    Feedback loop, interesting idea, I don't think of it as gamification, but I can see that angle.

  3. Gamification is in so many things, from store loyalty cards to employee of th emonth. if a simple hall of fame or prestigous prize such as employee of the month focuses people on their jobs and improving weaknesses it is worth considering.

  4. Funny how so many view sales and gamification. It does not work that way.
    Rewards, like public recognition, may be gained by an incentive which you can call gamification but I fail to see how that is an incentive for everyone. In a perfect world, we have our jobs, we do them exceptionally well until we hit the tipping point and that is no longer the case.
    Once we hit that point, and I argue silly sales gimmicks hit this barrier quickly, you need another game and then another one. Horrible solution when instilling company values and hiring properly would not require such games at the office.
    Your employees are worth so much more.

  5. You make the point that "In business, I believe feedback is actually more important than Gamification in providing incentive for workers." which I completely agree with. However, not many people get the feedback they want or need and management isn't always ready to accept that they are lacking in those skills. If the core culture and communication are broken, adding gamification to your environment isn't going to fix anything.

    I'm currently reading McGonigal's book right now and a common theme is that we aren't getting the feedback and satisfaction from our everyday lives so we turn to games to fill the void. Some companies could be turning to gamification because its the hot topic right now but others could be looking at it as a way to fix what's broken within their own company.

  6. Abby, Thanks for reading and commenting. I agree of course with your 1st paragraph.
    I would venture, for some, if I substitute building a deck on your house, restoring a car or baking loafs of bread or cakes and replace those for Gamification it would work just as well.
    My point is we don't crave feedback,we crave something new and unique and different. People I think crave creativity.
    My son instead off throwing out his toys when they stop working, takes them apart to fix them. Not because I do or told him, he wants to learn and see more.
    His friends have no idea about tools, wiring or anything.
    He likes video games too, what 9yr old doesn't, but he doesn't play it for a digital pat on the back.

    Real life is hard, people escape to games.

  7. I'm drawn to this point: "in the workplace you usually don’t have the option to do a task over or try again"

    Well, what if you did? What if part of Gamification were a reset button that rewarded experimentation? One of the challenges of real life vs. games is that there's no reset in real life, but why isn't there? At least in social media, if you could totally withdraw something you put forth (perhaps with the agreement of all those that responded -- or at least a majority thereof) then social life could have a reset button. And this in turn might engender a willingness to experiment.

    I realize I might be reading too much into your point, but if you agree with me, I think it's an enormously valuable path to pursue.

  8. Abby took the words right out of my mouth. I consider gamification to be the new "team building", except focused on the individual: fostering competition instead of collaboration. The companies where I've felt the most successful had occasional offsite team activities because we had a good team rapport, not because we didn't. Conversely, I've endured numerous team building exercises that seemed to be a management cop-out: unable (or unwilling) to effectively foster teamwork on an ongoing basis within the workplace, they would hire a third party for a day in the hopes that they could make us a real team in a matter of hours. In my experience, that never works.

    So if an organization introduces gamification as a cheap and / or easy substitute for hiring and nurturing employees who are skilled, knowledgeable, and passionate, it will fail. The employees who would most gain from true leadership and incentivization are likely to view these efforts as "cheesy", while those who will embrace it fully will probably become less productive, not more, at their actual job duties.

    That said, I'm intrigued by Nathan's idea, or maybe a variation upon it: a business simulator, where employees could model strategies, play out different scenarios, get feedback on likely outcomes, consequences, etc.... if this fed into a system that tracked actual business outcomes, then you could tie real, tangible rewards to employees' investment in modeling strategies instead of simply trying an idea before it had been fully examined. Hm... okay, now I really want to write something like this, although I can't decide whether to call it "Mulligan" or "Holodeck".

  9. Nathan,
    I agree with you, the lack of a reset button for real life is a problem for most people. Social aspects of real life, we all have things we would do differently.
    Social media, you could pull it back and delete it, but the internet never forgets and so it lives on someplace even if you do not want it to.
    Failure is a good thing, but one has to have the belief that failure is a step towards success. Many people stop at the first failure, some more get past the first few, but only a handful get through to the other side and become successful.
    Is that gamification or sheer will to win/live/succeed?

    Without necessity there would be no inventions. Without people of inquisitiveness we would not have electricity, telephones, cars and so much more.

  10. Tim, I share your thoughts on the lack of team building exercises and some of the best times were when we as a team would get out together because we knew ourselves.

    When you have a new team something needs to be done to help everyone understand each other better. Not an offsite per se.

    You are describing the Wall Street way of running various formulas and tests to see what if scenarios.

    If in review of actions, a manager can provide feedback and that in turn changes ones activities that would be helpful. But is it Gamification, I don't think so. But this may be a semantic difference.

  11. "Are you trying to use Ggamification to change habits or get check boxes ticked off on your goals for 2013? I made everyone write a blog post, do a youtube video and open a Linkedin account, there we got social. Check."

    This is the problem I see. It's a buzzword that some try to apply as a way to push an agenda.

    Tim's first 2 paragraphs echo my thoughts as well.