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Strategy and a focus on outcomes can help organizations reap better rewards from gamification

By Melissa Campeau


A few years ago, U.S. automotive retail chain Pep Boys faced a challenge. Despite plenty of awareness programs, the company couldn’t get their safety and inventory loss numbers where they wanted them to be.

Around the same time, software giant SAP was grappling with how to encourage employees to carpool, in an effort to meet environmental goals and support employee socializing and bonding.

On the surface, these seem like two very different challenges. But the same principle – gamification – helped each organization make real progress. SAP introduced an app to match employees travelling in the same direction at the same time. Employees get points and recognition for carpooling, plus the chance to meet people from different parts of the business, including the CEO who regularly uses the app.

At Pep Boys, the company decided to try out a gamified training program that involves daily interaction (for short bursts of around 60 to 90 seconds). The company reached 95 per cent participation on the voluntary program and managed to reduce safety and incident claims by 45 per cent and shrinkage by 55 per cent.


Principles of gamification

Both companies employed gamification. While it’s not a new idea, there’s still some confusion around the word. Most importantly, gamification is not about playing a game. Generally, a game is created with the sole intent of entertaining. Gamification, on the other hand, applies game-like elements (things like a narrative, a scoreboard, co-operation to accomplish goals) to something else; maybe a wellness program or management course, for example. This “gamifies” the course or program with the intention of driving behaviour.

An online course might include quizzes or multiple-choice questions, a progress bar and levels of certification along the way. Or an office-wide fundraising challenge may show which departments are leading the way when it comes to donations. Gamification can take any number of forms and its principles can be applied to influence employee behaviour in a nearly limitless range of areas.


Why it works

When it’s done well, gamification works because it taps into what motivates people. According to Gamification by Design co-author Gabe Zichermann, “Gamification is 75 per cent psychology and 25 per cent technology.” In fact, recent research has tied effective gamification to the main tenants of self-determination theory.

“In self-determination theory there are three elements that lead to motivation: autonomy, mastery and relatedness or the social aspect of it,” said Karl Kapp, director, Institute for Interactive Technologies, Professor of Instructional Technology, Bloomsburg University and author of The Gamification of Learning and Instruction.

“Gamification says we can use game elements to drive these three areas,” said Kapp. First, autonomy: People engage freely in the game and often learn or progress at their own pace. Next, they earn badges or see progress reflected on leaderboards, which acknowledges mastery. And generally, gamification is social in nature, so relatedness is covered quite naturally.


Early days

In the early years of this decade, organizations gravitated to testing the gamification waters in a few specific areas. “Originally, gamification was used mainly in the sales training area,” said Kapp. “This was based on the belief that people like to be competitive, people like to see their names on leaderboards, and there was a focus on the competitive element, in particular.”

Early adopters also saw opportunities to improve employee wellness. “Some of the first applications of gamification involved finding ways to motivate employees to complete online programs or engage in friendly competition against each other to improve their fitness and health,” said Jeanne Meister, partner, Future Workplace.


Wide range of applications

Over the past several years, many employers have refined and improved their approaches, and the range of applications has grown considerably.

Gamification can be used to benefit recruiting, for example. Many organizations gamify the application process to engage applicants with the brand and reward them with acknowledgement – and even perks – as they complete the required steps. Internally, organizations can encourage employees to take an active role in talent acquisition by acknowledging the top referrers of each month, quarter or year.

Onboarding, too, can be enhanced by gamification. A new and overwhelmed employee might welcome the idea of a friendly game-like quiz about where the break room is, where to store a bicycle and so on.

Kapp notes one company in particular that’s made smart use of gamification to improve retention. “This company hires university students in January, but they don’t start work until June, so they had been struggling with attrition between those dates,” said Kapp. “To address the problem, they started using a gamified onboarding program to help build camaraderie and commitment to the company, even before those students had started work.” He said, “They found it really paid off, with a significant reduction in attrition.”

Training tends to fit quite well with gamification, even in areas you might not anticipate. Deloitte, for example, used a gamified approach to help motivate its rising stars to make use of an online library full of videos and other resources on leadership. The company gamified the library with leaderboards, progress bars and badges, and saw use of the site increase dramatically.

Gamification can also help encourage employees to take care of more mundane – but still important – tasks. For example, a few years ago SAP was searching for ways to encourage sales staff to update their records more often. “To help solve the problem, the company created a game in which sales reps competed against each other, answered questions and earned badges, with results posted on a virtual leaderboard,” said Meister. The company saw immediate results, which extended well beyond better tracking of data. “The gamification gave employees a way to engage with others in the same job family and learn something along the way, too.”


Gamification and collaboration

If gamification often makes the most of employees’ competitive natures, it’s still not necessarily at odds with collaboration. “I’ve seen companies where teams that are competing against each other are built from individuals across many silos,” said Kapp. “I’ve seen companies put someone from accounting in with HR, in with marketing in with somebody from operations and they’ll all work together and collaborate together.”

Kapp points to a growing interest in collaborative board games where teams have to work together to achieve their goal. “The first round of gamification was competition; sales people loved it. Then we got into badges and so on,” said Kapp. “I now see a slow evolution of a number of gamified platforms providing collaborative experiences for the individuals, so they have to work together to achieve a goal.”


A gold mine of information

Gamification produces data that HR can potentially use, too. For example, such information as what types of voluntary training an employee has engaged in or how effectively they’ve collaborated over the course of the year can be part of the overall package that informs training recommendations, performance reviews and so on.

HR can also tap into top performers’ data to help set the bar for others in the organization. “It’s no secret that peer mentorship is a powerful motivator that drives employees to want to succeed,” said Priyanka Singh, senior HR talent development/HR analytics at Global FIS.

She notes that when peers see their colleagues earning praise and climbing the ladder, they want to know how they can achieve the same results. If, for example, a top member of the sales team takes new training courses regularly, keeps a log of new leads and always follows up on them and routinely hands in expense reports quickly – all of which has been recorded transparently through gamification – HR can take that data and use it as the basis for a ‘mission.’ “HR can create transparent, mission-based career paths that show the steps employees have taken to ‘level up’ in the organization,” said Singh.

“By showcasing this behaviour in a gamified platform, other employees can see what it takes to become the top salesperson,” said Singh. “It’s a breadcrumb path to the top.”


A word of caution

Gamification isn’t foolproof, however. Like anything, it can go wrong if it’s not implemented with care.

That was the case a few years ago with U.S. pharmaceutical company Omnicare. The company was attempting to address its long helpdesk wait times. To improve employee performance, the company added a leaderboard with the offer of cash incentives for workers who showed the most efficiency.

The gamification, however, resulted in longer wait times and a spike in turnover. Employees felt watched by ‘Big Brother’ rather than motivated by the public gaming statistics. The company then tweaked the system to focus rewards on achievement rather than simply on the speed of the calls, with a much better outcome.

This kind of misfire isn’t isolated. A 2012 report by Gartner predicted 80 per cent of gamified enterprise applications would fail to meet their business objectives.

“I think this happens when organizations don’t do enough due diligence to understand specifically what their target audience needs,” said Meister. “People can get enamoured with the idea of badges, points and levels, and neglect the strategy part. They really need to step up and consider what their needs and goals are, and what behaviours they’re trying to change.”

“Most failures I’ve seen with gamification are with implementation,” said Kapp. “For example, leaderboards: they’re fantastic for the top 10 people on the leaderboard. For the 11th person, it’s not quite as exciting. And for the 100th person, it’s actually demotivating.” Know your organizational culture, says Kapp, to understand how best to overcome that challenge. “It might be better to implement a group or team leaderboard; nobody wants to let the group down, so they’ll be more likely to participate.”

With leaderboards, too, Meister suggests refreshing them regularly, even weekly, so every employee has a renewed chance at doing well or even taking over the lead.

It’s important to tailor gamification to an organization’s culture, as well. “I know of one company – a consultancy – where every second of the employees’ time had to be billable,” said Kapp. “They tried to implement a gamified approach, but if a manager walked by and saw an employee doing a gamified thing, that wouldn’t fly.”

Knowing what makes particular groups of people tick is key. “For example, if you’re working with a bunch of engineers, I would use more problem-based gamification,” said Kapp. “So, ‘Here’s a problem, and let’s see if you can find the solution.’” He said, “With this group, they wouldn’t want anything too game-like or too silly.” On the other hand, if you’re in a retail environment and working mainly with 18 to 25-year olds, then a completely different approach – maybe one with characters and [a] story element – could work best.


Two main types of gamification

Another caution when planning gamification: Understand the nature of the information you want to share and choose the best vehicle for getting it across.

“There are two types of gamification,” said Kapp. “One is what I call structural gamification, like the example of Deloitte and their efforts to support leadership training resources.” In this type of gamification, an organization builds a structure around content, without altering it. They may offer progress bars as employees read through the material, for example, but content in this format is king. “If you have really bad content and build gamification around it, it’s not going to help you at all. People are going to check out because they know bad content,” said Kapp.

The other approach, says Kapp, is content gamification, when an organization takes content and changes it to be more game-like. “For example, instead of starting with learning objectives, you start with a challenge or dilemma that someone has to solve,” said Kapp. “Adding these elements makes the content more game-like but doesn’t turn the content into a game. It simply provides context or activities which are used within games and adds them to the content being taught.”

Each is useful, for different scenarios. “If you’re quizzing me about what are the five levels of leadership and I answer very quickly and get on the leaderboard and get a badge for that, that’s not going to make me a better leader,” said Kapp. “But if you put me into content gamification where you give me a leadership situation every day, and every day I have to comment on that or talk to my colleagues on that and we have to come up with a strategy that we have to use, that kind of gamification can be more meaningful for softer skills, those skills that are not technical.”


Minding the price tag

While gamification’s impact can be significant, if done well, the price doesn’t have to be. “There are plug-ins for WordPress that people can use for badges and leaderboards,” said Kapp. “And if you think of game elements like story and character, you can put those into the design of what you’re doing relatively inexpensively.” For example, suggests Kapp, a learning module might skip objectives at its start in favour of a story that might read: ‘You are now in the role of supervisor and an employee tells you he thinks someone on the team is stealing from the company. What do you do?’

“Instead of a didactic list of instructions, it becomes more an exploratory mystery to solve,” said Kapp. “Organizations can do that relatively inexpensively.”

As well, there’s been a shift in the past several years away from organizations seeking full gamification solutions toward simply baking gamification into many different platforms. “At our company, we’ve developed a new online course for HR practitioners about artificial intelligence [called Using AI 4 HR],” said Meister. “To ensure there were gamification elements in it, we didn’t then go out and hire a gamification provider, on top of a platform provider. We asked the platform provider to add a gamification feature to what they were already doing.”

That kind of holistic thinking – layering gamified elements into all different sorts of initiatives, even the unexpected ones – is likely the future of gamification in the workplace. Big picture thinking, plus a healthy dose of strategizing, can impact how effective those future initiatives might be. “Determine what type of gamification you envision and what business outcomes you’re trying to drive,” said Kapp. “Nail down those two things and you’ll be a lot closer to achieving your goal.”



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