The ‘gamification’ of human resources (Guest commentary)

Online games can boost employee engagement, productivity
By Ian Cook
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/25/2012

Anyone who has ever immersed herself in a game knows how compelling, rewarding and motivating the experience can be. Whether it’s a social game such as poker or an online story-based game, such as World of Warcraft, the experience appeals to some of the most powerful drivers of human behaviour.

The blending of our real and virtual environments has made it easier to introduce games into more aspects of our lives. For example, I regularly receive invitations to play sales games from airlines, cellphone providers and electronics retailers.

This process has acquired a name — “gamification.” According to Wikipedia, it’s “the use of game design techniquesand mechanics to solve problems and engage audiences.”

There is no doubt games are popular. Gaming has been one of the fastest growing business areas of the last 10 years. The industry is now twice the size of the recorded music industry, according a December 2011 report by the Economist.

So where else might the concepts of games and their effects on human behaviour be seen as valuable?

Several HR pundits — such as Josh Bersin, CEO of Bersin and Associates in Oakland, Calif., and Naomi Bloom, a Fort Myers, Fla.-based consultant — have proclaimed 2012 will be the year in which HR starts to undergo its own gamification process.

HR is constantly working on how to increase employee engagement, foster improved collaboration, enhance productivity and keep people focused on what can be repetitive or mundane tasks. There is a real potential for games to help deliver on these objectives.

Anyone who has played a well-designed game knows the rewards, challenges and overall experience can make you work hard, even to the point of losing track of time. Engaging employees through work that feels and responds like a game promises significant increases to productivity and retention.

The predictions of the use of games in HR are not purely based on concept, although most of the current commentary is more conceptual than practical. Several organizations have successfully deployed games in their HR processes and are seeing positive results.

Upstream, a provider of online games designed to support sales and marketing campaigns, has introduced a game to help it recruit marketing campaign managers. The game mirrors the challenges faced by someone filling the role of campaign manager and tests literary, numeracy and certain interpersonal skills. Participants who score well on the game are more likely to be good candidates for the role.

PeopleFluent, a provider of talent management software, is building gaming tools and processes into its whole suite of products. The first, called Talentwise, challenges participants to build a successful company by acquiring the right people, providing the right incentives and so on — think fantasy hockey for the business world.

Marriott is another organization that has looked to games to improve both its ability to attract good candidates and to select the best from the pool of applicants. In its game, participants run a hotel property.

A further example is a company called Badgeville. It specializes in handing out custom badges as rewards for anything you care to think of. When participants have enough badges, they can trade them in for tangible rewards.

The company started with a consumer loyalty focus and now says it is engaged with a number of large organizations looking to apply the idea to their workforces.

There are many ways badges can be collected, such as completing a task early, supporting a co-worker or coming up with an innovative suggestion. The benefits of this approach are instant rewards, rather than waiting for your annual appraisal and hoping your efforts are reflected in a pay raise.

Prediction is always a tricky business. For everything that is truly a game-changer, there are multiple fads that have come and gone.

In reflecting on some of the “gamification” that is underway, much of it is taking what was an analog process, such as an assessment centre, and turning it into a digital process, making it cheaper and more accessible online.

That said, the potential benefits from some of these games are attractive — the promise of more motivated, collaborative and productive staff is the quest for HR. Based on the potential of the concept and the buzz that has been generated, my guess is we will see a lot of innovation and gamification will be a wave to watch, or play, for 2012.

That said, I suspect we will see as many failures or flawed approaches as there are successes. As the Economist special report on gaming highlighted, building a blockbuster game is an expensive and risky business.

Ian Cook is director of research and learning for the British Columbia Human Resources Management Association (BC HRMA) in Vancouver. He can be reached at (604) 694-6938 or ijcook@bchrma.org.

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