Over the past few years, gamification, the idea of using gaming elements in a business setting to help achieve a wide range of business goals, has gained popularity. In the realm of HR, this trend has some pretty significant implications. While it may be greatly beneficial to incorporate elements from game design into, for example, eLearning applications, it’s important to distinguish between adding specific game design elements that draw on the psychology of motivation and simply turning required work into a game.
When they are thoughtfully implemented, game design elements such as points, badges, leaderboards and difficulty levels can enhance the learning experience and increase the frequency and time spent on technology-based training. In these examples, effective gamification of a required task may encourage the mastery of content and skills in ways that traditional eLearning and other training methods may not.
Gamification and Maintaining Legitimacy
On the other hand, if the HR department applies gamification in a way that enables individuals to “game the system,” gaining substantive advantage over peers as a result, HR’s legitimacy will be irreparably damaged.
Leaderboards are another game design element that has been creeping into a variety of business functions. Microsoft used a combination of points and a leaderboard to galvanize its international workforce into an ad-hoc quality assurance team in one successful example of gamification.
Not all gamification efforts are equally successful. In one example I’m personally familiar with, a sales organization used a leaderboard that ranked all salespeople based on the dollar value of their confirmed sales. Some of the most competitive sales people were motivated by this, but many new hires and most of the solid middle-band performers found it to be extremely demoralizing. More importantly, it encouraged managers, whose compensation was also tied to the ranking of their sales people, to “throw out” anyone who didn’t rapidly move up the leaderboard. In addition to the negative effects this had on many sales people, another unfortunate side effect was the loss of stellar talent, who lacked the drive to aggressively compete individually yet may have excelled in a team-based selling model or made great sales support staff (always in high demand).
At TribeHR, we take the idea of gamification very seriously. While we recognize the value of building carefully considered game mechanics into our software (e.g. in the way we share recognition, continuous reviews, and team/peer goals), we hesitate to randomly toss in badges, points, etc. just to jump on the bandwagon. Our objective, when adding any game design element, is not to turn the primary work tasks into a game, but rather to use the game mechanics to encourage people to do the tasks. We approach the addition of such elements as an experiment, involving everyone in the discussion to minimize misalignment between our intentions and our outcomes.
As an example, in response to feedback from employees and customers, we have recently embarked on the development of another gaming element within our Social HR platform: badges which are awarded by colleagues for specific actions deemed worthy of recognition. These badges will add a fun visual element to TribeHR’s peer recognition and provide some friendly competition as employees track their accumulated badges and ranking on the related leaderboard. More importantly, they will further encourage employees to provide positive feedback and acknowledgement to each other on a regular basis—something we consider vital to our culture.
Some questions and discussions that have emerged in the planning process include:
- What activities or behaviors should warrant badges?
- What if it becomes a popularity contest, like Facebook, with employees now obsessing over collecting badges instead of friends and likes?
- How do we encourage broader recognition of people who may be less visible but who support the “superstars”?
- How do people feel about a Leaderboard? Does this kind of competition in the workplace increase engagement, or will it make people uncomfortable?
- Should people be able to “earn” badges on their own, or can they only be awarded by others?
- Will these badges play a role in performance reviews?
Although the feature is still a work in progress, some initial responses to these questions have emerged from the process:
- Culturally Supportive Activities: Those activities that support the company values and are consistent with the culture of the organization warrant a badge. For example, if superior customer service is a defined value, then going the extra mile to resolve a problem for a customer deserves a badge.
- Contained Ecosystem: Unlike Facebook or Twitter, the organization is a self-contained ecosystem. There are a finite number of people who can “like” or “follow” an employee (or in this case, give them a badge), so there is no motivation to simply go for numbers.
- Encouraging Recognition of Many: Building in the ability to recognize more than one co-worker when awarding a badge will encourage people to recognize everyone associated with a particular success; for example, including the prompt “who helped Sally earn this badge” into the process of awarding a badge and allowing multiple employees to be selected at one time.
- Not Competition, Feedback: Concerns about the competitive element of leaderboards were generally dismissed by tech-savvy employees who consider this type of real-time tracking and peer-to-peer feedback normal. In general, they agreed with Toby Beresford, CEO of Leaderboarded, who said:
“Leaderboards are an influence tool for the 21st century: they offer instant social proof and performance benchmarking for today’s staff. For employees who bring their own devices to work, inhabit multiple social networks and demand rapid feedback, the simple leaderboarded approach to gamification works.”
- Earning Versus Awarded: For this first iteration, we agreed that badges in TribeHR should work like Kudos. That is, when you see someone doing something worth recognizing, give them a badge. Just like Kudos, anyone in the organization can award a badge to anyone. Initially, the system will encourage everyone to catch each other doing something well, and take a minute to acknowledge that success with Kudos and/or a badge. Having said that, we are already discussing how earned badges might be added in future, which would allow motivated individuals to automatically earn badges for desired behaviors.
- Performance Reviews: For now, we’ve decided that badges will not be included in performance reviews, but will be pervasive and accessible via the API so they can be integrated into other systems.
This is just one example of the ways in which technology and the preferences of people raised in a digital world are combining to change the face of work. Not only are new types of work emerging, but also new ways of training for that work, new ways of interacting with our workplaces and co-workers, and new ways of measuring the work we do. And, as this face of work continues to change so dramatically, HR will have to offer tools and systems that keep pace, even if that means drawing on the world of games to optimize the world of work.
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 Werbach, K and Hunter, D. (2012). For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business. Wharton Digital Press: Philadelphia