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Applying Gamification in the Workplace

Wikipedia defines gamification as the use of game mechanics and game design techniques in non-game contexts. It applies to non-game applications and processes, in order to encourage people to adopt them, or to influence how they are used. It makes technology use more exciting and engaging, and encourages users to engage in desired behaviors with fruitful consequences to the environment where these techniques and processes are being deployed.

Many years ago, I took a series of courses at Cal Tech in Pasadena at the School of Industrial Relations. One of the courses was applying tools to encourage teamwork and participation. Thereafter, I have attended field trips in organizations in strategic off-sites where we had to do rope walking, free fall, climbing bamboo structures strung together to retrieve flags, etc. Thus, in those days – we applied sports and board games to fuel a shared success environment. Now things have become more technology oriented, and we have thus seamlessly transitioned to some extent from those environments to consumer web based experiences. This does not suggest that the other alternatives are less rewarding; they draw upon other types of triggers but gamification through technology is more accessible and generally less expensive with less overhead in the long run.

 

What are the four key elements in Gamification?

Games generally tend to have four elements that are closely intertwined. Absent any of these four elements and the jury would be out on whether the application could suitably be considered gamified. Clearly, when these elements are being applied to non-gaming contexts, you will find that some of these elements are more watered down or cruder representation of game design principles or applications to actual game play environments. Regardless, all of these elements are necessary conditions that must come into play.

1.Narratives

Games have narratives. They must be able to tell a story. They must place the player or user in a context, make them aware of the context, create a temporal dimension of a past, present and future and provide a theme or a set of themes that the players pursue.

2.Game Mechanics

These constitute the provision of tools and use cases that create PvP (Player vs. Player) or PvE (Player vs. Environment) experience. Common tools like teleporting, cockpit load (number of player controls), in-game user interaction, human-computer interaction, etc. come into play. The mechanics must aptly support the narrative.

3.Aesthetics

People look for rich experiences. In MMORPG, the aesthetics are extremely rich and immersive. In gamified applications, it need not be so. Regardless, users have continued to raise the bar on aesthetics and richness of media to support their interaction. So the trend toward aesthetics will continue, albeit at a lower benchmark than would be in the extreme case of a high quality MMORPG game.

4.Rewards

Finally, games have to have a purpose. The narratives have to have a light at the end of the tunnel. There is a carrot and stick principle in game design. It is a very important component to either persuade people to behave or not behave in a certain manner. Rewards are vanity points awarded for achieving goals that are user-driven or context driven. Either way, it is and will continue to remain the key element in game design.

The myth of rewards!

In one my earlier blogs, I laid out the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. This has bearing on the concept of rewards and recognition in the workplace. You can find the details in my blog – “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Impact on Employee Engagement”. (https://linkedstarsblog.com/2012/10/16/intrinsic-and-extrinsic-motivation-impact-on-employee-engagement/

Designing an application with rewards to fuel engagement in the workplace is a good idea. But rewards have to follow a narrative, a storyline. For example, an application that simply awards points and badges based on transactions without a narrative cannot be considered an application that applies all of the elements of the gamification process. It only addresses one element, and in fact, for some it is the least important component. When one focuses the product design around this single component, I contend that you are not really gamifying; you are in fact drawing upon some temporary impulses that are not sustainable and enduring.

Hence, the narrative and craftsmanship is quite critical to gamifying an application and making it relevant for employees in the workplace.

One must adopt the right mix of the gaming elements to ultimately create ends such as stickiness, re-engagement, and deeper levels of interaction, fun, challenge, promoting options to cooperate and also compete, and broadcast success.

Scales:

So now we arrive at assessing the scales to benchmark each of those ends. I am being particular by not calling these tools, since tools are to support mechanics whereas scales are manifestations of an end result. For practical design and implementation purposes, here are a few scales that are common across all games, some of which are quite relevant for gamification in an employee setting. Some of the more common scales to assess or broadcast success are:

1) Leaderboards

2) Achievement levels and measures of achievements

3) Challenges between users

4) Progress Bars

5) Reward Points that have redemption value

To reiterate, for the final outcomes associated with the scales to be meaningful, the narrative is extremely important. Storyboarding the experience in various settings is the key to designing relevant gamified applications. In fact, applying the appropriate narratives concerning particular industries is a very interesting architectural initiative that can be pursued.

Thus, in the case of workplace engagement, if the nuances of the work and the industry were emulated around themes with contextual narratives, it would truly make for wonderful experiences that ignite employee engagement while furthering corporate objectives.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Impact on Employee Engagement

The difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation lays the groundwork to reflect the qualitative dimension of motivation. The distinction is critical, in that – understanding it would serve the purpose of laying out the appropriate organizational architecture that would encourage the proper motivation that would drive employee engagement.

Intrinsic motivation reflects an engagement in activities that are performed with the sole end being satisfaction. An intrinsically motivated employee would do things simply for the sheer joy of doing things and assessing results. Tangible rewards or any rewards per se are not the ends that they drive toward. On the other hand, an extrinsically motivated employee is driven by tangible rewards – money, gifts, social approval; or they are driven specifically to avoid punishments – getting fired, rejection, being passed over for an important project, and career limiting responses.

Thus, in both instances, the theory was fairly mechanistic and behavioral. In fact, even intrinsically motivated employees can be framed in a mechanistic and behavioral world wherein the cause and effect relationship is an act and the joy of seeing a result. The only difference is that they are not connected to influences from without.  But what has become a fact is that if the organization provides the appropriate structure to allow employees to ignite their intrinsic drives, the organization will benefit more than the alternative framework. This does not mean that one has to do without the other; it does mean though that depending on the nature of the work and the stage of the company – either or both motivation archetypes can be activated which will elicit the right engagement to advance the cause of the company. The questions though remain – What, When and How?

What? The culture has to address deficiency needs. These constitute the needs like security in the job, reasonable pay, and opportunities for growth, promotions, recognition, etc. Deploying a structure that only satisfies the intrinsic inclinations will be less likely to succeed if the deficiency needs are not clearly addressed. This would mean that good organizations would embark and deploy programs to address and mitigate deficiency needs. However, all that the organization has provided upon successful deployment is a sense of shared relief.  But the organization needs to up their ante to allow for “growth needs” which is the manifestation of the intrinsic metric. That would mean to dive deeper on a case by case basis and as a group to deploy programs that fuel aspirational and idealistic goals of the employees. A great example that I immediately recall is the 3M model or the Google model wherein employees are given time to do their own thing on company time! Now this is obviously not practical for all companies, but certainly there is and will be some points that organizations can deploy to fuel “voluntary” engagement.

When?  Timing is important. An organization can set a directional tone, but when to deploy what is driven by a host of discrete or related factors – for example, rush to go-to-market, liquidity crisis, major software pushes, declaring and preparing for earnings’ release, etc.  When the organization is being driven on account of all these factors and more to ensure their survival, they do not have the degree of freedom necessarily to deploy the programs that promote “growth needs”.  In fact, some organizations in a hyper-competitive environment may always feel as if they are in a pressure cooker and thus cascade that pressure across the ranks and files of the company.  In the extreme case, if the organization is better insulated from the trials and tribulations of external factors, they would have a greater degree of freedom to nurture the “growth needs”.  Now the latter scenario is very important to understand since today we belong in the information age rather than the mechanistic industrial age. In fact, we are being ushered at a break neck pace into an age where insight gathered against information is the salient competitive distinction — the morass of data and information is fast becoming now a millstone around an organization’s neck. So to success in the Age of Insights, so to speak, the company MUST deploy programs that anticipate and nurture the “growth needs”. The case for it is amplified further by the simple fact that people are mobile and have more and more choices. Hence, the Best Place to Work is an important metric that companies and employees follow since these companies have provided the right mix. To reiterate, timing the programs is important but the fact that both programs must be deployed to ensure an engaged culture is less debatable.

How?  This is the penultimate question. Once the organization have assessed what is need and when, they have to execute. How do we establish a balanced set of programs that would fuel the appropriate level of engagement that will positively impact the organization? Conversely, how do we untether from legacy programs that were good for a particular set of circumstances, but may not be good going forward. This probably comes more in the realm of organizational psychologists but here are a few takeaways. First, employees have to be given free choice – in other words, given other alternatives, they would choose to do that alternative that optimizes and increases the value of the company the most.  A fine example would be co-founders banging away at their work 24X7 and fuelled by dreams and possibilities for their creation. Put on a spotlight on this behavior – Multiply this behavior a hundred fold to characterize mass group psychology, and then figure out what can be done to create a “permanent immanence” or the state of continuous excitement and engagement. What we know based on studies, that engagement arising out of intrinsic motivation results in creativity, well-being, cognitive flexibility, loyalty, etc. By comparison, we also know that engagement as a result of extrinsic motivation may be as good – or depending on your perspective, may be as bad as a sugar high. Engagement ceases immediately or slowly once the extrinsic motivator is removed.  In fact, a more extreme version suggests that introduced extrinsic motivation programs that serve “dependency needs” may actually depress engagement even lower than the original state.

So the general consensus appears to be to introduce not a plan but a surprise.  For example, rewards that are expected, contingent on engagement or on task completion, and tangible are more likely to be detrimental to intrinsic motivation than rewards that are unexpected, not contingent, and intangible. More studies have in fact shown that employers should pursue the internalization of an employees’ extrinsic motivation for these tasks. Thus commending employees with unplanned surprises coupled with surfacing the value of the activity in and out of the organization appeals to the individual’s innate sense of worth to the company and outside of it. Hence, recognition at deeper granularity that is served with an element of surprise in an open environment is one of the better programs that ignite employee engagement.

Employee Engagement and Corporate Social Responsibility

We start off with the premise – Human beings are good. Absent any constraints, human beings are inclined toward doing good. It is a fair assumption that have stood the test of time and the institutions, at an aggregate level, have for the most part endured and advanced human prosperity and happiness on account of the fundamental premise.

As we continue to thrive and move forward and forge and foray into new branches of knowledge and gather insights into our worlds, internal and external, we have a little more headroom to reach out and engage and contribute to the well being of other people that may not serve any immediate vested interest. Along the way, people have gathered a mix of different capital of various magnitudes – economic capital, intellectual capital, and social or reputation capital – and hence, they are in a better position today, than any time before, to be able sprinkle this capital across local and non-local communities. Thus, economic capital may translate into micro-lending and charity and endowments, intellectual capital may translate into voluntary time associated with teaching and mentorship, and social or reputation capital may translate into giving people opportunities. There is a far greater degree of awareness of larger issues that impinges on the advancement of the human race … issues around environment, conservation, global sustainability, clean energy, medical, basic infrastructure matters, democratic values, food, et al. And to that end, NGO’s, foundations, wealthy donors, corporations, governments, taxpayers, et al have contributed immensely to all of these causes.

Sometime ago I read this article – The Case against Corporate Social Responsibility in the WSJ. (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703338004575230112664504890.html)

The argument was that if corporations ought not to focus on profits and social responsibility since those are competing outcomes that dip into a shared pot of responsibility of enhancing shareholders’ wealth. Yes, the argument has some merit if we were to reduce this argument to fiat consideration. But given the increased awareness of people in a world that is globalized and is under a spotlight of rich social media, this argument carries less weight today than more early years in business history. Talent has indeed become a prized asset, and companies set up structures, with the profit motive in mind, to harness the asset in a needful manner – all to finally serve the interests of the shareholder.  But talent has also become fickle and mobile; it is becoming relatively more difficult to handcuff talent to the steering wheel of an organization. The organization is thus, for the sake of long-term sustainability, have to create structures that will encourage loyalty and engagement among the employees. And thus, the organization has to espouse higher aspirational ideals, which may immediately sacrifice short term profits for long term sustainability. I contend that corporate social responsibility is becoming another factor that will increase in importance over the passage of time.

So how do the flow of such events and the presumption of good tie into employee engagement? To stretch the above argument further, it is important for company to provide a supportive framework to allow employees to distribute their capital, should they choose to do so! I am not suggesting that people must distribute the capital, but I am suggesting that they have the opportunity to do so. And when they do, they aptly get recognized because it is still a capital that is being distributed generally with no expectation of immediate return. The returns maybe illusory with respect to formulating tangible financial metrics, but nonetheless it has a lot of importance.  Thus, it is important that there are channels and applications and systems in place to encourage social good within the ranks and files of the employees.

Here are some interesting facts that you ought to think through.  And these are facts in the context of US only:

1.     There are over 1million charities and foundations.

2.     The total amount of revenue associated with these charities and foundations are over $1.5 trillion.

3.     Almost 50% of the amount is driven by private donations, of which $300 billion are private individual contributions. Private donations represent estates, bequests, etc.

4.     There are over 20 million people employed in charity and foundations in the US.

So clearly this is a big and powerful sector.  And if companies can provide the structure to support the cause of community engagement among employees, that would only mean that they magnify their community footprint, and hence will have access to the new millennial generation that transcends the extrinsic provisions of the employer-employee contract.