Game on

Banking & Finance
| The European | 15th May 2015


There’s little doubt that the elusive goal of employee engagement is critical to a company’s success and polls regularly place it among the top priorities for business leaders. This is hardly surprising; an engaged workforce cares about the company’s success, employees come to work full of ideas, enthusiasm and a drive to succeed. Not only are happy staff more likely to remain loyal, they’re also more productive and will put in the effort which differentiates growing businesses from those that merely survive.

It’s therefore cause for concern that, on a global level, the modern workforce has particularly low levels of engagement. Statistics from market researcher Gallup indicate that only 13 per cent of workers describe themselves as feeling engaged at work – this from surveys administered in 142 countries. The situation is particularly bad in Europe, where an average of 23 per cent of employees reported that they felt actively disengaged. Of course, not every job corresponds perfectly with the dreams and desires of personnel, yet ensuring staff actually enjoy coming to work on a daily basis makes good business sense.

In response to this engagement deficit, one solution to have emerged in recent years is gamification. The theory behind this concept says that it will improve engagement considerably, yet so far it hasn’t quite lived up to expectations.

Game features, not games

As a term, gamification has had the mixed blessing of receiving a lot of hype. The attention garnered it by thousands of blog posts, articles and publications has essentially turned it into the buzzword de jour. While this has promoted awareness of the idea, it’s also turned a lot of people off; many organisations are sceptical about investing in a short-lived fashion.

First coined in 2002, gamification only really emerged as a major trend in 2010 and has, since then, seen enormous growth. Depending on who you read, revenues from gamification tools are expected to reach as much as US $3bn by the end of 2016, and around 40 per cent of this will come from the enterprise market. Businesses hope that by investing in gamification technology, they’ll see more loyal customers and more engaged staff.

Drawing on the psychology of play and the viral success of online games like Angry Birds, a broad range of providers promise to get your workforce engaged by bringing elements of game play into workflows. The thinking is straightforward: encouraging friendly competition, providing goals, and rewarding and recognising achievements, workers will put more effort in and gain enjoyment from meeting targets. Psychologically speaking, winning a game releases endorphins in the player’s brain and this motivates their continued participation. Typical gamification features include:

  • Points and badges – as rewards for success
  • Levels – completing X number of tasks opens gateways to new challenges
  • Missions – to unlock specific rewards
  • Leaderboards – lets users see where they stand in relation to colleagues

The aim of all these badges and points is to encourage intrinsic rewards – feelings of personal success and growth from having achieved measurable goals. Fundamentally, gamification is about changing behaviour, encouraging workers to approach their jobs differently. In this sense, gamification isn’t new at all – “employee of the month” and sales targets have been around for decades. What is new, however, is the variety of jobs that gamification providers say they can help improve, and the kinds of tasks, which receive points and prizes. This is about more than rewarding who sells the most, but about giving recognition to people who engage – who write the most internal blog posts, who comment on news releases, who share posts on enterprise social networks.

Gamification in practice

To find out more about how game mechanics can be leveraged to solve business problems, I spoke to Norman Lewis who leads Innovation at PwC. The firm’s business strategy emphasises the breaking down of internal silos with the goal of becoming a more unified organisation. One measure taken to achieve this was the implementation of a crowdsourcing collaboration platform, which opened up both internal and external business questions to everyone in the UK arm of the firm – over 18,000 people. The platform used virtual currency and leaderboards – two typical gamification mechanics – to encourage engagement and participation. Individuals who responded to the most questions, who proposed solutions and made critical and constructive comments gained more currency and received recognition for their contributions on an internal leaderboard. Prizes included dinner with the chairman, the opportunity to shadow a partner or attend a conference.

Mr Lewis sees this platform as a real success: “It’s given people a new way to engage with one another and with colleagues beyond their departments. People have loved the collaboration elements and this has let them meet colleagues[…] who they can then go on to consult with on other challenges later on.”

Depending on the questions posted on the portal, PwC has seen up to 45 per cent of colleagues across the business taking part both vertically and across departments. Besides finding innovative solutions, PwC’s platform also helps the company spot the employees with bright ideas who are most enthusiastic to contribute.

In theory, then, gamification should be an enormous success. The technology behind it is proven and the psychology underpinning it is solid. Why, then, do Gartner predict that up to 80 per cent of gamification initiatives will fail? Is it that gamification simply doesn’t work, or is the problem less in the idea and more in its implementation? So what are the reasons that gamification doesn’t seem to be winning at its own game?

A real impact?

Unsurprisingly, gamification providers market their tools with impressive statistics about growing engagement, loyalty and targets surpassed. However, measuring an idea as vague as “engagement” is far from evident, and it’s unclear whether many gamification tools actually have a long-term impact.

Knowledge management researcher, Steve Dale, thinks it may simply be that the technology is not yet ready to bring about the changes promised, yet having read hundreds of articles and books on technology and motivation he’s yet to find any case studies measuring concrete long-term benefits.

According to independent consultant, Kabir Ahmad1, a major obstacle here is that companies see gamification as a “short-term cure for engagement problems. It’s all the result of overrated articles saying gamification boosts engagement by 150 per cent. Instead, gamification should be considered as a long-term strategy”.

Gamification initiatives are very good at motivating employees to complete a particular task more quickly. However, once short term goals are achieved, apps and software often fall by the wayside; an unused feature clogging up the intranet.

A major problem is that companies take a “one-size-fits-all” approach, throwing money at features rather than tailoring a long-term solution for cultural change. Mr Ahmad reinforces this: “Every solution should have a customised approach, focusing on specific products or services, organisation, target market, and target audience group.”

Mr Dale warns against being seduced by the “bells and whistles” present in most gamification tools. Managers are often so impressed by the technology that they forget why the tool was introduced in the first place – there’s no point in including lots of badges, prizes or levels if these are irrelevant to staff workflows. For gamification to succeed, there needs to be much more thought about why the tool is being brought in, what behaviour it’s intended to change and how it will achieve this. PwC’s crowdsourcing platform has been a success because it is so aligned with the company’s principal activity – that is, solving problems. A less well designed gamification tool could have totally missed the point.

Another major risk of gamification is that staff may feel patronised, or, to use Mr Dale’s term, “gamed”. Employees are very well aware that mangers introduce such tools to increase productivity and engagement; if they feel like they’re being exploited or patronised, the chances of rejection are high. Being clear and open with staff about the purpose of the tool is, therefore, essential.

Substance or style?

So, is gamification just another fad, or is there some substance to it? Since it’s still a relatively young phenomenon the jury is still out on its future. What gamification has going for it are the technological and psychological tenets that back it up. The enormous success of computer and web-based games in recent years attests to the power of such tools to change and influence behaviour, and this lends some credence to gamification’s cause.

However, to get the most out of gamification, tools need to be customised perfectly to a company’s needs and they must be regularly refreshed to keep users interested. How many businesses will feel this is worth the investment remains to be seen, so it will be interesting to see if gamification moves up through the levels in the coming years.

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