The Gamification of HR

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By Ian J. Cook, CHRP

Anyone who has ever immersed themselves in a game knows how compelling, rewarding and motivating the experience can be. Whether it is a social game like poker or an online story-based game, like World of Warcraft, the experience appeals to some of the most powerful drivers of human behavior. 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, cell phone providers and electronics retailers. This process has acquired a name: “Gamification”.  According to Wikipedia, “Gamification is the use of game design techniquesand mechanics to solve problems and engage audiences.”

There is no doubt that games are popular. Gaming has been one of the fastest growing business areas of the last 10 years. A recent report by The Economist stated that the industry is now twice the size of the recorded music industry1. So where else might the concepts of games and their effects on human behavior be seen as valuable?

Several HR pundits2 have proclaimed that 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, how to foster improved collaboration, how to 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 that 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 them recruit marketing campaign managers. The game mirrors the challenges faced by someone filling the role of campaign manager and it tests literary, numeracy and certain inter-personal skills. Score well on the game and you are more likely to be a good candidate for the role.

Following on from this idea PeopleFluent, a provider of talent management software, are building gaming tools and processes into their whole suite of products. The first called Talentwise challenges you to build a successful company through acquiring the right people, providing the right incentives etc – 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 use the game to select the best from the pool of applicants, in their game you get to run a hotel property.

A further example is a company called Badgeville. They specialize in handing out custom badges as rewards for anything you care to think of. When you have enough badges you can trade them in for tangible rewards. The company started with a consumer loyalty focus and now says that it is engaged with a number of large organizations looking to apply the idea to their workforce. There are many ways in which 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 get reflected in your 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 currently underway, much of it is taking what was an “analog” process, like an assessment centre, and turning it into a “digital” process making it cheaper and more accessible online. 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 that gamification will be a wave to watch, or play in, 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 J. Cook is director of the HR Metrics Service and director of research and learning at BC HRMA. He can be reached at 604.694.6938 or ijcook@bchrma.org. For more information, visit www.hrmetricsservice.org.

© Copyright Thomson Reuters Canada Ltd. – January 30, 2012 – Toronto, Ontario, (800) 387-5164 www.hrreporter.com.

1  The Economist, All the World’s a Game, December 10th 2011.
2 Josh Bersin and Naomi Bloom – to name but two

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  1. Nilesh Bhagat February 4, 2012 at 2:55 pm · · Reply

    Cool post, Ian. I’ve been reading a lot about how the younger generation will be engaged and motivated moving forward, and I think (hope) the concept of gamification will go a long way toward finding some of these answers.

  2. This shows the evolution and continuing relevance of human resources. It’s not simply a question of meeting the needs of the last 2 generations who were raised on computer games and work/learn best in that environment. The same principles of engaging employees apply to “older” workers and match very well to reward principles. The focus has to remain on the outcomes of course, but business must be open to doing things differently, especially in a globally competitive information economy.

    Great article Ian; very timely and relevant!!

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