Training employees on new tools, services and applications has always been a challenge. Motivating them to work more efficiently—or even to just reduce the number of help desk tickets they file—is even harder. Recently, some organizations have begun experimenting with enterprise "gamification"—the use of game mechanics for nongame activities—to advance these goals.
Gamification uses the proverbial carrot instead of the stick to achieve business objectives through the use of badges, leaderboards, progress bars, achievement levels or even virtual currency. Though the term was coined in 2002, and the practice gained popularity in 2010, many consider enterprise gamification as simple as frequent flyer programs and employee of the month recognition. When done correctly, gamification can be a powerful technique.
"People are comfortable when they are gainfully employed, but how do you get them to try new things and change the way they've always worked?" said Imran Sayeed, CTO at NTT Data Americas, a New York-based IT services firm.
At NTT Data Americas, Sayeed helped roll out an enterprise social collaboration platform that was initially used by only a few employees. After incorporating karma points and badges into the mix, the number of users shot up to 4,000 active participants (out of 7,000 total employees) and is growing.
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Organizations need to first consider the desired outcome and the incentives before implementing any games, said Mario Herger, senior innovation strategist at SAP Labs, a research division of SAP, based in Palo Alto, Calif. Otherwise, he said, enterprise gamification efforts will surely fail.
Herger has launched more than 100 games for SAP, including one for helping employees more accurately track their time cards and another to help rein in travel expenses.
"Work and play can coexist, and combining those things can make better results," Herger said, who added that he tries to use games as an overall teaching tool rather than a system for rewarding a desired behavior.
The distinction is subtle, Herger said, but one that can have a lasting impact. Often, the intended progress desired from employees can plateau if enterprise gamification efforts are built around digital badges or artificial rewards.
"Games aren't just about unlocking a badge or having a better score," said Ian Bogost, founding partner of Atlanta-based Persuasive Games, a game design and consulting studio. "When done correctly, they can orient an employee through the gaming process to the overall goals of the company."
Those who dismiss gamification often do so because they believe games have no place in a business setting. However, the practice of enterprise gamification isn't really about games; it's about psychology, said Kris Duggan, founder of Badgeville, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based gamification vendor.
"I'm not a fan of the term gamification, but it's the word people use," said Duggan. Badgeville is just one of many Software as a Service (SaaS) providers, including Bunchball and Gigya, that have started to offer enterprises gamification services.
"We buy into the concept of behavior management," said Duggan. "How does an organization design an experience to maximize the behavior they want? It's something everyone can benefit from."
Companies such as Microsoft, Samsung, Oracle, EMC and Citrix are all using enterprise gamification in some capacity—even if it's just a simple sales leaderboard to bolster competition among staffers.
The big question is whether IT departments will sign on to gamifying enterprise applications and processes. That's hard to determine. According to a November 2012 prediction from Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner Inc., 80% of current enterprise gamification products will fail to meet business objectives by 2014 because of poor design. Yet, in a study the previous November, Gartner predicted that 70% of the top 2,000 public companies in the world will have at least one gamified application by 2014.
However, because gamification remains a novel concept to enterprises, IT professionals will likely be puzzled by it for the next few years. And most enterprise gamification vendors either won't be around for the long haul or will eventually be acquired by larger vendors, said John Sumser, principal analyst at HRxAnalysts in Bodega Bay, Calif.
"Once a month, we do a town hall featuring hero stories of the front line to recognize our employees," said J.D. Peterson, director of marketing at Zendesk, a customer service vendor in San Francisco. "That simple idea of giving people the recognition they deserve and creating a sense of competition to be recognized has gone a long way to improving our overall performance as a company."