Games aren't just awkward team-building exercises used during employee orientation anymore.
Many organizations have discovered the use of game mechanics for non-game activities, or gamification, can be used to educate employees on the tools, services and applications IT delivers to them, and even reduce the number of help desk tickets filed.
"It's really about changing behavior. 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.
Many of the division's 7,000 employees have been with the company for decades, Sayeed said. It's been challenging to get many of those employees to learn new skills, collaborate with others, usher troubled projects through to the end, and align employees with the company's overall goals.
Earlier this year, NTT DATA Americas rolled out an enterprise social collaboration platform, and months later only a hundred or so employees were actively using it, Sayeed said. To encourage better adoption, the company introduced the concept of karma points and badges, and soon enough, the collaboration platform shot up to 4,000 active participants.
An extension of the social collaboration effort was to encourage employees on the platform to assist each other in solving typical help desk problems instead of relying on IT. This has freed up NTT DATA's IT department to work on bigger picture projects that it otherwise would not have gotten to, Sayeed said.
Another initiative was a March Madness-style competition to encourage employees to learn mobile application development, with the winning apps featured prominently in the company's enterprise app store. On the horizon is a career development and management game to identify future company leaders.
The hope is to discover talented employees, promote from within, and encourage better employee retention, Sayeed said.
NTT DATA Americas attrition rate has been reduced by 70%, which Sayeed attributes partly to the launch of their various gamification initiatives.
Enterprises that want to weave gamification practices into their employee training processes need to consider the desired outcome and the incentives, said Mario Herger, senior innovation strategist at SAP Labs, a research division of SAP, based in Palo Alto, Calif.
Since becoming SAP's gamification expert, Herger has learned the incentives of the game matter less than the game itself.
"Not everyone thrives on competition, some employees love collaboration, and if you make games that are just about competition it can turn some off," Herger said. He's helped SAP implement about 100 different games in the last two years. Among the games he's devised include ones for helping employees more accurately track their time cards, one for travel expenses so road warriors learn to spend less, and another to help sales team members learn and practice real-world negotiation tactics.
"Work and play can coexist, and combining those things can make better results," he said, for both policy education and helping employees "intrinsically learn and master" the tools and applications needed to excel at their jobs.
A good game, one that gets employees engaged, excited to play, and modifies behavior requires the game builder to plan accordingly because "a good game has many subtle elements," Sayeed said.
"If it's too easy [employees] get bored, but if it's too hard they give up. They accomplish learning through hard work and serendipity within the game," he added.
Enterprise gamification -- A digital gold star for employees
Many companies have adopted enterprise gamification because it's trendy and easy to do. The problem is that merely rewarding employees with digital badges, or creating artificial competitions without tying it back to something of tangible value is akin to "giving a kindergarten student a gold star for good behavior," said Ian Bogost, founding partner of Atlanta-based Persuasive Games, a game design and consulting studio.
"How long does that last as a five-year-old? There's going to come a point where employees that are overstressed, underpaid and being asked to do more under the guise of a game will reject this," he said.
But if game services are customized to the business' needs and aligned to specific goals, they can demonstrate long-lasting results, which is why many organizations plan to give it a try.
An estimated 70% of the top 2,000 public companies in the world will have at least one gamified application by 2014, Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner Inc. predicts. By 2015, roughly half of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes, according to the firm.
Several Software as a Service (SaaS) providers have positioned themselves to provide those enterprises with a gamification service, including Bunchball, Badgeville and Gigya.
For example, ice cream chain Cold Stone Creamery hired Persuasive Games to create a training game to teach employees about the relationship between serving portion size and the company's financial goals.
"If you underserve the amount of ice cream in a serving their customers get upset and if you over-serve that's money out the window," Bogost said. "But there are so many complex factors at play that a training video can't convey."
The game accounted for different variables, such as how different flavors of ice cream impact the size of a scoop, how the stress of a summer customer rush can cause inconsistencies, and how various toppings factor in as well.
At the end of the game, employees were shown how their actions and scooping decisions at a single store directly impacted the overall financial health of the company.
"Games aren't just about unlocking a badge or having a better score. When done correctly, they can orient an employee through the gaming process to the overall goals of the company," Bogost said.