Should You Gamble on the Next Business Fad?

Corporate America as fun and games? Maybe, now that gamification has come on the scene.
Business and Workplace Author, Speaker, and Consultant,
March 15, 2012

Corporate America as fun and games? Maybe, now that gamification has come on the scene.

Gamification is defined as the use of game design techniques to engage audiences. Gamification encourages players to engage in desirable behavior by dangling the carrot otherwise known as “winning.”

The reason we like online gambling so much is that apparently, human beings have a psychological predisposition to gaming. And many organizations are jumping on the gamification bandwagon in order to motivate employees and combat disengagement.

Enter enterprise gamification

In the business world, gamification can be seen everywhere. Witness this: enterprise gamification is even a term with its own website. From routine customer service and sales calls to new hire training and performance review documentation, employers are setting up competitive scenarios that offer rewards for finishing a task on a deadline.

According to the Wall Street Journal, research firm Gartner estimates that by 2014, 70 percent of large companies will use the techniques for at least one business process. Market researcher M2 Research estimates revenue from gamification software, consulting and marketing will reach $938 million by 2014 from less than $100 million last year.

Virtual and real words collide

Initially in the form of points or badges, game rewards may translate into real-world perks. And my personal favorite aspect of gamification is that it allows employees to see exactly where they stand in comparison to others doing the same job. It’s right there in black and white (or 3D). You are either cutting it…or you aren’t.

New York City-based Next Jump is walking the walk. In addition to its mission of providing the most sophisticated reward and loyalty programs to the Fortune 1000, Next Jump is using gamification to gain buy-in of cultural mandates. “Having our employees stay healthy is really important to us, but we could only motivate 15 to 20 percent of our people to use the gym,” says CEO Charlie Kim. “So we broke the company up into five cross-office teams that competed against each other, and doubled the amount of participation. The addition of a leaderboard was our best move, allowing us to engage 80 percent of employees.”

Gamification promotes equality and understanding

Byron Reeves of Stanford University wrote a book and built a consultancy around helping companies employ gamification effectively. He feels that gamification is a terrific way to level the playing field and allow employees to see the big picture. Says Reeves in an article for Business Innovation Factory: “Leaders in the real world are taller than most people, better looking than most people, and they talk faster. In the game, those things matter much less. Also, in the game I can see my place in something that's a lot larger than me, and that’s what humans are worried about. They ask: ‘did I make a difference?’ and ‘am I providing any value here?’”

Be aware of the challenges

However, as with any popular trend, there are potential pitfalls with enterprise gamification. For one thing, your game must have a point. The goal should be to increase a particular behavior, not just give out a prize to make an employee feel good. Furthermore, games are not a substitute for an otherwise strong culture. Don’t get so caught up in them that you forget about things like great communication and management practices. And finally, keep the spirit of competition friendly—the last thing you want is a cutthroat employee war on your hands.

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally syndicated business and workplace columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success.  Money Magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.

Illustration by Russell Christian