The Gamification of HR Systems and Services

Today’s post is a collaboration with Dr. Colleen Sutherland.  It was initially published in the April/May 2012  issue of WSR (Workforce Solutions Review) for IHRIM Publications


Colleen is the Director of Change Leadership at BJC HealthCare in St. Louis, MO, a 13 hospital nonprofit health care organization focused on delivering services to residents primarily in the greater St. Louis, southern Illinois and mid-Missouri regions.  Focusing the majority of her professional career in health care-related fields, she began her human resources career at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Missouri, transitioning to a process improvement focus culminating in roles of Master Black Belt at GE Capital and Senior Director, Patient Services Corporate Quality at Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefit manager.  Returning to human resources at BJC, Colleen has been focused on the deployment of the organizational change management methodology and supporting executive change leadership consulting and coaching.


Colleen earned her Doctorate of Management and MA in Human Resources Development from Webster University, St. Louis, and BA in Communications from Northeast Missouri State University.



The Gamification of HR Systems and Services





In the ongoing quest to drive higher adoption of and returns from development dollars, gamification techniques have emerged as a viable toolset into the world of enterprise applications, HR management systems included. As workforce demographics shift to a younger talent pool, the familiarity with online tools, simulated reality and constant feedback of progress should push companies to use those features  and make them  regular, if not comforting, components of the working world.  Thoughtful, creative and appropriately applied ideas like leader boards, badges and cooperative problem solving will be an important component of programs that required focused employee attention and engagement.



Gamification Overview


The principles of gamification are not new.  At the core of the discipline is the idea that adding “fun” to an application can increase adoption and completion rates.  (Carr, 2011)  This is rooted in classic psychology of learning and motivation, and has evolved significantly in applying such concepts as achievement, status, competition, motivation and manipulation.  For example, business travelers collect and covet their frequent flier miles and hotel points, an example of the point dynamic which “relies on the user completing any single action or combination of actions with a numeric value that is added to their overall point total” (Burke & Hiltbrand).  While these deliver tangible benefits at times, the status of the “Executive Platinum Elite Club Membership” is used as a way to enhance brand loyalty and return business.



Current State Applications


While not everyone is familiar with the company by name, Zynga has leveraged the ideas behind gamification into $600 million in revenue and over 200 million monthly users, mostly through Facebook.  They have made their mark with such notable games as FarmVille, CityVille, Texas HoldEm Poker, CastleVille and Empires & Allies.  These games are some of the best examples of attracting and retaining users, and are based on the concepts of progress rewards, progressive difficulty and cooperative problem solving.


But these tools and techniques aren’t limited to social media.  They have crossed over into government, such as the military’s use of multiplayer wargames to study combat techniques.  The MMOWGLI platform (Massive Multiplayer Online WarGame Leveraging the Internet) is designed to allow outside players to devise winning strategies to combat scenarios.  Effectively crowdsourcing future strategy is both an ingenious and cost-effective method that might reduce risk and save lives in future combat theaters.



Application to HR service delivery


The long-fought struggle by most HR teams is to influence employees and managers to perform tasks that are time consuming, provide little immediate value, and are not inherently entertaining.  These are the same types of obstacles faced by companies like Zynga, and they have excelled despite those challenges.  It stands to reason, then that the same techniques can be applied to HR tasks with similar expectations.


For years, we’ve seen the idea of simulated situations used in training.  Mostly they are poorly scripted and performed videos, sometimes poorly scripted and photographed text conversations.  In truth, even well-performed simulations wouldn’t help much, as the passivity of the situation prevents engaged learning.  Instead, training systems have started to use more interactive scripting, allowing the user to choose their response rather than remain a passive participant.  Imagine how much different a Code of Ethics training would look if members of a team were interacting with each other, choosing responses and statements in an interactive system, allowing the users to also create challenge along the way.  Not to mention the internal competition that could be spawned by creating a competition with the results.


We have seen leaderboards in various stages applied in HR as well.  While often thought of as a “shame board,” we post the names of managers delinquent in annual reviews or the daily metrics of our call center teams.  We broadcast macro-level Employee Engagement scores (while we know that, in truth, they must be examined in a much more granular way).  We even go so far as to provide an occasional badge (Employee or Leader of the Year, for example).  While they may be effective, innovation and novelty are valuable in making a reward meaningful, so we constantly need to search for new tools or tool sets (like gamification) to drive performance.  The good news is using what we know to tweak current programs can be just as effective as new implementations.


One of the most interesting things about applying gamification is the impact small changes can make.  For instance, companies for years have used “spot rewards” to recognize employees, handing out a small incentive, monetary or otherwise, to reinforce a behavior.  This is a great example of unexpected rewards, helping boost morale and performance.  Constantly raising the level of achievement needed to receive such an award drives even greater performance, as studies have shown.  Interestingly, however, maintaining the value and frequency of the reward will, over time, reduce its impact.


Another example of a small modification that can bring significant value is the use of the aforementioned travel membership concept.  Awarding points for achievements is a no-cost option for almost any initiative.  Allowing those points to be spent individually for something like a parking space, or as a group for casual days or outdoor meeting sessions, allow the delivery of unique and memorable rewards for little or no expense.  The variety of uses for this type of incentive is limited more by imagination than budget, a situation most cost conscious departments should appreciate.



Future applications


As gaming techniques become more common in the workplace, their application is expected to expand beyond the examples above.  Unique, learner-directed education simulations could become an effective way of customizing standard information to each employee’s specific needs.  In a 2011 Gartner report, “analysts predicted that by 2012, 100 of the top 135 global Fortune 500 companies will have used serious gaming in training, by 2014 more than 70% of the global 2,000 organizations will have at least one gamified application, and by 2015, more than 50% of organizations will gamify their innovation processes.” (Ashraf, 2011)  The trend of increasing application, combined with the changes in workplace demographics and the increased pressure of reducing cost while increasing adoption, all point to an increased usage of these tools and techniques.  While learning and development maybe the natural first application,  there’s no reason to believe it will be the last.


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