Can gamification solve enterprises' engagement problem?

If 90 percent of the world’s workforce were suddenly struck with a debilitating illness that rendered them unable to perform to their fullest potential, it would be declared a global crisis.

In enterprises, that statistic is more or less the norm.

Just 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged in their jobs, a recent Gallup report found—meaning that they’re “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”

The remaining 87 percent? Not so much. They’re either “not engaged or indifferent—or even worse, actively disengaged and potentially hostile—to their organizations.”

Given the widely accepted link between engagement and productivity, such data is nothing if not sobering. Increasingly, gamification is being brought in to help.

Contrary to popular belief, gamification is not about turning everything into a game. Rather, it’s essentially the application of game-design principles in non-game scenarios to solve a problem or engage an audience. “Gamification is really about thinking about what you want in terms of behaviors in the organization and creating incentives to reinforce that,” said Janaki Kumar, head of Strategic Design Services for America in SAPs Design and Co-Innovation Center and co-author of the book, Gamification at Work: Designing Engaging Business Software.

The concept became popular in the business world about five years ago, but it’s recently undergone a fresh resurgence. According to market researcher TechNavio, the global gamification market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 68.4 percent through 2018.

Part of what’s buoying its growth is the arrival in the workplace of “digital natives”—a generation that has grown up with access to technology from a very young age. Such workers display both a higher tolerance for risk and a higher need for feedback than the generations before them did, Kumar said, and in many ways, gamification plays into both of those characteristics.

Also playing a role, however, is the increasing maturity of technology enablers such as big data, social media and mobility.

“Big data is the engine of gamification,” she said. “With the availability of users’ qualitative data from social media and mobile devices, we now have the opportunity to use this information to effect behavior change through gamification.”

Leaderboards have long been used to help motivate salespeople, but today the enterprise applications have expanded considerably. There are now numerous apps available to bring gaming techniques to Salesforce’s CRM platform, for example. Badgeville for Salesforce is one, and it allows users to participate in missions designed around key sales processes and behaviors. Users can earn both points and badges, while analytics tools offer insights into usage by employee and over time.

Aiming to increase engagement in its Community Network, meanwhile, SAP launched a new gamification module in 2013 that adds the ability to design missions that track activities it wants to encourage as well as assign badges and designate feature-topic experts in leaderboards. Among the results: a 400 percent increase in activity along with a 96 percent rise in community feedback.

At its heart, gamification is about tapping into users’ deepest needs and finding the right incentives to motivate them to take the actions the company wants, whether it’s selling more widgets or choosing a preferred supplier in their purchase decisions.

“We have transitioned from the agricultural age to the industrial age to the information age, and are now in the conceptual age,” said Kumar. “We measure productivity not by the number of crops we produce or forms we fill out, but by the number of ideas we generate. For this, employees need to be engaged in the mission of the company.”

There are four primary motivators driving most people, said Steve Sims, founder and chief design officer at Badgeville’s Behavior Lab. Some, for example, are motivated mainly by a desire for success—they’re a competitive bunch, and leaderboards can work well to fuel their drive. Others are more motivated by a need for affiliation, however, while still others get the biggest boost from feeling smart. (Stack Overflow, a Q&A site for programmers, is a prime example of the power of expertise recognition as a motivator for some, he noted.) Then, too, there are those who seek out a sense of structure, or the alleviation of uncertainty—even just visual bars indicating progress toward a goal can be helpful there, he said.

Of course, to be effective, the motivations put to work through gamification need to be intrinsically meaningful. Otherwise, they amount to what’s commonly referred to as “chocolate-covered broccoli,” or a simple sugar coating over what still remains inherently distasteful.

“I can’t get you to do something you don’t want to do, but if I can figure out something of interest to you and use that overlap, then we both benefit,” Sims said. “That’s the goal.”

One of gamification’s best uses in the enterprise may be simply getting people to use the software the company has invested in.

“There are many benefits of gamification for enterprise software, but if I had to pick one, it would be adoption and engagement with the software itself,” Sims said.

Usage rates for enterprise software often aren’t much better than 50 percent, he pointed out. By tapping into the right motivations, gamification could increase those numbers considerably.

It’s important to understand that effective gamification is something of a moving target. Not only will the company’s priorities likely change over time, but what motivates employees probably will, too. “You have to look at the numbers to see what people are doing and adjust the programs over time,” Sims said.

Nevertheless, SAP’s Kumar believes gamification is becoming so central to the design of software that the term will actually fade away over the next few years.

“Today we measure a design by how effectively and efficiently it allows a user to do a task, and how satisfied they are when they complete it,” she said. “In the future, we will consider if the user is motivated to do the task in the first place, and how we can encourage and incentivize this motivation. This is the essence of gamification.”

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