Jul 5, 2012

Gamification: Parenting to Enterprise Software

Gamification is one of those buzzwords that start as a cool word play, but gradually morph into a nebulous concept. Many might even find out that they’ve been doing it without realizing – like the Moliere character who was surprised to learn that he was speaking ‘prose’ all his life!

Gamification in plain English just means ‘turning something into a game’. This is not a new concept. We have all read how Tom Sawyer ‘gamified’ and delegated his fence painting assignment to his buddies. Most parents have realized that everything goes much better in a child’s world, if it’s a game. Food disappears faster, if you let the zookeeper feed 'horseys' or naughty monkeys. Of course, it also illustrates some of its challenges - you might not want to turn everything into a game with candy as the reward! 

In business speak, gamification means applying game mechanics to software – consumer or enterprise. Good gamification should be indistinguishable from designing emotionally engaging user experiences or apps that users ‘love’. There are many consumer software examples for gamification such as FourSquare. Facebook ‘Likes’ and Twitter followers are subtle gamification tools that make bragging about social status acceptable. And so are Frequent Flyer and loyalty management programs.

Things get a bit tricky in the enterprise software world. The vision of transforming business software using game mechanics is indeed compelling, as Josh Greenbaum explains. The key here is redesigning the processes to ‘sustain passionate users through delightful challenges’, but it’s often lost if we are squarely focused on cramming any app with points and badges, treating employees as competitive monkeys. The frenzy to prescribe yet another panacea for all big business problems has probably resulted in scathing criticism - e.g., ‘Gamification is bullshit’ and ‘Gamification sucks’. 

There are clearly some behavioral differences between enterprise and consumer social software design. You are required to do certain things at work, whether you enjoy them or not. An attempt to make them superficially interesting might look like sugarcoating or even exploitative. Simplistic gamification designs that rebrand routine enterprise processes (e.g., filling timesheets or paying invoices) as games with publicly visible metrics and badges miss the point. They discover that employees cannot be easily conditioned as Pavlov's dogs! Driving short-term results by unhealthy competition is not sustainable.

Gamification is essentially ‘motivating human behavior through psychology’, accoding to Stephen Anderson. We can start by recognizing what has already been ‘gamified’ in the enterprise. For example, sales colleagues compete in the game of hitting the sales numbers, without using any sophisticated software other than PowerPoint and excel to look at revenue and profitability metrics.

Software artifacts & platforms are valuable. However, gamification thinking for enterprise software needs to start from understanding the key levers of human motivation and then apply these to redesign the process. This can be thought of as a new BPM (business process management) –  understanding and optimizing business processes using key metrics, as this article describes: Gamification grows up to be a CEO's best friend.
A successful enterprise gamification poject needs to align the intrinsic motivations of employees and the business objectives of the company through smart process redesign. Such initiatives can also help drive emotional engagement by employees and motivate them with a deeper sense of autonomy, purpose and mastery (Daniel Pink's theory of motivation - shown in this excellent video below).

Do you think if gamification for the enterprise is an empty buzzword or a motivational tool?

P.S. Here are two excellent slideshare presentations on the topic:


  1. Just ran across this article, and it summarizes what we have been thinking at Six Fish for a year. Inspired by Dan Pink's vision for Motivation 3.0 (intrinsic motivation of effort towards mastery), we set about to create a gamified project management app that helps us collaborate on projects, but we dispensed with the classic “count-’em-up” badges of customer-facing systems like Badgeville. Why? Because we wanted to measure something wholly different from engagement. We wanted to extract hidden behaviors and intra-team dynamics and expose them, not only to reward collaborative behaviors (helping teammates, being prompt, keeping teammates informed, etc.), but also expose the hidden support graph of skills in the team (who depends on whom for what skills). This data is invaluable for HR and team leads for team optimization and performance reviews. We wanted our badges to reveal a lot more than “added profile picture” or “left 10 comments" and we wanted the award process to follow Pink's recommendations for Motivation 3.0. We’ve been using the system and evolving it for 6 months and just released it to the public. Find it here:

    1. Hi Aiden,

      Thank you for the comment. I agree that many efforts to measure employee performance by 'influence' on collaboration software today end up counting comments and badges probably creating the wrong incentives. It's also difficult as organizations are not democratic, as what the executives think of an employee typically has a much higher impact on the performance results. But as I wrote in the post, I believe it's possible to align intrinsic motivation and company's interests in a non-exploitative manner by creatively gamification and will be great to see solutions like yours addressing this problem. All the best!

  2. Master gamification with experts. Watch GSummit 2012 videos on

    "Successful gamification strategy: Emotions, not badges!"

    It was amazing to see the amount of interest from Enterprise Solutions, like SalesForce, at this years Gamification Summit. There are so may videos related to this article from the conference. Maybe some inspiration to write more.

    1. Thank you for the comment. I'll check out the videos. Gamification has been a key ingredient of consumer apps for a while, but agree with you that it is becoming a top-of-the-mind problem for enterprise software as well. However, I see the risk of gamification being reduced to badges and not emotions, as you said. I do hope to write more about it.



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