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: