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Micah Fairchild Gamification & HR: Synergistic In The Right Areas

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 By Micah Fairchild

Gamification Software—The Overhyped HR Application Series, Part 3

At one point or another, we’ve all succumb to the latest game that’s trending at the time. Whether it’s an old-school video game like Pac-Man, or the more modern Angry Birds and World of Warcraft, the fact of the matter is that we can get addicted to playing games—hooked on trying to beat an old score, reach a new goal, or outwit an opponent. But this drive to compete in the gaming world is no longer simply relegated to pastime activities. Now it would seem that organizations the world over are trying to tap into the benefits that gamification and broader consumerization technologies can bring to the workplace.

In fact, recent research from Avanade found that fully 73% of company executives view the fostering of this consumerization of the workforce as a top priority; with 79% forecasting significant investments in these applications by the end of 2012. Even research giant Gartner has weighed in on the trend, predicting that by 2015, 50+% of all organizations will manage innovation activities through gamification and 70% of the Global 2000 will employ game tactics via at least one gamified application. The larger question though is whether this is simply a trend of the next-best-thing, or if gamification’s hype has outpaced its utility.

From the HR perspective, gamification is simply the process of applying game theory (i.e. techniques and mechanics) to help solve organizational problems, engage current and prospective employees, and generally drive uptake of whatever particular HR intervention initiative is being utilized. And on the surface, it seems fairly straightforward. Yet, for all the potential it might hold, the reality is that perception is still a major factor in why majority adoption has not occurred. After all, for those companies still on the fringes of innovation (e.g. social HR technology uptake—which there are still an enormous number of), the idea of playing “games” just doesn’t sit well. In their minds, business is about work and games are about play; never the two shall meet. Unfortunately for those businesses, that perception is dead wrong; and in a recent Pew Center research brief (The Future of Gamification), details were given as to why that belief is misguided. Namely, the study found that “gamification could actually improve creativity, learning, participation, and motivation”—all critical aspects that the modern employee needs to have to be attractive to, and engaged with, a prospective employer. What the study didn’t go into finite detail on though was how each of the different HR channels stack up in terms of their appropriateness for gamification—an issue that we intend to remedy here by addressing each of the most gamified HR functions.

1) HR Gamification in Attraction & Recruitment Initiatives
One of the more controversial areas where gamification is being applied, recruitment software applications have been pushing the boundaries of game theory over the past several years. For example, the company Knack (with catchy game titles such as Happy Hour, Words of Wisdom, and Balloon Brigade) gauges cognitive skills (a key aspect of recruitment that goes largely unnoticed) such as pattern recognition, risk aversion, EI (emotional intelligence), and adaptability—skills that are already being tapped into by giants such as Shell and Bain & Co.; and for good reason. According to MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence, “[these] games have huge advantages over traditional recruitment tools, such as personality tests, which can easily be outwitted by an astute candidate”. Similarly, companies such as Marriott (facing an attraction issue with Gen Y workers) have developed themed games in the same vein as Farmville to acquaint prospective employees with the Marriott brand, the hotel industry, and the company culture. What hasn’t been successfully (at least empirically) tested yet is how social sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter can leverage these games to the same attraction and recruitment ends.

With each of the above examples, it’s clear that gamification within the recruitment arena has proved to be successful for those companies. That said, extrapolating these successes to other businesses has more to do with pre-existing recruitment and/or attraction strategies rather than gamification on its own. Don’t assume that games will necessarily work if they’re not aligned with organizational goals.

2) HR Gamification in Learning & Development
Easily the longest-standing gamified HR function, learning and development as a discipline has been leveraging game theory for decades; and according to gamification expert Richard Taylor, “70% of major employers [already] utilize interactive software and games to train employees”. For instance, the famed Deloitte Leadership Academy (which has trained 10K+ executives from 150+ countries) delivers learning gamification through Badgeville to increase knowledge sharing and brand development. On the other hand, The United States’ Department of Defense leverages its Defense Acquisition University to bring real-life scenarios to a simulated environment—a critical gamification deployment model, especially for projects too costly or dangerous to practice otherwise.

Of course, these two examples provide only a sliver of what gamification can accomplish in the development function; and in reality countless options exist for organizations to leverage game-theory for learning. It is a well-established fact that lectures or one-dimensional training sessions can wind up preventing learning, and games can simply provide a different avenue of teaching the same information while keeping the learner engaged. In large part, this happens thanks to what Gartner has coined as its Four Principles of Gamification: a) accelerated feedback cycles, b) clear goals and rules of play, c) a compelling narrative, and (d) tasks that are challenging but achievable.

3) HR Gamification in Engagement & Retention Strategies
The objectives of engagement and retention are two of the most oft-touted objectives of gamification; largely because the entire structure of games is built on the premise of engaging the audience. This works especially well for crowd-sourced activities such as the U.K.’s Idea Street (designed to generate innovative ideas created across the organization); the United States’ America’s Army; and World Bank’s Evoke (a social collaboration game for solving social problems). Interestingly though, one of the biggest areas of potential where HR gamification looks to be leveraged towards the end-goals of engagement and retention is employee wellness. For instance, Mindbloom’s Life Game (already utilized by likes of Aetna and a number of public universities) is a freemium online social game aimed at improving employee health and wellness by encouraging interactions with a metaphorical “self”. In essence, users can keep their specific visualization healthy by picking, choosing, and developing plans to foster wellness. Not only that, but the capability also exists to set and reach wellness goals for team-based scenarios as well—allowing both positive and negative game results to play into the employees’ health objectives.

HR Gamification Final Thoughts

To be sure, nearly all disruptive technologies have the capability of being a distraction in the workplace. Social HR applications for example can have a seriously negative impact on productivity if not aligned with objectives and properly managed. Likewise, games (while undeniably beneficial) can easily run off the rails if allowed to be leveraged outside of an agreed-upon setting and formal strategy.

Aside from overcoming the negative perceptions that still exist about game-play in the business world though, the big issue (and consequent question) is whether employees will treat a situational-based game the same way they would if presented with a similar scenario in real-life. That is to say, will they remain open to interacting with a computer the same way they would with a human.

While current research may support the theory that gamification can have a major impact in the workplace; companies may be starting to embrace the idea in a number of HR channels; and games in general are certainly trending upwards, organizations need to be cognizant of the fact that this tactic of leveraging games is not universally accepted by all employees. Just as we know that people learn differently, so too will their motivation be different to achieve a specific gamified objective. As such, while I can hardly find a reason to call this trend overhyped, I can say that some HR functions are better suited than others for game-play. And as is the case for countless other technologies and initiatives, gamification should still only be one part of your HR technology strategy. End

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The objectives of engagement and retention are two of the most oft-touted objectives of gamification; largely because the entire structure of games is built on the premise of engaging the audience.


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