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Playing Games at Work

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The office is no place for games. But some organizations are improving productivity, transforming customer relationships, and helping employees be happier by borrowing ideas from the world of gaming.

An article from Bloomberg Business describes some key examples:

“Employees are sometimes siloed in their business units and don’t see the breadth and depth of our portfolio,” says Tom Varney, head of marketing communications at Siemens Industry. The company joins a growing roster of enterprises as diverse as Hilton Worldwide’s Embassy Suites hotel chain and German software maker SAP, which are using technologies that make games interesting in order to interact more effectively with customers and employees. The trend, known as gamification, lets businesses weave elements of games into applications that otherwise have little to do with playing.

Hilton’s Embassy Suites is using game techniques in a customer loyalty campaign. Created with a marketing company called Maritz, the campaign targeted 50,000 of Embassy Suites’ most loyal guests, then solicited their participation with 10 different approaches, including direct mail, e-mail, and asking customers to play a game. The game option proved most effective, says Christian Kuhn, director of brand marketing for Embassy Suites.

Software maker SAP is turning to gamification to help corporate board members prepare for meetings. Directors typically must slog through thick binders full of documents or dashboards that feature key performance metrics. SAP is developing an application for Apple’s iPad that boasts game elements such as progress bars and leader boards to get directors “more engaged in consuming various pieces of data,” says Reuven Gorsht, senior director of strategy and global pre-sales at SAP.

Board Game

© Flickr user John Liu

Gamification sounds like an incredible way to get more productivity and more engagement out of employees. But does it really work? A classic post from Joel on Software says that often, this is a terrible idea:

It seems like any time you try to measure the performance of knowledge workers, things rapidly disintegrate, and you get what Robert D. Austin calls measurement dysfunction. His book Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations is an excellent and thorough survey of the subject. Managers like to implement measurement systems, and they like to tie compensation to performance based on these measurement systems. But in the absence of 100% supervision, workers have an incentive to “work to the measurement,” concerning themselves solely with the measurement and not with the actual value or quality of their work.

This phenomenon is so common we’ve got a bunch of other phrases for it:

  • “Working the system” – When people know how a bureaucracy operates and modify their own behavior to maximize results, usually in a way contrary to the intentions of the system.
  • “Using a loophole” – The word “loophole” refers to the small slits in castle walls used by medieval archers; only a skilled expert can find a way out of an otherwise impenetrable structure.
  • “Teaching to the test” – A derogatory term used to describe educators that help students pass standardized exams through rote memorization instead of developing a deep conceptual understanding.
  • “Law of unintended consequences” – Whenever a mechanism is designed to be helpful, it’s almost certain that negative, unexpected effects will also occur.
  • “The cobra effect” – Refers to a policy of British colonial rulers in India of paying a bounty on snake heads to reduce the population. This led to the intentional farming of cobras.
  • “Goodhardt’s law” – An economics term usually stated as “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Does this mean that games at work are always a bad idea? No; but they are hard to do well. Remember that if you put a game into place, you are asking people to understand the rules so that they can figure out how to win.

The more imprecise the rules and the greater the prize, the more people will try to find a workaround. And remember: the game you’re really playing is not the one in the office, but the one in the marketplace. Games inside the company may help people to focus, but they can’t become more important than the mission of your organization to serve customers and provide value.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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