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Gamification software still in its infancy, but useful for some

Experts cite just two relevant uses for early gamification software despite the heavy hype.

What if working hard and playing hard weren't mutually exclusive? A new trend toward "gamification" of HR software attempts to combine work and fun, and although the notion could easily be dismissed as a fad, experts say the reasons to "gamify" work hold water -- even if the first products might not.

John Sumser, principal analyst at HRxAnalysts based in Bodega Bay, Calif., named three principles of game mechanics that could be constructively applied to work. "One is 'the best work is play, and the best play is work' -- that really great work by definition is fun," he said. "Another idea is that the work to some degree should provide a framework for motivation. The last piece that's important is continuous, instantaneous feedback."

Badly done gamification invites cynicism and is worse than no gamification at all.

Thomas Otter,
research vice president, Gartner

However, because fusing game principles with work is an extremely novel concept, Sumser said many of the current gamification software products are unlikely to remain viable in the long term. "Gamification is going to get a lot of bad press in short order, and out of the ashes of that will come the real thing," he said. "It'll take off like wildfire, but it'll be after the bloom comes off of this rose."

Sumser is not alone in this sentiment. According to a recent prediction from Stamford, Conn.-based consultancy Gartner Inc., 80% of current gamification products will fail to meet business objectives by 2014. Despite this statistic, experts say that a couple of relevant use cases for gamification software could have immediate and significant benefits.

Gamification can drive interest and increase feedback flow

Today's gamification products rely on badges, points and other rewards that employees can earn by completing goals or collaborating with colleagues. In the report, "Gamification Will Induce Employees to Use HCM Solutions," Gartner research vice president Thomas Otter wrote that this increased visibility into employee performance can supplement the annual review with a stream of continuous feedback.

"Whether from managers, customer or peers, [feedback] helps reinforce positive behaviors, and it is a major contributor to engagement and happiness," he wrote. "Gamification can help provide immediate feedback and improve the clarity, fairness and transparency of the goal."

Sumser added that Generation Y workers, a segment of the workforce that HR managers often struggle to engage, tend to thrive in an environment of constant feedback.

Gamification can also provide a boost to learning programs. "Learning management systems often suffer from low adoption. By enabling the social rating of courses, the best courses rise to the top of the pile, making it easier for others to find them," Otter wrote. "Games can be used to encourage employees to take courses and contribute learning material."

He noted two companies in his report that have used gamification to bolster learning initiatives: Deloitte Leadership Academy, a Badgeville user and The Cheesecake Factory Co., which developed an iPhone app to teach employees how to make a new menu item.

Early use cases: Sales teams and young companies

While Sumser stressed that gamification software is in its infancy, he described two compelling use cases that exist now.

Since points and badges breed competition, Sumser pointed out that gamification software is a natural fit for work atmospheres with an inherent competitive flavor, such as sales. Gamification can help make sales teams' progress more discernible and might also strengthen employee performance, he said.

"Sales manager[s] are terrified that their forecasts are wrong, [but] if you put game mechanics into the process, progress toward the forecast becomes more visible because people are getting rewarded for reporting on their performance," Sumser explained. "Well-managed competition can [also] turn marginal performers into good performers."

The integration of leading gamification platforms with prominent customer relationship management (CRM) products speaks to this advantageous relationship, such as Badgeville with Salesforce.com and Bunchball with SugarCRM.

The second use case pertains to young companies. Since gamifying work is an unconventional idea that requires a significant shift in mindset, new organizations might have an advantage since they can deeply incorporate gamification into newly established business processes.

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Sumser relayed the example of a software development company in India that has gamification firmly ingrained in its performance management process. "They have 7,000 Agile software developers, and each is on a team that does a six-week Scrum. There are eight people per team, and you are not allowed to be on the same team with anybody you've worked with over the last two years," he said. "That means if you're a worker there, you've had 72 teammates over the course of a year, and eight project bosses. So how do you tell how's somebody's doing?"

Gamification makes it easy for managers to monitor performance in this fluid environment since workers are providing each other with constant feedback, Sumser explained. "Everybody gives everybody else feedback all the time, and that gets calibrated as points. And your ability to maneuver inside of the company increases based on how you do in that system," he said.

Sumser pointed out that one of the reasons this gamification initiative was successful was because the company -- only 5 years old -- introduced it early on. "You almost have to start your company with that in mind. It's hard to install that in an operating company," he said.

Niche vendors, singular success stories

For companies interested in implementing gamification software, Otter recommended looking to niche vendors, as larger human capital management (HCM) vendors are only just beginning to incorporate game mechanics into their products. "Investigate solutions such as Bunchball, Actionable and Badgeville," he wrote.

But both Sumser and Otter cautioned that a gamification project is not to be undertaken lightly because of the amount of upkeep required and the heavy consequences of failure. "Badly done gamification invites cynicism and is worse than no gamification at all," Otter warned in his report.

Sumser explained that gamification software requires supervision, a point that many managers don't realize. "It's not one-size-fits-all, you turn it on and you're done," he said. "Most people are prepared to utilize game mechanisms, but they're not prepared to manage the game." He said companies embarking on gamification projects should anticipate employees figuring out the mechanisms of the game or becoming tired of it and plan for how to combat these circumstances.

Even though there's currently no clear formula for how to successfully implement gamification software, that's not to say it can't be done. Sumser said that even though gamification is bound to experience a fall from grace, its importance to the future of work should not be underestimated.

"The answers here are not going be black and white answers; they're going be custom answers," he said. "There won't be one game that everybody plays, but 10 years from now all work will have some level of game mechanics to it."

Emma Snider is the associate site editor for SearchFinancialApplications.com. Follow her on Twitter: @emmajs24.

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