Gamification and intranets: from passing fad to permanent feature?

August 2, 2011

Ace of hearts on a keyboard imageIn the past eighteen months “Gamification” is one of those circulating business buzz words which seem to have been everywhere. Loosely defined as the application of gaming techniques for uses which aren’t gaming, it has been applied to various scenarios and tools in the workplace, including the intranet.

Although media interest in the term has possibly peaked (and now been subsumed by “social”), the appearance of gaming techniques in the Digital Workplace is no longer the eye-opener it once was. In fact could we even say that gaming mechanics are now an established technique in intranet design? Is it a permanent feature rather than a fad implied by the initial hype?

What techniques are used?

Gaming mechanics which are generally applied to work situations – specifically intranets – include:

  • the use of point systems often to reflect online behaviour and as a measure of contribution
  • the use of badges to reflect similar
  • the use of leader boards
  • the unlocking of content, applications or giving of other privileges based on points reached
  • the explicit use of actual games in training or communications exercises

How long has “gamification” been around?

Of course gaming techniques were being used on intranets before there was interest in the “gamification” concept. Online games have been used to drum up initial interest or launch online tools before for a number of years, and have been longer around for training purposes. Using online games as training purposes could prove to be successful for the running of a workplace, and so it is important that you incorporate all of the equipment that can help people get the most of these sessions, like a gaming chair. A good gaming chair is worth the money and should be on top of your list. Spending hundreds of dollars on equipment like keyboards and headsets, many people think they can get away with a normal kitchen chair, which is a very bad idea in the long run, especially if you want to make your business as best it can be. If you want your “gamification” strategy to work effectively, it is important that you take even the smallest of things into consideration.

The “gamification” of intranets on any scale has been around for three years or so. Probably the best know early adopters were travel company Sabre, whose “Sabre Town” social networking capacity was built In-house and launched in 2008. As well as many social networking features and tools, employees could pick up “karma points” for contributing and answer questions. Get enough points and employees unlocked elements such as the ability to add more functionality to their profile. It’s well known that Sabre Town, and accompanying productised version “cubeless”, have produced some very convincing results in terms of driving up user participation.

How widespread is gamification on intranets now?

The increased use of gaming technique has been driven by the widespread adoption of social tools into intranet. There are many examples. For example on IBF 24 we saw some gaming techniques on the AT&T intranet including the use of badges. Yum Foods Jive-based collaboration platform iChing also has badges called “Personal Recognition Awards.” Games are also being used in other ways, for example UK-based Romec launched their intranet with an interactive competition.

Elements of gaming are also embedded in the widespread practice of rating articles as well as the growth of ideas management tools which often involve rating ideas. In fact Jane McConnell’s 2011 Digital Workplace Trends survey found that 30% of recipients had ideation programmes.

The importance of “cultural fit”

Even if gaming techniques are now more subtly embedded within intranet design via social tools there is a sense that the extent to which they are used, and the subsequent noise you make about them, has to be appropriate for an organisation’s culture.

“Karma points” may not go down well in more conservative environments. Gamification is more likely to work in more relaxed cultures – for example in IT and media companies where traditionally there is a younger workforce – or in sales divisions where there is more formalised competition.

There’s a particularly well known example at online retailer Zappo’s, who are famed for their fun corporate culture (they employ a “Chief Happiness Officer” for example.) They have a “Face Game” facility which requires users when logging on to to match the correct name to one of five random photos of employees. This fun tool which aims to help you get to know your co-workers may not work so well amongst a group of highly pressured tax lawyers, for example.

There’s also a fascinating example which was recently detailed in Thoughtfarmer’s blog post about Dinesh Tantri. Tantri is from Thoughtworks, a US and Indian-based consultancy, and used gamification very successfully at a previous company which had a competitive culture. However he but had to use a more cautious approach to gamification at Thoughtworks, where the culture was more collaborative.

Will gamification become normalised within intranets?

Of course as gaming techniques become more embedded within tools then the behaviour will become more normalised within intranets and the workplace in general. The experience of users on Facebook and other social networks of course moves this on considerably.

Ace of hearts on a keyboard imageHowever I can’t help thinking that “gamification” makes some intranet managers nervous.

We may be some way away from the situation where you have to have a 74% rating on the “collaboration leader board” for you to unlock the functionality to be able to order sandwiches in advance from the staff restaurant.

To me the whole concept still sounds a little Machiavellian. It hints at a unique understanding of the psychology of user behaviour by those imposing it, but I wonder if anyone has actually asked the users for their thoughts?

But the tools are out there, seem to be working and are here to stay. As long as the option for leader tables and badges are part of the dialogue with users in terms of the design phase of any intranet then perhaps gamification can find the appropriate level within an organisation to work very well. It won’t be regarded as a passing fad but a permanent feature of the way people work.

About the author

This is a guest post by Steve Bynghall. Steve was the content producer for IBF 24 and helped research Paul Miller’s forthcoming book on “The Digital Workplace.” Steve is the founder of Two Hives Ltd, a consultancy specialising in KM, collaboration and web-based projects. Steve previously worked at accountancy firm BDO in a variety of knowledge roles, including managing their global extranet programme. He is currently co-writing a book on crowdsourcing with Ross Dawson, and writing two research briefings for IBF.

Categorised in: Collaboration, Digital workplace

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