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The Future of Work

What The Future Of Gamification In The Workplace Looks Like

What do we really mean when we talk about a "gamified" work culture?

[Photo: Flickr user Louis Beche]

To many, gamification remains a silly, vaguely defined concept; and for the better part of five years, it has been exactly that. But times are changing.

Tech entrepreneurship is a game of fast failure, and I believe 2015 will be remembered as the year gamification turned the corner, passing from hype to productivity.

Here are four predictions of what gamification of the workplace will look like in 2015 and beyond.

1. Employee Focus

For years my two-sentence explanation of gamification included the words "Employees or Customers." Even long after I realized the "customers" part was wrong I included it, mostly because that’s what the market demanded. Companies desperately want gamification to work in retaining their customers.

But gamification of customer-facing use cases rarely works, and here’s why: Gamification is fundamentally about telling a story. If the material is compelling, you can craft a good story; if the material is boring, you can’t.

A customer’s relationship with the online retailer where he buys athletic shoes isn’t a compelling story. Gamification in these scenarios quickly devolves to bribes: if he buys three pairs of shoes, he gets 50% off his fourth pair.

But study after study has shown bribes rarely produce the desired behavior change. Consider the strongest brands you know. Do they use bribes and discounts? Superior products and savvy marketing build loyalty. Sure there are still some viable customer-facing use cases: gamification as an educational tool works, and so does gamification as an integrated part of a self-improvement tool, such as Fitbit.

But the real potential resides inside the enterprise. Major corporations have workforces of thousands. Corporate employment at all levels is experiencing a crisis of engagement. And most importantly, the workplace provides compelling material for a story. It’s a story of cooperation, competition, advancement, failure and success.

Most of the time these stories are told over the dinner table and then forgotten. Gamification provides a means to remember, and people—employees—want to remember.

2. The Holistic Corporation

It is impossible to gamify a business operation without first discussing the company values. The things you choose to recognize in a gamification program are implicitly the things your company values most.

Company values persist through every layer of the organization, from onboarding up to leadership. Gamification may start small, but the full potential is only realized with a comprehensive program. An employee wants to feel like everything they do is relevant and building toward a larger story. Companies want this too; successful businesses know there is a lot of power in a unifying sense of greater purpose.

But building a comprehensive gamification program that spans multiple departments and roles is no small task. It takes more than even the most sophisticated of the current gamification platforms can offer. An enterprise-wide program must take into account the needs of separate but interconnected departments.

The fully connected corporation is not a goal we’ll see fully realized in 2015—it’s a big nut to crack—but we will see progress and, ultimately, the vendors that make the strongest moves in this direction will be the vendors that make gamification a legitimate industry in the years that come.

3. Self-Serve Solutions

Gamification is complicated. It involves deconstructing the employee’s motivations through each stage in their career. It surfaces the tiniest, yet most critically important details in a company’s processes. Thus, simple, one-size-fits-all solutions don’t work. Gamification must be tailored for each case.

But a hidden paradox exists in the Gamification business: Gamification must be highly targeted, but it cannot be made to order.

This is because "made to order" means a services-heavy business. It means project managing multiple departments within your customer’s corporate bureaucracy. Gamification as a service means significantly higher costs, reduced margins, slow growth, and multiple points of failure. As a business model, it’s vastly inferior to self-service.

To support a self-service model, gamification will become "wizardized," which translates to prepackaged best-practices, complex decisions reduced to manageable choices, and integrations eliminated or automated. To grow as an industry, gamification must become increasingly "plug and play."

4. Integrated Analytics

Analytics have always been part of the gamification pitch. Setting up a system that tracks your employees’ behaviors should be able to provide some interesting insight about top performers, weaknesses in the organization, and the relative impact of various motivational techniques. But in all honesty, so far the utilization of analytics has been weak.

The reason for this is simple: Just like game designs, analytics can’t be made to order. Your corporate customers aren’t built to handle complicated, interpretable data dumps. They rarely have the time or available resources to delve deep into the data with you. They need targeted, digested, actionable conclusions. Self-service must extend to the numbers.

Greater sophistication in gamification analytics will come from more sophisticated analytics engines as well as our ability to predict and prepackage appropriate reports by use-case.

Gamification has come a long way since the days of Foursquare badges, and the road to legitimacy has much to contend with: it is a specialized, difficult-to-explain science. But the value is clear, and for every handful of failures, one success persists.

Tony Ventrice is a veteran game designer with a career of applying game-design techniques to emerging markets. His successful, award-winning designs have taken him to industry leaders and innovators including Smule, Zynga, Playdom and Badgeville, the leading gamification platform.

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