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Blogs > MWD Advisors

Gamifying processes: seductive, but proceed with caution
Neil Ward-Dutton By: Neil Ward-Dutton, Research Director, MWD Advisors
Published: 13th March 2013
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License
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Gamification is a word I’ve only recently been able to bring myself to say, because it’s so ugly. I finally relented after I saw a fantastic presentation at a recent J.Boye conference, about how gaming principles had been used to great effect in building a sense of pride in a demoralised organisation, through implementation and adoption of an online social community.

I am worried, though, that—as is so often the case, and we never seem to get any wiser—the hype around gamification is leading us to get carried away and look for opportunities without really considering what makes a suitable usage scenario.

For instance, I came across a blog on BPM Leader today musing on the possibilities of gamification of business processes: Gaming for reality – can BPM be fun? Here’s one quote, referring to the potential of gamifying a call centre:

What if the agent really saw each day as game? If the motivation to do the same operations work better each day, or at least beat a few Personal Records on Claim Processed, or Customer Created? What if the KOP (King of Process) was awarded when an agent set a new best time for Account Opening?

The idea of gamifying business process work is a seductive one, but I think it’s something we have to be really careful about. The danger is that unless the people performing a process are turned on by games, such an initiative is going to come across as patronising to some, distracting to others and quite possibly offensive.

Applying the idea of gamification from one domain (where there is some evidence that it can work) to another domain is a risky thing to do, because the assumptions you can make in one domain might not apply in another.

Look at the places where gamification appears to be having some impact—invariably these are online social communities where individuals voluntarily participate to help each other with problems, collaborate, co-create, and so on. Because participation in these communities is voluntary, there is invariably some selection bias; those people who like getting involved in online communities will be the dominant members (and maybe even the only people present). Really successful online communities are powered by the passion of geeks (and I mean that in the completely positive sense). We have some evidence that gamification can deliver results in these environments.

But can we say the same about a group of call centre workers? Are they volunteering their time to answer complaint calls? Are they passionate about complaint handling? I think we can all agree that the reality is likely to be different in most call centres. There may be some who love gaming and who have passion in what they do, but there will be many who fit neither description.

The danger I see is that in looking to gamify process work we’re in fact just making the same mistakes as others before us when it comes to trying to improve processes that revolve around people and their knowledge: we’re imposing a system from above. The kind of system we’re talking about here is made up of tasty carrots rather than nasty sticks; but it’s still imposed from above.

I advise real caution when considering gamifying operational business processes. Instead, why not ask process participants what motivates them, involve them in improvement work and get them excited about being empowered to change their work for the better – using techniques and motivations that work for them? You could say that I’m talking about gamification of improvement or transformation; and yes, I am! But applying gaming principles to transformation work is not the same as trying to gamify ‘run the business’ kind of work (although—to pre-empt potential comments here—I do acknowledge that in an ideal world, really mature organisations will have little distinction between improvement work and ‘run the business’ work. The two types of work are intimately intertwined and people on the ground are empowered to drive improvements as part of their daily jobs. But this is far from common today).

What do you think—is gamification being thrown around too casually? Or am I being too old-school? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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