Gamification and Business?

I have to admit that I was skeptical when I saw the guest keynote at SAPTechEd was going to be Jane McGonigal from AvantGame speaking about gamification. Yes Ms. McGonigal certainly has credentials that command respect: best-selling author, Oprah’s top 20 list of most inspiring women, #16 all-time most engaging TED talk… the list goes on. But to say I am not a “gamer” is a gross understatement. I come from a different generation, one that views playing games at work or viewing the store as just that – playing and not working. But Ms. McGonigal tells us that the opposite of play is not work, it is depression. Hmmm, I don’t play at work but I never realized I was depressed. In fact I can say quite definitively that I am not depressed.

So what’s the connection between gamification and business? The bottom line is this: Games are a means of getting employees more engaged, more committed and more productive. On the surface this is counterintuitive. But the reason this works is because games are fun. The corollary is – make work fun and people will be engaged, committed and productive.

Walking into the session Monday night, I was equating gamification to video games (don’t own one), games people (not me) download to their smart phones, games like Angry Birds (never played it.) Walking out I realized gamification could be almost anything.  And in that context, gamification is nothing new. I remember in grammar school playing games, competing to be the student that looked a word up in the dictionary first. In junior high school math class we had races to the board to solve algebra problems. In my first job out of college we had a BAD program – come up with an idea that would save a Buck a Day and you got a coffee mug and a chance to win a bigger prize. The goal…make “work” fun and people will be engaged, committed and productive.

In principle gamification is the same. And even though this is “TechEd” (with a strong emphasis on the “tech”), gamification doesn’t necessarily require any technology. After all, during the keynote the audience participation was in a game of Massive Multiplayer Thumb Wrestling. It brought back memories of management team outings I attended in the 1980’s when we climbed a ladder and fell off in hopes that team members would catch us. Definitely no technology required. Yet while there might be benefits to the business in games like this (they build trust and camaraderie), the benefits are definitely indirect.

Yet technology-based games can have a more direct impact on the business. Crowd-sourcing comes immediately to mind. Crowd-sourcing can be useful in design as well as process improvements. And collecting input and feedback can certainly be turned into a game-like experience where employees earn points that can be used to purchase anything from an iPad to tickets to a show.  Apply some real-time analytics that measure performance of groups and individuals and you can let the entire company watch as competition evolves. The real power and future of gaming is in its collaborative and motivational aspects. And the value seems to transcend company size. It is equally applicable to small companies (even startups) as large multi-nationals.

SAP InnoJam and Demo Jam at SAPTechEd are good examples of this. Innojam was a pre-conference event  this year where participants got 30 hours of hands-on experience with the newest SAP technologies with on-site SAP domain experts to collaborate and learn while taking an idea from concept to prototype. The winning teams got the chance to participate in Demo Jam, a regular highlight of SAP TechEd.  In a game/competitive atmosphere people learned and code got developed.

Now you will always have the naysayers that say you shouldn’t have to provide added incentives for people to do their jobs. There is certainly a part of me that agrees. But if a little incentive can move the needle from acceptable to outstanding, then I would say, let the games begin.

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