Let the Games Begin

Gaming technology can give employees a host of job‑related experiences in a low-risk setting.

By Drew Robb Sep 1, 2012
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September CoverExperience is the teacher of all things," Julius Caesar wrote in Commentaries on the Civil War. When it comes to providing employees with on-the-job experience, more employers are creating games and simulations that mimic an array of job-related experiences in a controlled environment.

"The notion of game psychology has really caught on and probably will even more in the next year or two," says Byron Reeves, a Stanford University professor and co-author of Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete (Harvard Business School Press, 2009). "It hits on a major problem in corporate training, which is engagement. A lot of money and effort is spent on material that often goes unused."

Gartner Inc. analyst Brian Burke, author of the 2011 research paper Gamification Primer: Life Becomes a Game, says work-related games "provide a low-risk environment for experimentation, a compelling narrative and constant feedback on performance. ... In games, the rules are explicit. Gamers feel empowered and positive when playing."

By contrast, real life "is about long periods of hard slogging punctuated by a few successes or failures," Burke says. The intent of gamification "is to turn everyday, real-world activities into more pleasurable experiences by re-creating the stimuli that occur in game worlds. The intended result: increased engagement and changed behaviors in real-world activities."

Rules of the Game

Besides being fun, games teach employees skills and keep them motivated.

Reeves says gaming in employee training is used in three principal ways:

At a basic level, games can encourage employees to complete training tasks by rewarding them for doing so through the use of badges, points, levels or leaderboards that show accomplishment. "Let's say you have 100 hours of training videos and are having trouble getting people to use them. You might give some form of recognition," Reeves says.

At the next level, simulations with narratives allow employees to learn more about what the company is doing and their role in it, or to gain job skills.

Finally, there is what Reeves calls the holy grail of training—blended learning that uses simulations and gaming technology that extends into the workplace so employees get rewarded for using skills they have acquired.

Here's how different companies are using such gaming technology at each level.

Reward and Conquer

Learning is supposed to be its own reward, but recognition and status are motivators. Web-based systems offer opportunities for creating complex and interesting training programs that are easy to administer.

"Face-to-face training has become very expensive for an organization to deliver and is very inconvenient for the learner who might have to travel to go to a conference or take a day out of their job," says James Sanders, product manager for Deloitte Digital, a part of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd. that is headquartered in Melbourne, Australia.

Deloitte Digital oversees The Deloitte Leadership Academy, an online learning portal that creates accounting, benchmarking, data analytics and other digital tools that align with the professional services provided by the consulting giant. The academy currently has about 15,000 registered users. Students receive a personal 12-month study program that focuses on which of 12 competencies they need to improve. Materials consist of articles, videos, audio courses and in-depth interactive courses that users can access through phones, tablets or computers.

Despite the vast content, Sanders says, Deloitte Digital faced the challenge of getting employees to make use of the material. To provide motivation, this spring Deloitte Digital incorporated gamification services from Badgeville of Menlo Park, Calif., into its portal. The vendor's system offers points for actions such as logging in, leaving a comment or visiting a page. An overall leaderboard shows where employees rank and is refreshed weekly. Additional leaderboards for each of the competencies help employees identify who in the company is an expert in each area. Learners earn badges as they complete materials and can place the badges on their Twitter or LinkedIn profiles.

"There are three critical elements to make a badge valuable," Sanders says. "They have to be appropriately difficult to get, they have to come from a brand or institution people respect, and there must be the ability for your users to boast about the achievement."

Badgeville hosts all the leaderboard and badge information and feeds it into the academy's portal. Base packages for Badgeville's services start at $5,000 to $10,000 per month.

Since implementing the service, Sanders says, Deloitte Digital has seen a 36 percent increase in users returning daily and a 40 percent increase in weekly visitors.

For badges that are difficult to earn—ones leaders thought would take 12 months—"some users have already earned them after two months," Sanders says. Some clients "can't stop using the site because they don't want the person next to them to get ahead."

Simulated Problems

Multiplayer game software can also train individuals or teams on how to deal with scenarios in their work lives.

Novartis Pharmaceuticals Oncology Global Development Group in Florham Park, N.J., with 2,000 employees, uses off-the-shelf simulations for professional development covering a variety of topics. This year, the company started using a custom-designed simulation it developed with Silicon Valley-based Simulation Development Group LLC to train teams overseeing clinical trials.

"There are so many situations they encounter," says Jessica Bruno-Raiz, associate director, training and development, in the education office at Novartis' oncology group. "We are trying to encapsulate all the components of a clinical trial into the simulation."

The oncology group runs about 80 clinical trials per year. When a clinical trial begins, the education office pulls in the 10 to 15 team members for a day of training. The simulations, which last from one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours, can be done in one room in Florham Park or with staff from the Tokyo, Paris or Basel, Switzerland, offices joining in through a chatroom. Each simulation goes through four steps, and team members receive an evaluation at the end of each step on how their decisions affected the quality of the trial and whether their decisions saved time or added time to the process.

"We've thrown in complications where they make a decision in step one, but they don't see the implications of that decision until step three," Bruno-Raiz says. "Like in real life, you won't always see an immediate reaction."

Bruno-Raiz worked with subject matter experts in her organization to make sure scenarios and decision-branching were correct and reflected what the teams needed to learn.

Teach Budget Prowess

Heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar Inc. also developed simulations to give its mid-level managers and directors decision-making experience. For the simulations, the company's mid-level managers work in teams to allocate the annual budget for their area on items such as research and development, capital expansion, personnel, and marketing. The simulation then produces the team's financial results for that year, and the team can use those results to adjust its budget for the next year. After completing a three-year budget cycle, the teams compare how well they did at maximizing their returns.

"We were looking for a way to build and develop business acumen in our leaders," says Christine Kreuser, global people and organizational development manager in the Human Services division at Caterpillar. Compared to other game-based courses, "this simulation seems to provide a much fuller experience so that the leaders understand, as they go through the two days, the long-term implications of the decisions they make."

Games for the company's mid-level managers are offered regionally around the world, and so far Caterpillar has run 25 classes with the simulations. The company has a similar game designed for directors. The three-day simulation for them involves three years of budgeting, but it is set up as a collaborative game.

"It still focuses on business acumen but also reinforces that at that level of leadership they really have to be looking across the entire enterprise," Kreuser says.

She notes that feedback scores on the simulations have been very high—5.6 out of 6. And Kreuser says she doesn't have trouble getting directors to take the three days off to do the training because "They find so much value in it."

Social Studies

Of course, the purpose of any employee training exercise ultimately is to produce positive behavioral changes at work.

Bluewolf Inc., an information technology managed services and consulting firm in San Francisco with 450 employees, uses Bunchball Inc.'s Spark gamification platform to encourage employees to "go social." The platform costs Bluewolf about $15,000 a year and is integrated into the company's Salesforce.com services. Employees earn points for actions such as starting a conversation on the company's Chatter site; sharing content on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn; getting visitors to view their blog posts; and adding content to Bluewolf's internal knowledge management system.

"We encourage employees to build their thought leadership and professional brands via the social web," says Natasha Oxenburgh, Bluewolf's social programs manager. "It's like we've given a megaphone to our employee base and, in turn, turned them into brand ambassadors."

Users trade in points for merchandise or tickets to events such as conferences. All employees can participate. In just over six months, the number of bloggers on the platform rose from five to more than 30 and the average Chatter activity per user doubled. Oxenburgh says the key was identifying "What's In It for Me?," or WIIFM, for employees.

"We clearly defined WIIFM for all our employees from the outset in order to have buy-in," she says. "The gamification strategy simply encouraged these ongoing behaviors. But we needed our employees to buy in from the beginning as to the why to be more collaborative and curate content based on their subject matter expertise."

The author is a freelance writer based in the Los Angeles area.

Web Extras

SHRM article: Gaming for Engagement (Technology Discipline)

SHRM article: Training Games (HR Magazine)

SHRM article: Firms Mix Work and Play with Surprising Results (Technology Discipline)

Research: Gamification Primer: Life Becomes a Game (Gartner Inc.)

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