I’ve been wanting to write this post for some months now, ever since I gave a talk on gamification in the enterprise in New York sometime in June. You can see the video of the talk here.
Yet I didn’t write it. Because I didn’t particularly want to add to the hype, or for that matter participate in the heightened and emotional debate surrounding the use of the term. In fact, a few days before the talk, I was seriously considering not giving it (or at least mutating it) as a result of all the hype around the term, and the risks that such hype could cause serious, lasting damage.
And then things got worse.
I was on my way to Foo Camp, and, via Twitter, learnt that someone I had a lot of time for, Kathy Sierra, had broken her self-imposed silence, and written something via the blog of another good friend, Hugh MacLeod. She’d chosen to write on the very subject I was wrestling with, the over-use of the term “gamification”, and the serious risks it entailed. Do read what she has to say, it’s important.
So as I got to Sebastopol, I was more than just concerned.
And then serendipity intervened, in the form of Tim and Sara and the sorcery they perform to make Foo Camp such an unusual and compelling event. I got out of the car, registered, wandered towards the nearest tent. And bumped into Kathy.
I had the opportunity to spend some decent one-to-one time with her on the subject, and she was very supportive of the line I wanted to take; she’d also put the discussion up as a potential agenda item at the camp, and I went along to that session as well. And so by the time I left there, my fears were allayed, I had a sense of peace that what I wanted to talk about was worth talking about.
The talk I gave in New York received quite a bit of coverage on Twitter and in the blogosphere, so much so that my instincts reverted to staying quiet. Even though I wanted to share what I felt on the subject more broadly. And stay quiet I did.
Until now. Not because I’ve changed my mind about this. But because I’m due to fly out to Japan in a week’s time, and it appears that quite a few of the people I’m intending to see want to hear from me about gamification in the enterprise.
Now normally I try not to use Powerpoint or other slideware; I prefer to talk freely and without notes. Occasionally, I convince myself that the audience could do with some signalling, roadmaps and aides-memoire; in such cases I tend to use pictures rather than words, or single words and phrases.
There are times I deviate from this rule, and provide the audience with words to follow what I’m saying. This usually happens when the event is in a country where English is not the mother tongue, and especially where the Roman alphabet is not in use. In such cases, I try and provide the organisers with a script that can be translated into the local language.
Which, in some form or shape, is what I’m doing here. Writing that script. Sharing what I think about the enterprise and gamification. As succinctly as I can.
The enterprise and gamification: Some thoughts
Why? And why now?
Work is changing. As we’ve shifted from the agricultural and industrial economies to knowledge-based economies, what we do has changed. The tools and processes of those ages are no longer fit for purpose. Knowledge work is inherently lumpy and unpredictable and “non-linear”. The sequential, repeatable processes of past paradigms are less and less effective in today’s workplace: too often, we spend time exception-handling as the squarenesses of the pegs that come our way, stoutly and solidly resist our ability to place them in the roundnesses of the process holes we built to receive them.
Firms are changing; the purpose of a firm is to reduce transaction costs, and vertical integration is no longer the best way to achieve this. Partnering, alliances and outsourcing are ways that the boundaries of the firm are altering, and multidisciplinary teamwork, both within as well as beyond the firm, has become an imperative.
Organisations are changing; firms “organised” in order to reduce transaction costs in doing four things: setting priorities, allocating resources, dealing with conflict and monitoring progress. So for time immemorial we’ve had hierarchies of product and customer along with “overheads”. Hierarchical structures were the most efficient way of getting things done: deciding what’s to be done, allocating the tasks to people, giving them the resources needed, sending and receiving the “orders”, aggregating news of progress, dealing with the “conflict” of change, monitoring progress, intervening as required. This is not the same for knowledge workers; often, such decisions are better taken by domain experts closer to the “coalface”. Overall vision and strategy still tend to get set by leaders and leadership teams, but these are leaders, not managers, with the responsibility to do just that: lead.
The technology is changing: now, with ubiquitously connected smart devices, people are able to share information with each other more quickly and more effectively, making the decision process easier. The prevalence of activity streams in many of the social networks has had the effect of making information more “real-time” and often more “actionable”, once the appropriate levels of filter have been designed in.
Customers are changing, they’re more participative, more demanding, more active. They have greater power, both personal as well as social. They spend more time in social networks than in traditional media, using mobile smart devices; they’re more likely to be digital residents rather than digital visitors. And they communicate via the social networks rather than via email.
Business, however, has not changed. As Peter Drucker memorably said, the purpose of business is to create customers.
So that’s the why and the why now.
New problems need new solutions
As a result of these trends, there are new demands on the enterprise. Knowledge workers need smarter ways to discover what needs to be done, the context in which to do it, the tools available, past learning. They need smarter ways to discover potential team members, people with the right mix of skills to carry out the tasks. They need better dashboards to tell them about their operating environment, external and internal stimuli and feedback loops. They need more effective ways to train for all this, to learn the patterns rather than the processes, so that they can apply their personal and collective intelligence to solve the problems they face.
An environment where nonlinearity is pretty much a fundamental design pattern. Lateral, often bottom-up, task and team selection. Sandboxes to train in. Quick, effective ways to understand skill and mastery levels in oneself and in teammates. Dashboards that simplify discovery of the environment and operating conditions. Easy-to-understand, visible feedback loops.
Any of this ring a bell?
That’s why learning from video games is important, because the designer of video games began to solve many of these problems well before the people who design enterprise software.
That’s why badges are important, so that the discovery of mastery and skill is simplified. Where that mastery is earned formally, the badge is earned. Where that mastery is self-asserted, the badge can only be earned through peer endorsement. Doctors and surgeons use badges on their walls, called diplomas, to declare their earned mastery. Qualified first-aiders wear the badge of armband or jacket while at work, to ease recognition and access.
That’s why dashboards are important, so that plans and routes can be adapted to changing information. And in today’s world those changes are getting more and more rapid and confusing, so the right filters and visualisation techniques help. People search for things in order to do things, as Esther Dyson said.
That’s why points and completion bars are important, part of the way progress (or lack of it) can be visualised and assimilated, so that action can be taken.
Much of this is not new to the workplace; what is new is the bottom-up everyone-empowered state of the worker, what is new is the non-linearity and lumpiness of knowledge work. So we need tools that are fit for purpose. And the gaming industry appears to have some.
For some sections of the workforce, leaderboards can inform, motivate, even excite. But this has to be done with care, given the depth and quality of research available that suggests the negative, often destructive, impact of extrinsic rewards. Leaderboards must therefore be something we take great care in designing and deploying in the workplace. [The possibility that they may be used in environments like education and healthcare is extremely concerning because of the research.]
Even newer classes of problem will need even newer approaches
It is possible, even likely, that gaming techniques can be used to solve problems that appear insoluble using traditional techniques. Over time, we will find that enterprises use formal and scientific game theory and “gaming” techniques to deal with complex business issues. ranging from auction bidding to protein structure analysis. A recent article in the Economist dealt with some of this. And, more recently, we learnt about this collective-intelligence-meets-gaming success in solving protein structure problems.
The changes taking place in the nature of work and of the enterprise need to be reflected in the tools we build for the enterprise. Game designers, particularly video game designers, have been solving some of the problems the enterprise faces. It makes sense to look at the tools and techniques they use.
When I speak of the enterprise and gamification, that’s what I mean.