Musing gently about the enterprise and gamification

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.

24 thoughts on “Musing gently about the enterprise and gamification”

  1. So first where we agree. Neal Stephenson in his latest overly long novel “Reamde” covers a specific case of work transferred to a gaming scenario. He maps people walking the wrong way in airports into a game world where players can blow the Horn of Warning if they see a goblin breaching an area. (There are sardonic asides that this is mainly for marketing). Transposing dull tasks, or ones where many eyes would improve efficiency onto a game world does make some limited sense.

    But the real world is not made up of tasks, triggers and actions like a game world is. In the corporate world, people do what they think other people think is right. Games are an escape from this unending peer pressure.

    Corporations are chock full of employees who have mastered this. What is often called “gaming the system”. They will get the right badges, using the shortest techniques. They will not be motivated or excited. They will lever to their advantage the boundaries of the game – because they have no wish to play by set rules.

    Games, most of which are tightly scripted, let the player explore mainly safe emotional landscapes, that allow them (probably a male teenager, or worse a bored housewife) risk free release. “Gamification” grabs some carrots and sticks that are known tropes in the play world and welds them onto unexpected places. None of these can solve the twisted logic that the enterprise nearly always throws up.

  2. Lumpy creative work needs gamification because “getting to done ” to 1 unit complete is unpredictable collaborative and now bottom up managed. Percentage completion used in industrial projects is a notoriously poor predictor of “done”. Often embarrassing hierarchical projects managers (defense or IT contracts on target, then they aren’t)..! And now “maker generation” produces best results bottom up, yet is also addicted to net and net-net feedback. Management somehow needs to provide tools to see is work done but not manage that work. Gamifcation for self organizing teams, earning badges for done, fits.

  3. David, having spent most of my life working in large enterprises I would normally agree. But I think there’s real change happening now. The “gaming” of the system that went on, and that goes on, is gaming in a hierarchy, gaming in a broadcast world. Most of the people there wouldn’t even *know* how to game a networked interactive world, and will fail miserably when they try. We are heading towards a world where there will be fewer corporate emperors and only fully clothed ones.

  4. some of the twitter comments raised the issue of how “transactional” all this sounds. While I will address this in a later post, the key for me is that we have to learn how to value relationships and capabilities and place them on the balance sheet before the transactional mindset can be re-educated.

  5. Your post is spot on. In my work as a management consultant it was becoming clear over the last 10 years that traditional business tools were becoming less and less effective as these static tools were not keeping up with the systemic changes taking place in enterprises. 

    The situation is now so desperate that enterprises contend with a 30% success rate in change and project management initiatives. On top of this (and most likely, related to it) international research shows that only 20% of the corporate workforce is actively engaged on the job. 

    At the heart of the solutions to these problems is for enterprises to better engage with their staff. Practitioners like myself have been using a combination of approaches imbedded in systems thinking, organisational learning, role playing games and positive psychology. Gamification adds to the richness of these tools to facilitate positive outcomes for both the enterprise and for staff. 

    While I understand the concerns of the detractors of gamification in the enterprise, I believe they are largely overstated. The main reason is that when you look closely at their arguments they assume that business leaders are manipulative and that staff are gullible. Not only is this wrong, it is incredibly naive. 

    While there are always exceptions, most enterprises work towards producing positive, sustainable organizations to produce the innovation and productivity that is critical to their long term survival. My work is therefore focussed on using tools which include gamification to assist organizations to do just that. 

  6. Last week I was lucky enough to spend some time with Adam Bosworth from Keas talking about how quizzes, team play, scores and badges had transformed the adoption and user experience of their health platform. He didn’t use the word ‘gamification’ once, but clearly felt that the use of a gaming based approach was working. I got a sense of working in ways he couldn’t quite comprehend, but using his own tools it was clearly working for him – he looked in much better shape than when I last saw him back in the BEA days.

    My sense throughout was – so you turned learning about looking after yourself into FarmVille, I hate FarmVille, this can only work for suckers who spend their time playing FarmVille (whilst sat on the coach stuffing potato chips and cakes into their face). Perhaps I’m being too cynical, but the whole thing stank of providing extrinsic reward (points and badges) for stuff that should be intrinsic (looking after yourself). But, like any good Googler/Xoogler he had data, tons of data, to show that it was working. It’s hard to be too cynical when confronted with charts providing overwhelming evidence.

    I was however left perplexed about how what he was doing would translate into the enterprise beyond peripheral stuff. Adam talked also about their transition from Java to Ruby on Rails, and how gaming might have improved the training aspects of that switch – but that felt like an aspiration rather than something that had been done (or that could be repeated) . I’d also speculate that for any good hacker learning a new language, and getting stuff done with it, is its own reward .

    It was an interesting session. But I went away thinking that if work turned into FarmVille then I wanted no part of it – but then FarmVille is just a way of imposing the routines of the past onto the lives of the present in a time warped style that requires no physical exertion. On the other hand I wasn’t in the least surprised to see that a protein folding problem had been solved by turning it into a game – there’s gold in them hills.

  7. Marigo, better engagement is critical, but not just with staff. It’s across the board. Partners, supply chain. Customers. Especially customers.

  8. Chris, I know Adam and respect his intellect and ability. As you say the charts show that what he is doing “works”. I remain unconvinced and uneasy. My sense has always been that badges must be associated with the development of skill, levels of mastery, and points must be associated with achievements using those skills. Unless this is done, all the research on the poor effects of extrinsic rewards become more relevant than the charts he provides.

  9. Complete agree with you JP. Organizations are changing. With Gamification of the organization, you directly assign the individual growth in the hand of the individual himself. Which in case serves as a motivation to improve productivity. It can be a win win situation for the future of work.

  10. Thank-you once again JP, for thinking and caring so much about all this.
    marigo: “While I understand the concerns of the detractors of gamification in the enterprise, I believe they are largely overstated. The main reason is that when you look closely at their arguments they assume that business leaders are manipulative and that staff are gullible. Not only is this wrong, it is incredibly naive.”

    This tells me you actually do *not* understand our concerns. Though I will say that especially in large companies, manipulation need not (and often does not) come from the “leaders”, but too often happens somewhere in the middle-management layers. And most of what we understand about psychology today tells us that “being manipulated” does NOT mean “gullible”, but simply “human”. The wide range of both academic and popular science books (e.g. Nudge, Predictably Irrational, Blink, Mind Hacks, Kluge, Made to Stick, and so on) all bring up the vast mechanisms by which our own brains mislead us. Indeed, the gamification proponents use this as a primary selling point… that gamification “works” precisely because it uses psychological exploits known to undermine our rational, conscious thought. One need not be gullible to be affected by behavioral psych hacks.

    I would argue it is naive to NOT consider the use of gamification as exploitation for both customers and employees unless careful, thoughtful systems are designed. The approach JP advocates is all about care and thought.

    But as JP already knows, many of us are less concerned about the manipulative potential for enterprise gamification and far MORE concerned about those who would apply it with good intentions but poor understanding of the deeper implications. The issues around intrinsic motivation (self-determination theory, etc.) are subtle, complex, and carry the potential for long-term damage. I certainly don’t advocate doing *nothing*; I keep asking for a pause while we consider the system dynamics and review the research.

  11. Siddhesh, it is important to remember the role of leadership as well, in terms of the values, ethics and goals of the firm. The emergent enterprise still needs clarity of vision and strategy, something that can be improved for sure, but something. Not a void. I am a big fan of the Max De Pree definition of leadership: A leader’s job is to set strategy and vision, and to say thank you. In between he is a servant and a debtor.

  12. Kathy, I understand the detractors only too well as I am still one of them. I’ve written before about our neurological wiring and cognitive limitations that leave us vulnerable to exploitation: . My own PhD research is looking into this area, but as you know that is a slow and protracted process to yield definitive results in the short term. Asking for the industry to pause is difficult when it has already bolted.

    JP, I believe there is a passionate interested among many current and potential practitioners who only want to work for positive social benefits. Are we all not better off working together collaboratively and with peer to peer support network to achieve this end? This is the best way to expose rogue practitioners and keep them accountable.

  13. A tangent, but something I have been thinking about:
    Activity streams are important because they are like little robot historians. We laud them because of their ability to put information in front of people in real-time.

    We are so focused on the here-and-now, but the real reason to invest in streams and news feeds is that you are building a contextual record. A little robot you can go back to and say “show me”.

    I’m most fascinated at how cheap in-memory DBs are getting, and companies like MemSQL are making them not only cheap but backwards-compatible with old code.

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  15. Thanks for the post!

    Gamification and socialization (activity streams/real-time feedback) need to be built into enterprise systems (CMS/DMS/LMS/request-tracking) and cannot exist as separate systems (a la Rypple) if their true value is to be realized….

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