Gamifying the Executive Suite

It’s easy to think of gaming as kids stuff, and the behavior-driving techniques honed by the gaming industry limited to getting the unwashed Internet masses to play Farmville or boost engagement in marketing campaigns. But it turns out that the same motivators that get the adrenaline pumping in a 15-year-old gamer also drive executives. So those gamification techiques are also being used to nudge corporate executives into performing desired functions - including completing online training programs in large multinational corporations.

Deloitte Leadership Academy (DLA) is relying on gamification techniques to get more than 10,000 harried corporate executives in 150 companies to complete online training programs. “Fundamentally, what we’re doing with gamification and DLA is to really drive that stickiness to the platform to create semi-addictive behavior,” explained Frank Farrall, national leader for Deloitte Australia’s online consulting practice.

Gamification refers to taking the gaming techniques that harness people’s drive for winning and glory and apply them to education, marketing, scientific research and public policy campaigns. While some experts say they believe the tactics will slowly lose their effectiveness, neuroscientists are finding that earning rewards for completing tasks can cause feel-good chemical reactions that motivate people to move to the next undertaking, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.

Executive leaderboards and badges

Deloitte is getting executives' juices flowing through the use of a leaderboard that ranks how well trainees are doing in learning leadership skills, such as managing people and teams and incorporating techniques for driving innovation. Common in gaming, the leaderboard provides immediate recognition of the top performers.

But gamification in a corporate setting requires a different sensitivity. Deloitte acknowledges that such rankings could cause resentment and drive people away from the program. So DLA avoids placing the “top user on a pedestal” and making the No. 1 position the goal.

“We more want to say, ‘Here are the people who are gaining on you, and here’s what you can do to make sure that you overtake the person above you,’” said James Sanders, product and client manager for Deloitte Digital.

Another technique borrowed from games is the awarding of badges for completing tasks. For example, finishing the lessons supplied by Harvard Business Publishing earns the participant a specialist badge for that content. “Basically, you’re giving a bit of a dopamine release to the user whenever they achieve something, and that drives that semi-addictive behavior,” Farrall said.

People can collect multiple badges and announce their achievements on the academy’s social network or on Twitter and LinkedIn. Because the badges carry the Deloitte brand, they have credibility within the professional community, according to Farrall.

The gamification aspects of DLA are licensed from Badgeville, a company specializing in the use of such techniques in training and marketing. Deloitte consulting, which is separate from DLA, has listed gamification as one of the top 10 technology trends of 2012. Beyond education, gaming techniques are being used to motivate people to succeed in the workplace, according to Deloitte.

An executive backlash?

Driving people through rewards and recognition doesn’t sit well with everyone. “If everything was a game, no one would have a reason to invent; any metric corrupts, as people shape their behavior to ensure that they come out on top,” Susan Crawford, former Obama White House technology policy expert, said in the Pew study. “There have to be other routes to excellence… it can’t be that we’ll be adding up points for every salient element of our lives.”

One big question is how well these techniques will apply to sophisticated corporate populations more likely to be aware of how they’re being manipulated. Another issue is whether reliance on gamification for motivation might reduce creativity and “thinking outside the box.”

DLA acknowledges that gaming techniques have their limitations in motivating people. “Common sense would tell you that it will have limits as to how much core influence it’s going to have,” Farrall said. “Otherwise, we would become mindless drones.”

How effective Badgeville’s gaming adaptation will be in the corporate arena remains to be seen. DLA has only recently started using the techniques, so not enough data is available to determine effectiveness. Nevertheless, usage on the academy site is going up and people are earning and talking about their badges on LinkedIn and Twitter – signs that this modern-day form of manipulation is beginning to work. 

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