Gamification pitfalls and how companies are avoiding them

Gamification, the use of game mechanics and design techniques to motivate people to solve problems or achieve certain goals, has been in use at organizations for several years. But as the concept matures, organizations are expanding their use of gamification to reap additional benefits.

With first-generation gamification, management set up contests or games in order to encourage employees to meet corporate goals. Today’s second-generation gamification is a more sophisticated effort in which employees are encouraged to work together to achieve their own personal goals, as well as those of the organization.

“Over the past few years the focus of gamification in the majority of organizations has shifted from customer-focused applications that are championed by marketing, to many more employee-focused applications that are most often sponsored by human resources departments,” says Brian Burke, research vice president, enterprise architecture, at research firm Gartner.

“While customer-focused applications continue to be developed, there has been faster growth in employee-focused applications, and they now exceed the number of customer-focused applications,” Burke says.

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Given the broad number and types of applications for gamification—for example employee performance, driving innovation or on-boarding employees—it’s impossible to have a standard set of metrics for gamification, Burke adds.

“Each organization needs to define their own target business outcomes for each gamification initiative,” Burke says. “It does appear that a larger number of organizations are setting and reaching their defined business outcomes with gamified solutions.”

There are potential pitfalls with gamification, Burke says. But the three most common are not having clearly defined business objectives; focusing on organizational goals rather than player goals; and engaging players at a “transactional” level rather than an “emotional” level.

“The first of these pitfalls is easily avoided; organizations must have a clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve before they start a gamification initiative,” Burke says.

“The second pitfall is counterintuitive, but essential. Organizations need to find where the player's goals and organizational goals overlap, and to design to encourage the players to reach their goals and organizational goals are achieved as a consequence.”

The third pitfall addresses a core issue in gamification, which is that players need to be emotionally engaged in achieving their goal if they are going to be successful, Burke says.

Gamification projects, like many other technology endeavors, should be collaborative approaches between business and IT, where business leads on determining requirements and target business outcomes, and IT ensures that solutions are delivered that address the requirements and achieve the business outcomes.

“But there is one difference in gamification projects,” Burke says. “For decades, projects have primarily focused on engaging people to make them more effective. But gamification solutions engage and motivate people to achieve their goals. Most IT organizations lack experience in designing solutions that are truly motivating for people, and this remains a large skills gap in gamification initiatives.”

Gamification in Action

Still, companies that have launched gamification efforts are seeing benefits. American Medical Systems, a provider of advanced medical technologies, has been using gamification in a variety of forms for its sales training curriculum.

“We have found that gaming and simulations go a long way to lessen the learning curve for new hires and tenure reps, which meets our goals of growing revenue faster,” says Ryan Casey, manager of customer service —Technical Services, Capital and Pricing, at American Medical.

The company has used different types of gamification, from simple audience response systems and game shows to reinforce and test basic facts and statistics, to complex surgical procedure simulators that develop surgical skills for physicians and coaching skills for sales reps.

“We continue to develop more robust skills application simulations that challenge our sales reps to put their selling and analytical business skills to the test, through group role plays such as mock value analysis committees and competitive debates,” Casey says.

In general, American Medical has used gamification to encourage individual development within a classroom or event. One platform it’s using, from Qstream, combines big data and gamification by delivering a series of challenge scenarios every two days to three groups of hundreds of sales reps.

The platform stores responses from the reps, analyzes them and displays metrics of whether reps are proficient and engaged. The Qstream platform uses game elements such as leaderboards and scoring to make it a fun task, and delivers the scenarios to the reps’ choice of mobile devices. Managers can access analytics that display proficiency by groups and topics.

“As technology has advanced, it has allowed us a chance to drive engagement through more social channels, providing visibility to successes throughout the organization,” Casey says.

That gives the company a platform to encourage and reward through ongoing acknowledgement. “Sales reps are a competitive bunch, so everyone wants their name on top,” Casey says.

Platforms such as the one from Qstream “have not only helped our reps with the retention of critical information throughout the year, [but] it gives us the competitive platform to drive learning, partnership and engagement to a group that often feels isolated,” Casey says.

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While the company has not yet quantified its successes with gamification, “as an educator I have seen firsthand how games and simulations drive engagement, enhance comprehension of complex tasks, and therefore accelerate learning to a point where I would not attempt to run a course without a component of it within the curriculum,” Casey says.

As with any such endeavor, there needs to be a commitment of human resources to manage and develop an ongoing gamification structure and culture within the sales organization, Casey notes.

“Sometimes people believe games for games sake are effective in themselves,” Casey says. “But you need to adapt to your audience and topics and pick relevant times to utilize them for the most effective outcomes.”

Hunger games

Another company using gamification is RMH Franchise, which operates 139 Applebee’s locations. RMH has the challenge of training a workforce that consists primarily of hourly employees who are notoriously difficult to engage and retain.

“The average turnover for hourly restaurant workers is 91%, so we knew that engaging employees was critical to our success,” says Robin Jenkins, regional marketing manager at RMH.

“In early 2013, we decided to take a long, hard look into Applebee’s employee engagement programs,” Jenkins says. “We quickly discovered that the employee retention system we had in place was over a decade old, and that even though we were pouring resources into it, our turnover rates weren’t budging. It was obvious that we needed to update our approach and do a better job of connecting with our hourly employees.”

Gamification was a natural fit. “Gamification uses big data analytics, personalization and transparency to provide goals to accomplish, recognition, real-time feedback on progress and rewards that matter,” Jenkins says. “It gave us a way to provide a hierarchy and competition in what is traditionally a low engagement job.”

Robin Jenkins, regional marketing manager at RMH

The company identified the data it could pull from current systems and created an initial set of short- and long-term goals to keep employees motivated. Last December, it launched the pilot of “Bee Block,” a gamified Web site for Applebee’s hourly employees, using a gamification platform from Bunchball. It was so successful that RMH expanded Bee Block to all 139 of its Applebee’s restaurants.

One of the key benefits of the gamification platform is that it can change over time. “Bunchball’s gamification solution is scalable, adaptable and responsive, and all of that’s essential because we want our system to always be exciting and adaptable to the wants and needs of employees and management,” Jenkins says.

Because Bee Block challenges can be updated in real-time and customized for every promotion and location, managers can motivate employees to sell more.

For example, managers at RMH detected that certain Applebee’s locations recorded unusually low volumes of soft drink sales. Digging deeper, they found that employees at these locations often gave customers drinks for free in hopes of boosting tips.

“For us this challenge wasn’t about selling more soft drinks, but about changing the behavior of employees to accurately ring in sales,” Jenkins says. “Not only did gamification help us pinpoint the problem; it also provided a solution: targeted challenges that re-focused employees.”

Gamification goes beyond building self-esteem and social capital, Jenkins says. “Bee Block is helping us better understand what truly motivates our hourly employees,” she says. “We now know that transparency, feedback and recognition have a very big impact, and thanks to gamification we’re able to answer the No.1 question employees have, which is ‘How am I doing?’”

The gamified system makes progress tracking easy and accessible for part-time as well as full-time employees. In addition, managers can use gamification to field better teams and improve the work experience, Jenkins says.

“We’re still tabulating early results, but based on what we’ve seen so far, gamification is actually helping our wait staff and bartenders transform from order-takers to sellers—a change that could have a significant impact on our brand experience for customers as well as revenue overall,” Jenkins says.

RMH’s success with gamification “has convinced me that anything can be gamified, as long as it is designed well with a set of goals to be accomplished within a given timeframe,” Jenkins says.

Time Warner Cable began using a gamification product from Snowfly about seven years ago to support its inhouse rewards and recognition program.

“We have built in rewards for individual, team and company-wide performance,” says John Jelinek, director of call center performance. “Goals are performance and productivity based along with rewards for completing skill enhancement training. We also gave supervisors control over some rewards that can be given for immediate recognition for a job well done. Employee’s love the system.”

One of the benefits of using the Snowfly offering is that the vendor does the reporting and often the analytical work, “so that we can better make decisions on where rewards are and are not working,” Jelinek says. “That really has improved our decision making process.”

To encourage participation, Time Warner gives reward “tokens” to employees for setting up an account.

While there are many best practices to leverage with gamification, Burke thinks the most important area where organizations need to spend more time is in understanding the goals and motivations of the target audience.

“And of course the target audience is not uniform; rather it is comprised of many individuals that have different goals and motivated in different ways,” Burke says. “By developing ‘player personas’, organizations can understand and address the broadest possible segment of the target audience. Not surprisingly, the key to getting gamification right is to understand the audience that you want to engage.”

“The most significant change that we expect to see in gamification over the next few years is the broad recognition of the opportunities and limitations of gamification,” Burke says. “Currently, many people have overly inflated expectations of what is possible with gamification, and many people continue to confuse gamification with video games.”

As the concept continues to mature, and as people generally gain a better understanding of what is possible with gamification, the number of successful implementations will continue to grow, Burke says.

Bob Violino is a freelance writer. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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