Despite having a rather geeky image, online games can be successfully applied to a wide range of HR functions and processes.
The scope of their potential use was discussed at a seminar conducted by the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) in Sydney on 18 July 2012.
Why use games?
Andrew Butow, from Presence of IT, noted that online games are the world’s third biggest internet activity, behind searches and social networking. Almost 80% of game-players spend more than 20 hours a week on them.
He claimed that online games have crossed the generation gaps, with the average age of players being 35 and a majority of parents believing that online games are a positive part of their children’s lives.
He used the term ‘gamification’ to describe the application of the psychology and mechanics of games to business processes and programs. Because they do not require a hierarchy, games can work well in social media applications.
Principles of a good game
A game needs to have each of the following elements:
- challenge — such as a problem to solve or a goal or target to achieve
- progress — such as a scoring system that shows how the user is performing
- status — evidence that the user’s position or level is improving
- reward — for successfully completing the game, it can be monetary or non-monetary and should be linked to status.
The main principle behind these elements is that people love mastering things, whether at the workplace or in any other situation.
The scope of games
When these principles are taken into account, it becomes clear that the scope of ‘games’ is not restricted to online games. Adventure learning activities, sports, board games, even the Olympic Games are all examples of activities that include all four elements.
In a business context, Butow provided the following examples of the use of games:
- Qantas Frequent Flyer Program: The challenge is to accumulate as many points as possible, customers receive regular progress reports of accrued points, status is provided via different levels (gold, platinum, etc) and reward comes in the forms of free flights or upgrades. Meanwhile, Qantas and its business partners gain a great deal of information about their customers’ lifestyle, interests and spending habits. The reward points issued by supermarkets run along similar lines.
- Foursquare: Its activities include allowing customers to provide ratings of businesses, such as restaurants. This gives them the status of being ‘experts’.
- Airline flight simulators: Butow described this as ‘a serious game’ because it is used in training. It provides the elements of a game, can be fun and provides instant (but not harmful) feedback if the operator makes an error.
Implications of gaming for HR
Butow said that HR is in the ‘people game’ through its roles of attracting, retaining, engaging and developing employees. It is also in the ‘business game’ because it has to play by the organisation rules, which include budgets, business cases, return on investment, compliance, organisation strategy and policies. However, a culture of gaming will always be evident in business.
The challenge for HR when using games is to find the right balance between focusing on business objectives and skills and providing challenges and fun. Too much focus on the former can be boring and disengaging, but too much focus on the latter may become distracting and meaningless.
Employee engagement goes through a life cycle for each employee. The three basic stages are onboarding, building habits and mastery. The challenges and skills required are adjusted to suit at each stage, so it is necessary to have a strategy for each stage and time frame.
Steps for implementing games
The steps to follow are:
- Have a strategy: There must be a measurable business challenge, such as improving engagement or reducing absenteeism.
- Check readiness: Analyse employee profiles as well as the HR function profile (eg does it have a reputation for credibility?), assess maturity and seek buy-in.
- Design the game: Align all strategic measures and build the games around them. You will need designers and creative input at this stage.
- Build the game: Have a project plan. Tools are available via the cloud.
- Support the game: Measure its progress and impact, using return-on-investment measures.
Note: using the word ‘games’ can sometimes be a barrier for senior managers, as it may imply distractions or doubtful relevance. If so, use words such as ‘incentive’ or ‘reward’ in the project title.
HR games: applications
Learning and development is the most obvious opportunity for using games, and their use is well-established (eg in the areas of onboarding and workplace health and safety training). However, Butow provided the following examples that have been successfully used in other HR activities.
Example 1: Recruitment
An employee referral scheme with rewards for successful referrals is a common example. Another is the use of an ‘onboarding club’, in which the reward for successful participation is a lunch with the CEO. On a bigger scale is the recruitment process used by the British Army, which uses the branding of ‘start thinking soldier’. The recruitment campaign uses the language of computer games and makes comparisons between games and army functions. There is an online simulation test in which options are presented (‘What would you do if …?’) and other multimedia activities. This is an example of what could be achieved with a substantial budget.
Example 2: Employee self-service and databases
Databases are a ‘dry’ area that benefit from livening up. A good example is LinkedIn. Users receive prompts encouraging them to keep their profiles up to date, the site has a progress bar that encourages completion of a full profile, there are social blogs (eg ‘connect with [name]’), and receiving feedback on who has looked at their profile also encourages users to participate and update.
Example 3: Time/attendance
Coles Supermarkets uses a ‘Scan Olympics’ with rewards for its fastest and most productive scanners. Other employers have converted annual leave applications into a game, with rewards such as extra leave for employees who play the game; for example, by taking their leave at times that suit the business.
Example 4: Performance/talent management
Management consultants Deloitte use a system integrated with employees mobile phones in which behaviours are aligned with organisation strategy. Employees rate each other according to displays of the behaviours and the employee receives a text message when a high rating is received. Rewards are given to the highest scorers each month. Other companies use visual cues such as bar graphs to display employees’ progress towards achieving their performance goals.
Note: education and training of users is important for all of the above applications to work.
How big a trend?
Butow quoted a prediction by technology research organisation Gartner Inc that by 2014 at least 70% of all Global 2000 organisations will have at least one gaming application driving 50% of all their innovation.
However, while the trend towards gaming in HR is big in Asia, it is yet to really take off in Australia. It will eventually happen because it is rapidly becoming easier and cheaper to do.
Butow concluded with the comments that gaming in HR is not simply the use of online games at work and should not be used to manipulate employees or as a ‘solution’ for poor decisions or strategy. It needs to be challenging, purposeful and meaningful, encourage collaboration rather than competition, involve all generations and be part of an overall business strategy.
Mike Toten is a freelance writer and editor who specialises in research and writing about HR best practices, industrial relations, equal employment opportunity and related areas. He is a regular contributor to WorkplaceInfo, where this article was first published. WorkplaceInfo www.workplaceinfo.com.au is a publication of the NSW Business Chamber.