Skip to Content

The beloved characters from the Dilbert-comicstrips day after day nail the stark difference of what corporations want you to believe the corporate life is, and of what the corporate life really is like. Wally keeps slacking and still stays on the payroll. No matter what Alice and Dilbert are doing, they never get rewarded and end up at the loosing end. And the pointy-haired boss hires Dogbert and Catbert as consultants to put everyone at the edge and they usually win (with hilarious logic).

Dilbert-inventor Scott Adams draws inspiration from managers, who keep telling us that the talents and skills of employees are important and that hard working employees will be promoted and rewarded. What employees experience is quite different: not good work or expertise is rewarded, but kissing up to the right people, being well connected but also a good town crier of your “achievements”. And this is true for even the most highly regarded corporations. Instead of a meritocracy we live in a “kiss-upocracy”.

I have been working for quite some while in large corporations, on the lowest end of the food chain up to management and noticed the following: people who were the best and most reliable contributors were often compensated the lowest in their teams. While on the other hand the duds got the most money and bonuses. And that is startling and everybody has his or her own stories to confirm that. That’s why Scott Adams is able to keep hitting the nail at the right spot. The question is: why is this so?

A big lie that the corporate world succumbs to without resistance is the believe that they are measuring successfully the goals and achievements. They say and probably also think that the free-market business world is the fairest of systems in measuring the true value of resources, including human resources. Frankly, that’s absolute bullshit. Business software vendors contribute to that by selling promises that their software packages can measure and provide all KPIs for successfully running a corporation. Truth is that only a limited number of KPIs are used, implemented, and often enough represent a time-delayed and skewered picture of the reality. Worst is that these available measures do in most cases not correspond with or support officially communicated goals of the organization. Unofficial goals, hidden agendas and dynamic environments that change goals on a frequent basis, as well as other factors, take the upper hand. And result in tons of material for more Dilbert-strips.

Organizations in general tend to be bad in measuring who their best employees are. Games on the contrary tell you precisely who the best gamers are. With games, everybody knows who the best gamers are. With games, you know how you yourself can become better and what the rules and the paths are to join the roster of successful gamers. Nobody tells a gamer only once a year in a performance feedback meeting how well he/she fared. The feedback is immediate. And it is a feedback that is implicit and explicit. It comes from the system and from other gamers, it’s designed into the game as well as encourages others to express feedback. Successful gamers are being promoted to the next level, to a guild leader and receive status badges and rewards. Players in World of Warcraft know exactly what a level 70 priest had to do and achieve in order to come to such a position. And that gives a level 70 priest the right street-cred from the other players.

Compare that to the corporate world. Do you know what a Senior Vice President in your organization had to do to be promoted to that position? Do you know, how and when you can get promoted? Do you know, how you can become better in your job and what the path is? Do you get immediate feedback from any of the software systems or colleagues that you work with? And even if, do you think the feedback is helpful, honest, accurate and timely? And is the feedback really comprehensive? Was it recognized that you spent 2 hours with the client on the phone although it is not reflected in your KPIs? That you spent 5 hours preparing for the meeting with the customers, the same preparation that helped you to support another team and achieve their goals, but you were measured only on your team’s own KPIs? Does your senior vice president deserve the street-cred that comes with the title?

And finally: how do you find an expert in your organization on a specific topic? Can you look it up in a system with the latest status of this persons expertise or is the information way outdated and do you have to ask around to maybe find the right person? And here is where Gamification comes into the picture.

While the focus of most of the recent wave of gamification articles rested on the engagement and empowerment of users, how game mechanics can promote certain desired behavior in relatively isolated applications, how they make interaction with the system more fun, they miss the potential rupture that the introduction of a gamification layer into the business world can have. If the corporate world succeeds in integrating all their internal and external analytical, transactional, collaboration, communication, document, you-name-it systems with a central gamification platform, you introduce an objective and transparent 360 degree view of your employees, what they do and how they fare. Gamification currently “undersells” itself as just a “user experience paradigm” with resulting behavioral change and some fun.

We’ve been selling and praising integration and full 360 degree views of the business world with integrating systems for most of the time, but with the focus on master- and transactional data of non-HR related data mostly. And left out some of the most crucial data for an organizations success. Namely what employees are doing and how successful they are with that.

An integrated, gamified system landscape like this would quickly become the largest data aggregator inside an organization. Let’s look at a system that you already know: the SAP Community Network, the very system that you right now read this article. You get points by contributing to this platform by writing articles and blogs. You get points by answering questions asked by other SCN users. You also receive badges, that display your status (SAP mentor, gold contributor, SAP employee etc.). You receive comments and hits for good contributions. All these game mechanics of points, badges, hits and comments form your online-reputation. It’s absolutely transparent for all members where your expertise is through this track record. That is a way better indicator of your potential value for the hiring or project manager, who’s going to assemble a team, than your otherwise hopefully very polished and impressive looking resume.

Let’s introduce the SCN approach – which is actually used in games like World of Warcraft – to the corporate world and extend it to all areas. Call and support centers are already using a combination of metrics to give goals and evaluate the work of the call center agents. A well designed mix of KPIs that encourage cost-effective volume handling with user satisfaction, team work and others that is constantly fine-tuned and adapted to reflect changing goals and requirements that do not endanger the companies success and reputation. A similar mix is available for sales representatives. These probably are today the best mined areas for putting out hard numbers to achieve goals.

It’s less common to have hard numbers of soft goals casted into measurable KPIs for other areas. There have been good excuses used for such soft targets like writing white papers (how do you measure their quality, success, relevance etc.). Or how do you measure good coding (lines of code, how often it is reused, performance, elegance…)? And here I think we can do way better than we do right now. In the business world we pride ourselves with being able to steer corporations with all these numbers, but if the measurement becomes challenging, we shy away and do a rules of thumb approach. The consequences are that we loose the capability of really measuring good work and good people. We then promote the wrong people and value work that’s contradictory to the overall goals and benefits of an organization or even society. Most prominently we have seen that with the banking industry in the past years. Hence the persistence of the kiss-upocracy and the ongoing success of Dilbert-comicstrips.

If we (the corporate world) want to take ourselves serious with what we believe in and are telling everyone, we need to borrow from the game world. Make achievements and status really measurable, lay out the rules and make all of them transparent for everyone in the corporation. Make sure to constantly monitor the “game” and fine-tune, if necessary. And it will be necessary. HR and management will have to turn more into a game-designer and game-leader role that keep adjusting the rules and reward system and create new “missions”.
Sure, the real world is inherently more complex and with many areas of incomplete information than games. But that’s not an excuse to try. We are getting paid for it and we brag with our sophistication and ability to control many things.

A central gamification platform inside a corporation (just imagine SAP with 50,000 employees being represented there) or as an external platform, where you can take your achievements from one to the other organization would represent the next aggregator. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn are aggregators that represent an image of you that you want to see of yourself. I know there are many problems with the way people screw up there. But to quite some extent, you can have your public image under control. And that’s often misleading for others (not that this is bad) who don’t your real sides, but need to know them for work- or otherwise related purposes (“is this person really a great Java-developer?”). When an open platform – like we can already see with some properties like the buyer-seller of services platform oDesk.com – collects your “real” skills and achievements and lets browse it , potential employers and project owners have a more realistic picture of your track record.

It’s true that there are many obstacles and things we don’t know. What about legal restrictions, the willingness of people to share this information, the feasibility of such a daunting aggregator etc.? Would this usage of a gamification platform (and maybe we should rename it) allow micromanagement and prevent many positive intentions of gamification?Yes, certainly, but the positives might outweigh them.*)

Of course want to keep all the positive intentions that started the gamification trend in gamification. But we need to realize that there is way more and a very disruptive effect possible that in the end will launch us on the next level of business success and make – at least the corporate – world better and fairer.

At the end a personal summary: I still want Dilbert to have some materials. Let’s not make the world too perfect 😉

—-

*) The corporate world encountered similar arguments 10-15 years ago with the raise of data warehouses, who became the corporate data aggregators at this time. Transparency and accessibility of data that was formerly guarded jealously by the owners led to disruptions. Nobody doubts the usefulness of such an aggregator today. With other words: I don’t buy these arguments.

To report this post you need to login first.

17 Comments

You must be Logged on to comment or reply to a post.

  1. Tom Cenens
    Hello Mario

    With great interest I have read this blog. Gamification is something that catches me eye wherever I see the term popping up.

    Did you know WoW also continuously keeps growing and that Blizzard keeps raising the level cap? They are currently at level 85. If there is one thing I can write about than it’s WoW since I have played it for hundreds of hours in the past (if hundreds is enough).

    It’s not always the best players that have the highest level and the most achievements and rewards.

    You have some deviations:

    1)The players who spend the most time on the gaming platform are often seen on top even if they are less good as someone else who is further down on the ranking

    2)The players who go online and buy a character from someone else for big money who let someone else do the work and then take the credit (how closely related is this to what you can encounter in business life)

    3)The player who game the system by having multiple accounts and who help character one using character two

    4)The players who aren’t good at all but by using “kiss-upocracy” get help from many friends who are high level and eventually make it to the highest level with a lot of achievements and rewards

    In the early days of WoW a raid which is a challenge for a group to go through a so called dungeon and defeat one or more bosses was much more difficult than nowadays. To attract more people Blizzard has lowered the overall difficulty of WoW.

    When the gaming platform is not challenging enough it becomes very hard to detect who is the better player since almost anyone can master the game and play through all given challenges.

    I stopped playing WoW a year ago or something. It was a great experience but at some point it didn’t make sense anymore.

    Perhaps a gamification platform in business terms could work better since it is not really a game and more real life achievements can be bound to it.

    Being connected will still be important in the future since information will be widely available. Of course being connected is not the same as “kiss-upocracy” but the line can be thin sometimes.

    Of course there is also the fact that if you know someone and you know what he/she is worth you might pick that person over someone you don’t know although that other person could be better.

    A genius is not always a genius, that is what makes him/her special.

    Kind regards

    Tom

    (0) 
    1. Ethan Jewett
      Mario, Tom,

      I think Tom really hits the nail on the head here, while Mario does a great job of laying out the *real* value proposition of gamification. (This is as opposed to the watered down version we see constantly these days, which amounts to somehow making boring tasks “fun” by introducing game mechanics.)

      In my view, gamification is good if it motivates businesses to make the kind of potentially transformative changes that Mario is talking about here.

      What worries me is that, as Tom points out, gamification isn’t anything inherently new and it can suffer from the same sort of “Dilbert problems” as our existing business processes. This happens all the time, but especially when gamification is not thoughtfully implemented in a way that is aligned with our goals, and then constantly adjusted to remain aligned. It is a ton of work! Just read a bit about the amount of gameplay balance work that Blizzard does on WoW or Starcraft 2. It takes real (and rare) expertise and Blizzard is probably the best at it. And even Blizzard is never able to please everyone and has games that suffer from suboptimal gameplay balance.

      We’ve been hearing about these sorts of transformative efforts for a long time. Mario’s blog even seems to echo some of the themes of “Beyond Budgeting”. And yet, the vast majority of businesses have been either unwilling or unable to successfully undertake these types of transformation efforts. The enduring truth seems to be that this stuff is freaking hard. How is gamification different?

      Again, if the gamification concept can motivate people to consider how to improve their businesses, that is great. But I think we need to recognize the parallels to other efforts and address the question of how gamification hopes to overcome the roadblocks that have stopped similar efforts in the past.

      (0) 
  2. Matthew Harding
    Just to extend what has already been commented on – it’s highly likely that gamification linking to your role/pay will heavily imply (according to the Freakonomics movie I just watched on a plane) is going to get people looking for the best way to cheat the system. Hence, while the idea of gamification as a way of seeing how someone got somewhere is great; I would think it dangerous for this to be used beyond simple kudos recognition (which I think is a great idea).
    Plus from a different angle, what happens when that CxO gets hired in from another company with zero achievements?  Is that fair? No – but here’s where Dilbert can cover off that issue.
    Also, another Dilbert alternative for you to look at that applies to this: http://onefte.com/2011/03/12/how-to-get-paid-more-really/
    (0) 
    1. Mario Herger Post author
      But gaming the system already happens today in all non-gamified systems as well. That’s why finetuning, rule adaptation and monitoring is required. It’s the same with our tax-system: people constantly try to game it.

      And the example with the CxO from another company: that’s why it becomes so interesting to introduce a gamificatin platform, that is independent from your company. Like you use LinkedIn or Facebook to connect (and not loose all your contacts once you loose the company), but track the record outside as well and take them with you to the next.

      (0) 
      1. Matthew Harding
        Definitely challenging to make it universal, but I like your idea (and support) pushing ahead to see how to make it work and to not give up with these obvious problems to overcome.  I just suggest baby steps in this field to see how people engage.
        (0) 
  3. Michelle Crapo
    Loved the blog!  It made me think on a Monday morning.

    KPIs – gaming results.  So I am a developer!  (The funnest – is that a word? – thing to be.)  What do you measure?  Any ideas?

    It’s a nice thought.  But when you think about it -really, really think about it.  And we are here.  How do you measure success for a developer?  (And other jobs – too!)  How would you get to the next level.

    By the way – you may be horrible at the “next level”.  I really would not like to be a VP or CEO or whatever.  I would be horrible at it.  I would hate my job…   Promotion for the right people.  Cool.  But the good technical person may not be the good manager.

    Consultants – coming in with ideas that may not be so good.  Oh I could tell you stories.  But I won’t.  For fear of my own job 🙂

    Again I loved this blog!

    Michelle

    (0) 
    1. Mario Herger Post author
      What really describes and how you measure a successful developer? I think we were way too lazy to ever work on that and come up with good ideas.

      BTW: “you might be horrible at the next level”: have you ever heard of the Peter-Principle?

      “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Principle

      The question is why this is so? Because the rules and paths for success on this level are not clear anymore?

      (0) 
      1. Michelle Crapo
        Sad – very sad.  So I can get promoted until I’m no longer competent, or fired because I don’t want to move up?   🙁  MMmmmm… My title has changed a lot over the years.

        Actually it looks like an intersesting book.  When I have time I’ll have to read it.

        I think you’ve got it!~  The rules and paths are no longer clear.  Nice point.

        (0) 
  4. Martin English
    G’day Mario,
      The talk about ‘cheating’ the game misses the point; people (the real-life Catbert, PHB, Wally, etc) are ALREADY cheating the game we call ‘work’.

    To me gamification seems to describe a process where my aims and goals are more closely aligned to those of ‘the organisation’, by the use of some kind of motivation (hopefully not expensive) that is currently not in use.  Without getting too deep into it, there’s a couple of issues I have with the conversation, let alone the concept;

    1) As mentioned above, we are already ‘playing the game’ every time we make a decison.  Think of anytime where knowing somebody got you ‘the’ job, or where you chose a particular career path based on your impression of a given industry.  BTW, you’re in the game if you’re a part of society;  pretending you don’t play the game is one very particular strategy within the game.

    2) This whole subject IS a bit removed from the real world; to use a current twitter meme, it’s a #firstworldproblem – If we need more motivation than the need to feed ourselves and our families, then we are well up Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs.

    The key point about gamification, for me, is defining where the responsibility for motivating me lies.  Certainly, it is in the interest of ‘the organisation’ to make sure I am motivated, but (maybe I’m old fashioned) if I agreed to do the job, then I agreed to all the rewards (or lack of them…).  For example, as a BASIS consultant, I make it clear that you will have to pay me more if you want me to work on 4.6c systems than if you want me to work on a rampup product.  I know myself and my motivations, and, more importantly, I try to let prospective employers know.

    hth

    (0) 
    1. Mario Herger Post author
      I agree, we are already cheating a lot. But it is not often transparent. A gamification approach would perhaps make it more transparent and obvious.

      In theory your argument about motivation is correct. But the real world shows a different scenario. And even if the customers pays you more for working on 4.6c, you still will not be happy, because extrinsic rewards like money are in the long run not satisfactory. This even will affect your health and well-being.

      I know that I can make way more money if I were consultant, but I am perfectly happy with the job right now, because I can be with my family and dont have to live on the road. Been there, done that.

      (0) 
      1. Michelle Crapo
        Cheating!  Me, I never cheat.  Just kidding. 

        I do think gamification would make it more obvious.  I guess you really could call gamification good KPIs that we are held too.  I know mine are very subjective.  Gamification is just a little bit more fun. 

        Yes, I agree money isn’t everything.  I am like you.  I could make more money as a consultant.  Been there, and done that.  It’s more important to be with my family. 

        Money pays the bills, and I have to make enough to live on.  BUT it’s important to me to learn new things, use them, use my design skills…  You get it.  There are just other important things that motivate me.

        By the way as a consultant you have pretty good KPIs.  If you don’t do your job well – defined as in your statement of work, you are out of the client site.  So your statement of work would give you the KPIs.  (I know not always.)

        I am also a competitive person.  Getting to the next level – well that would motivate me too!

        I just HAD to add my comments.

        Michelle

        (0) 
  5. Christoph Dobiasz
    Hi Mario,

    great blog – many inspiring questions and some insightful ideas. I’d like to add two aspects to the questions you raised.

    1. You asked “why is it so?”. In WoW it is clearly quantifiable, what takes you to the next level. In corporate life not. Let’s take an example: assume a colleague Mr.K is identified as a successor to a SVP position, and those who identified Mr.K also quantified the gap as a clear set of {skills, experience, behaviors}. Let’s assume further Mr.K gained over the course of time exactly those skills, experience and behaviors. In a game, this would automatically make Mr.K a SVP (or level 70 priest). In corporate life not. And this is good, as corporation cannot function with such a promotion automatism (except in maybe some rare cases, like Public Services). Maybe the incumbent is still doing a great SVP job, maybe requirements of the SVP-position changed – a lot could have happened in the meantime. Hence – the humans need to make this decision, supported by system-data, but not giving away the authority and responsibility to any system. Here it seems a game-analogy hits the wall of reality. And this is connected to the second point.
    2. In game, all the gamer does is happening inside the game, and all interaction is a selection of predefined options. Those are limited, and always – like any system-model of the real-life – very simplistic in comparison to the world out there, and you acknowledged it. This limitation (even very complex) to the game world offers a full transparency, what cannot be expected in real-life. And this is why the key question you raised on “what employees are doing and how successful they are with that” is so hard to answer. All HCM-systems so far offered only a partly satisfying answer, especially to the employees themselves. But the game is complete in itself, the life as well, but no model of life is complete compared to life. The delta is big enough to (as I assume) always be there, and not even SecondLife could help with this. What remains, is that substantial part of corporate life happens outside of any aggregator, and I think this is good. Yet it means that all real-life decisions are based on only a partial understanding of the truth. Some call it management judgment, and pay a lot of money to those people, who can make those decisions better (and sack them easily if they fail).
    In spite of both points above (not quantifiable elements of decisions, real-life outside of any system), I do fully agree that applying insights gained from gaming or social media, can offer a great deal of improvement to the to the applications we build supporting employees to manage their professional success, reputation, career. And it is a good time to try again (and again, and again,…), and yet enjoy Dilbert for his resemblance to the real-life in corporation, while increasing our satisfaction inside the real-world of the enterprise.

    (0) 
  6. U B
    One of the things an ‘achievement’-platform would bring to the employees is even more competition. Gamers don’t admire their competing gamers for achievements, they just hate them (e.g. for getting them earlier)! First and foremost gaming involves flame wars. I am not sure if that leads to a better enterprise.
    (0) 
    1. Mario Herger Post author
      Gamification is not equivalent to “competition”. There are 4 gamer types: Killers, achievers, socializers and explorers (see Bartle’s gamer types). According to Jane McGonigal, collaborative games outratio competitive games by 3:1. In a work environment, you want to encourage collaborative and explorative game mechanics.

      Some of the most popular games are not competitive. E.g. FarmVille is in fact a social game.

      So please don’t confuse game with competition.

      (0) 
      1. U B
        Thank you for emphasizing the need to minimize competition in such an achievement system. So how to bring the four gamer types together to play the same game? Normally gamers may choose between hundreds of games (‘game mechanics’) to maximize their satisfaction that comes with playing. Couldn’t that lead to extreme acceptance problems with people? Personally, I don’t want to get forced to play Farmville.
        (0) 
        1. Mario Herger Post author
          The best games serve multiple gamer types. WoW offers something for everyony: you can be the killer, the socializer working together in a guild or the explorer going on a quest or learning a craft.
          The same with Farmville. You can play for points, or socialize by helping out your friends. Or you achieve something by building your farm.
          Depending on your profession, you are alread “playing” today. Sales reps “play”to meet their sales goals – and hoefully be the best of the peers, etc.

          And I guess you yourself already participate in gamified things without that you noticed. You participate on the SDN (a totally gamified serious pltform), or you collect frequent flyer miles, or you get discounts by sticking with the same vendor (e.g. supermarket), or you collect coupons to get a discount. There are many examples, and they all work differently and serve different types…

          (0) 

Leave a Reply