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.