Playing Games at Work, Just Like Your Boss Wants

Turning pursuits that aren’t normally game-like into opportunities to amass points and move up leader boards has found new fans inside many companies. Sure, rewarding employees for “scoring” by meeting company goals seems like an easy target for eye-rolling among cubicle dwellers. But a nascent industry is working to build games into a new approach to business-process improvement, that age-old field of management study.

The goal is to figure out why we do things a certain way at work and what would motivate us to effectively alter our habits in line with employer goals to improve operations and return on capital. In other words, how can a company design a better carrot so it doesn’t need its stick as often? “Traditionally, it’s been a stick approach” for change, says Ken Comee, chief executive officer of Badgeville, a 90-person Silicon Valley firm that is among the biggest carrot tweakers in the field.

Known by the buzzword “gamification,” the strategy is already being tried across an array of industries for consumers. Kendall-Jackson is incorporating Badgeville’s software in its new mobile app for wine drinkers. American Express’s business travel unit is rolling out a points-and-reward system to its corporate travel clients to help drive more spending to travel suppliers that have contracts with a company, lowering costs.

The health sciences division at Oracle incorporates these techniques in its cloud software products, with one effort aimed at getting clinical trial researchers to submit their patient data more quickly. A researcher who enters her findings faster than colleagues, for example, could quickly become recognized in the group. “People in the life sciences industry inherently care about rank and reputation,” Nick Giannasi, Oracle’s vice president of life sciences product strategy, said last month at a panel discussion on the topic.

A new app being released next month by Jackson Family Wines, the parent of Kendall-Jackson, will use gamification software to help engage potential customers. The app’s quizzes, designed by Badgeville, will cover topics such as wine servings and grape terroir. Pass a quiz and your badge totals soar. The goal? To make people return to the app more often, which will then give the winery new data on users and could ultimately lead to greater sales. “People love to brag about their points status,” says Jason Hunke, a winery spokesman.

Of course, as millions of workers—and wine drinkers—begin amassing badges and points for meeting goals, it’s fair to wonder how long the psychic and emotional rewards of besting one’s peers will suffice, even for the most competitive employee. Eventually it’s going to come down to cash. “They’re going to figure out, ‘If I’m driving all this ROI to the bottom line, hey, what’s in this for me?’” Comee says of workers who respond splendidly to a software system that tells them how to do their jobs better.

So workers of the world rejoice: If gamification spreads across corporate America, your coffee mug prize or dinner at Olive Garden could one day become a cash bonus.

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