How Organisations Play: Gamification in the Enterprise

I’ve been immersed in the research and design practice of enterprise gamification over the course of my PhD program over the last four years. The degree was awarded in March 2016, however I’ve still been in deep contemplation about what I have learned, and how my perspective has evolved since I first started blogging on the topic in 2008. I have prepared a series of three three blog posts to share key findings and insights. Two books are in production as we speak, and while I have already published six academic papers over the course of my research, I’d like share this material as widely so that it is ‘made as simple as possible, but not simpler’.

By way of background, the citation for my PhD is as follows: Dr Raftopoulos examined how organisations have been attempting to create business value with the use of gamification. The research identified design, taxonomic and capability elements of gamification that have contributed to exemplary project developments. These findings enhance our critical understanding of the effective design and best-practice implementations of enterprise gamification.

This the first of a set of three posts that I have prepared.

Part 1: Enterprise Gamification as a Boundary Value Problem

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

The focus of my research was to (a) critique how gamification is defined and how it is applied in enterprise systems; (b) understand the unintended adverse consequences of gamification projects in the absence of a strategic approach to design and implementation; and (c) develop rigorous frameworks that may help enhance enterprise gamification project success.

Some of the key findings of this research are as follows:

  • There are two key components of an enterprise gamification application. The first component is the ‘back-end’ where a gamification project is designed as an information system to collect and process data about customer or staff behaviour, which is principally used as business intelligence in management decision-making. The second component is the ‘front-end’ which is designed around generating motivational affordances through game design patterns to influence user experience and interaction. These two parts need to work in tandem to deliver a successful gamified enterprise system. This is consistent with literature in the design-science domain that emphasises that an information system needs to integrate people, organisations and technology if it is to achieve its stated purpose, rather than view the different components of the system in isolation.

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  • Gamification means different things to different organisations. Different organisational contexts and project purposes have produced a wide diversity in definitions in what gamification is and it does. I have documented this as the ‘The Five Ways of Enterprise Gamification’ that describes gamification as being a product, a way of thinking, a process, an experience, or a designerly way. It still remains unclear whether a single definitive definition is even possible or even if it would be helpful to the advancement of the domain.
  • The working definition of gamification that evolved out of this research is: A set of game design patterns, technologies and organisational capabilities that enable an organisation to create value for stakeholders. Within the design professions, it is often stated that no single definition of design, or branches of professional practice, adequately cover the diversity of ideas and methods that are gathered together under that label. Essentially, design “eludes reduction” (Friedman 2003) and as it’s partly a design discipline, gamification should be no exception to the elusiveness of reducing it to an easy and simple definition. Furthermore as it’s partly an information systems discipline, gamification can be both a process (activity) and a product (artefact) which requires a ‘platonic view of design’ (Hevner et al. 2004 p.78).
  • There are potential negative affects of enterprise gamification. Enterprise gamification can destroy rather than create value without a strategic and rigorous approach to design and implementation. Key areas of value destruction are created where there are elements of coercive participation, data leakage, homogenisation of the workforce, loss of human agency, the illusion of change and shallow and inauthentic gamification design. The lack of rigour and strategic focus is often seen in the language used by vendors of gamification solutions where it is implied that gamification is something that is subversively performed on employees by management using tools and tricks from game design. The implicit assumption in such rhetoric is that there is diminished agency on the part of the employee to be more engaged and productive at work, and that it is up to management to provide the stimulus to improve performance. This is the management mindset that had created the current level of employee and customer disengagement in the first place, and where gamification needs to take care to not replicate.
  • The enterprise gamification taxonomy that was developed showed that there are five key parameters in enterprise gamification. The five broad taxonomy elements include primary purpose, target audience, technology strategy, core gameplay, and key mechanics. Collectively there are 52 sub-elements that constitute the most common gamification design patterns used by the majority of gamification projects. More often than not, these design patterns can be classified as elements of ‘self-optimising systems’, which means they provoke “system conform reactions” from users, rather than creating opportunities for deep human experiences and learning, or divergent thinking and action. This means that gamification can potentially extract efficiencies out of a current system or process, but it does not provide the agency or autonomy to systemically rethink or transform.
  • Win conditions for enterprise gamification lay in the three nodes of design, management and technology. Survey respondents reported achieving positive results from gamification projects, but indicated that there’s still room for improvement across many operational areas. In particular, there are effectiveness issues associated with technology and vendor maturity, and a need to improve the capabilities of organisations in the design and implementation of gamification projects. A capability framework was developed from the research data focussing on design, technology and management capabilities as enablers of effective implementation of gamified enterprise systems. Collectively, there are 20 core elements of the capability framework that need to be imbedded into a design and implementation process. These will be presented in detail over the following weeks as Part 2 and Part 3 of this series of posts.

Gamification as a boundary value problem: The Implications

A gamification project poses a boundary value problem which comprises of a business problem to be solved within boundary conditions – which are the technological, design and management conditions that both shape and constrain a gamification project.

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The apparent limited innovation in the gamefulness, design and technology found in the majority of enterprise gamification projects suggests there are conscious or subconscious limitations, or boundary conditions, that organisations have imposed on their gamification projects. That is, gamification projects have been shaped by existing organisational and systems constraints.

However this is nothing new. In a broader strategic and operational context, this phenomenon can also be observed in situations where organisations are undergoing systemic change (Kotter 1996; Kotter and Cohen 2012), which has also been identified as the major barrier to adopting innovation (Chesbrough 2005; Christensen 1997). Such boundary conditions are generally formed by organisation culture, legacy systems and systemic constraints, as well as limitations in organisational capabilities (Cohen 2013; Drucker 1964; Teece et al. 1997). Therefore, this phenomenon is not unique to gamification, but to any strategic innovation project that an organisation is looking to implement. This raises the importance of treating gamification as a strategic design discipline, as opposed to a set of design features that are added to a project without a considered approach.

Research shows that the right tools, and under the right conditions, enterprise gamification has the opportunity to make these constraints more visible and open up the possibility space for creating greater value for stakeholders. This series of posts will provide further detail on how this can be achieved.

Coming soon: Part 2: Gamification as a strategic design discipline, and Part 3: Gamification capability framework

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