As promised in a previous post, this article provides a short summary of the findings from the research effort that I conducted as part of an Executive Doctorate in Business Administration program last 3 years. Please reach out if you wish to receive the full Research thesis.
What does Academia tell us about Gamification so far?
Gamification consists at the core, in “applying game elements to non-game contexts”[i]. It typically aims to drive behavior changes and to increase user commitment and motivation towards the gamified application. While the game industry is able to tap into human psyche to get players to engage voluntarily with some unparalleled intensity and duration [ii], gamification intends to apply some game elements like avatars, badges, contests or leaderboards to foster similar levels of interest, enjoyable experience and commitment in non-gaming information systems [iii]. In 2013, Gartner included gamification in his “Hype Cycle” study, bringing together the most significant technologies with cross-industry relevance, transformational and with a high-impact in potential. Gamification ideas have since been spawning very rapidly in numerous sectors including education, health, sustainability, productivity, news and entertainment, and marketing.
Since the emergence of gamification as an academic field of research in 2011, a number of empirical studies have scanned many gamification cases to confirm whether gamification “works” as intended by its supporters [iv]. So far, the results of those studies suggest mostly a positive impact of gamification on the workplace, however, they point towards a variability of impact, depending on the context, users, and some highlight a real challenge to sustain user interest over time. There is therefore still a call for a further understanding of the mechanisms at play with gamification, and conditions for a successful implementation.
An attractive use case for gamification in the workplace aims to accelerate and deepen adoption of Enterprise Information Systems, like CRMs, ERPs or knowledge management software. On the well-known CRM SalesForce (SFDC) website, in April 2017, no less than 12 compatible gamification apps were referenced. While companies are often struggling to achieve full returns on their investments in information systems [v], can we consider gamification as a valid option to achieve better engagement of users and maximize their utilization to improve their sales practices and productivity?
Scope and Design of our Action Research effort at HPE Inside Sales
This research effort aims to improve our understanding of the contribution of gamification to accelerate the adoption of the CRM and identify some core design principles for practitioners willing to test gamification in their own setting. The specific case addressed by this research relates to a superficial adoption of SFDC CRM in the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Inside sales Organization in Europe, limiting its contribution to drive improved sales performance. Full leverage of CRM capabilities was particularly important in the context of this inside sales organization as we on-boarded a large number of new employees, mostly graduates and early careers profiles with limited sales experience, and aim for fast ramp up and high churn to offer attractive career paths within the company.
This effort applied an Action Research (AR) methodology [vi], which implies for the researcher, building on the previous knowledge of Academia, to introduce a change in the studied setting in order to come up with academically valid answers as much as the resolution of the business issue studied. Research is conducted through rigorous cycles of planning, intervention, evaluation, and reflection.
Action Research methodology – Based on Hudson, Owen, & van Veen (2006, p.581)
This research has been conducted in two cycles, the second integrating the learnings from the shortfalls of the first cycle, during a 3 years period from 2014 and 2017. During Cycle 1, including 72 participants, located in 3 locations: Erskine (Scotland), Prague, Barcelona, were in scope for a pilot of Nitro application from Bunchball. For Cycle 2, we worked with a team of 159 users across the 2 sites, fairly distributed between Erskine (Scotland) and Prague, and implemented the LevelEleven application. During the 2 cycles, I have conducted 7 focus groups and 54 interviews. In addition, we have been also able to analyze the quantitative impact of gamification pilot on SFDC features usage and to compare sites, where different management practices and contests were implemented.
I will not be able here to provide the depth of information collected and analyzed, which can be consulted in my Doctoral thesis. However here is a short summary of the main take away from this effort (beyond passing my Doctorate degree!).
Does gamification work?
The research conducted confirmed a tangible impact of gamification on information systems, generating enhanced use and improving user satisfaction. It results in greater perceived benefits at the users of the CRM, both sales representatives and sales managers and the organization. We could confirm an enhanced system use of the CRM, on the gamified features, a feeling of “fun” or enjoyment, which makes even routine tasks in the CRM less boring and work more interesting. As a result of the collective improvement of CRM use, the information quality has also improved with the more frequent and qualitative updates from the users.
What are the psychological mechanisms at play?
This enquiry also offers a more detailed understanding of the psychological mechanisms explaining this impact. Game elements from gamification (in our case, teams, points, contests with time constraints, scorecard updated real-time, leaderboard, TV display with pictures and sounds, platform) enables 4 main motivational attributes of gamification impactful from the empirical research: team dynamics, playfulness, competition and real-time feedback. Playfulness seems to act as an “adjuvant” to the team dynamics and competition. It helps for instance to keep the competition “healthy” rather than fierce, and competition (if not taken too seriously thanks to the playful context) stimulates intrinsic motivation. Real-time feedback fuels the intrinsic motivation, both for competence by providing visibility on performance against targets and against peers, and for autonomy by making users more independent from managers’ feedback and able to drive their trajectory by themselves. Real-time feedback contributes as well to the CRM information quality by providing up-to-date and concise information. Extrinsic rewards can either stimulate or inhibit the motivation, If individuals feel controlled and pressured, we can expect that their intrinsic motivation will be negatively impacted. In our case, we got more comments trending towards a positive perception of the pressure, as stimulating than negative.
What are the findings for organizations willing to implement gamification?
This research has confirmed the sensitive and somewhat volatile nature of gamification impact. Impact on enhanced use seems to disappear when the gamification trigger stops, while the enjoyment impact remains. Gamification cannot be “switched on”, it is a managerial process that is best performing when leveraging participative style of management empowering teams to shape and control their game.
Based on the learning from the two cycles of action research, and building on the sum of academic knowledge summarized in my literature, we have summarized 7 Design Principles to maximize the impact of gamification. Those guiding principles are summarized in the following table.
And so what?
This Action Research findings, while they have been established with all the rigor required by Academia, as highlighted by my Doctorate thesis Jury, also has limits to its validity outside of the particular case studied, in particular relative to the demographics of the organization (with average age close to 30), and a strong competitive sales culture.
Nevertheless, for practitioners, in addition to confirming the interest of the gamification of critical applications in the workplace, this research provides an articulated explanation of the mechanisms at play with gamification, which can be adapted to other contexts. It also offers design principles putting the lights on the managerial dimension of the gamification process, which can impact strongly, both negatively and positively, the success of gamification experience.
This is particularly important while companies are onboarding a number of young employees, born in the digital age and members of the Millennials generation and following. Those design principles can help organizations to leverage gamification to improve their engagement and adherence to standards and processes and to achieve the fit between the culture and expectation of this new workforce, which will replace progressively retiring generations.
One of the unexpected discoveries was the importance of the real-time feedback and visual representation. Not only does this feature contribute to the motivation dynamics, but by itself, it contributes as well directly to the quality of the information provided to the user. Gamification is here filling a gap in traditional Enterprise Systems compared to user expectations coming from the consumer world where everything is visual and real time.
And to conclude…
I would like to thank again the HPE Gamification project teams ( in particular Susan Hart, Dana Clark, Piotr Drag, Stewart Douglass) who allowed me to conduct my research jointly with the business-driven pilot, and my managers at HPE for sponsoring my degree program, and agreeing to my wish to conduct my research within my organization. And of course my big thanks to all the members of the Inside Sales organization who engaged in the pilots and accepted to spend time with me to share their experience with the projects, concerns, and recommendations, all critical to the completion of this project. In addition to their insights on gamification, the time I spent with them in those conversations has been extremely valuable for me as the leader of their organization, to gain a much better understanding of their job experience, requirements, and to value all the potential they can bring to their company and to their industry.
[i] Sebastian Deterding et al., “From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining Gamification,” in Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference: Envisioning Future Media Environments (ACM, 2011), 9–15, http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2181040.
[ii] Andrew K. Przybylski, C. Scott Rigby, and Richard M. Ryan, “A Motivational Model of Video Game Engagement.,” Review of General Psychology 14, no. 2 (2010): 154.
[iii] Karen Robson et al., “Is It All a Game? Understanding the Principles of Gamification,” Business Horizons 58, no. 4 (2015): 411–420.
[iv] Katie Seaborn and Deborah I. Fels, “Gamification in Theory and Action: A Survey,” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 74 (2015): 14–31; Ana Teresa Ferreira et al., “Gamification in the Workplace: A Systematic Literature Review,” in Recent Advances in Information Systems and Technologies (World Conference on Information Systems and Technologies, Springer, Cham, 2017), 283–92, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-56541-5_29; Juho Hamari, Jonna Koivisto, and Harri Sarsa, “Does Gamification Work?–a Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification,” in System Sciences (HICSS), 2014 47th Hawaii International Conference on (IEEE, 2014), 3025–3034, http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpls/abs_all.jsp?arnumber=6758978.
[v] R. Ryan Nelson, “Project Retrospectives: Evaluating Project Success, Failure, and Everything in between,” MIS Quarterly Executive 4, no. 3 (2005): 361–372; “Nearly All Cloud ERP Projects Will ‘Fail’ by 2018, Reckons Gartner,” accessed September 25, 2016, http://www.theregister.co.uk/2016/03/02/postmodern_erp_disaster_gartner/.
[vi] Robert Davison, Maris G. Martinsons, and Ned Kock, “Principles of Canonical Action Research,” Information Systems Journal 14, no. 1 (2004): 65–86.