Gamification at Work is Nothing New

I’ll readily admit that I’m fascinated (some might say obsessed) by the concept of gamification. This tech industry buzzword is typically associated with the process of awarding actions in order to encourage more actions. While most of the buzz around gamification is focused on getting people to participate more in online spaces, by providing things like Foursquare badges, Xbox Live Achievement Points, karma points on forum sites, and unlocking social gaming awards on sites like Empire Avenue, gamification is starting to spill into the real world. Or has it always been there?

Salesforce.com Chief Scientist, JP Rangaswami, used gamification in the workplace as a basis for his talk at the ReadWriteWeb 2Way Summit [VIDEO] last week. The idea of awarding symbolic tokens, like Foursquare badges for work performance, when an employee successfully upgrades his skillset. By providing a virtual reward for the effort, you visually establish what people’s skill levels are and reward them for those skills. The premise behind Rangaswami’s talk is that work is changing and we need new ways to help people adapt to those changes. Gamification in the workplace is nothing new. Rangaswami seems to have ignored many years of what can only be described of gamifcation in the workplace prior to relying on a buzzword to explain it. I’ll use my own work experience as an example.

Shortly after college, I worked in the mutual funds division of Farm Bureau Life Insurance, providing support to insurance agents who were selling the FBL mutual fund products. While I didn’t have any direct interaction with life insurance products, the company offered incentives for anyone who wanted to take LOMA (Life Office Management Association) courses. If I remember correctly, there was a cash bounty for each individual test passed, with an additional bonus when you’d completed the entire series. You also got to put some letters after your name, which is a big deal in financial services circles. Another important aspect of this was, if you didn’t show up for the test, you got penalized the cost of the test (there was no penalty for not passing). There were similar financial planning designations that also included bonuses and rewards. I didn’t complete the entire series of LOMA courses because I went in to the bar business and left mutual funds behind, but I did complete a few of the courses. In theory, the reward for the company was a better educated workforce. For the workers, the short term cash reward for a few hours of study time made it worth my time to take the tests. In the long term, LOMA certification probably presented additional opportunity to get a better job in the insurance industry, had I elected to stay. That’s definitely gamification in the workplace by today’s definition.

Many industries have examples similar to mine. A decade ago I had friends who got an annual salary increase of $5,000 for completing Microsoft’s MCSE designation. For most people, an extra $5k per year would be enough incentive to do many things. These days, you’d be looking to either MCITP:SA or MCITP:EA as equivalent certification, though there’s probably greater market value to Cisco’s CCIE. For people who don’t do a good job of task chunking, it might be harder to see that end goal of a bonus for completing all tasks. In a gamified workplace, you’d probaly do something more like the LOMA reward system I operated under at Farm Bureau, because MCITP is more like beating the big boss at the end of a video game.

As a more recent example, I’ve rallied small developer teams around rewards for beating deadlines on a project. Rangaswami does make the important distinction that adding gamification to work that is largely without reward isn’t likely to make people more excited about the work. The ultimate solution to the problem of hating your job isn’t to have your employer reward you, it’s to find work you love instead. While it may not have been called gamification, what are some examples from your working world where you’ve seen rewards for actions?

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