Notes on game mechanics in enterprise and social business tools

Correct me if I’m wrong, but as I see it, social business and use of social tools in the enterprise remains a nut to be cracked. Promises bubbled up last year that the medium’s next frontier, and challenge to insanely great ideas, lay not in the open but in the semi-porous, if not closed spaces of the corporate world. Word was, from folks including yours truly, that social tools promised organizational transformation, if not learning, and ultimately, a new breed of knowledge management. Second opinion was that the tools might indeed produce ambient knowledge, informal learning, cross-functional collaboration, and much more of the sorts of organizational processes befitting a distributed, virtualized, and decentralized information economy.

But more than a year if not two, later, it’s clear that twitter in the enterprise, even if it’s called yammering, or chattering, or signalling, is not the best we can do.

Change comes not from by importing or transposing technologies and techniques from one context into another. New tools create change no more than new generals end conflicts. But we know this, fortunately, for we’re user-centric and inclined to understand user experience and social practices. Uses, scenarios, contexts — those are where change occurs.

Change occurs most readily as a response to rules. Rules are the simplest means by which to change behaviors and engineer new social practices. Because rules apply directly to action and communication — they serialize and sequence it; they couple it and create dependencies; they attach meanings to outcomes; and they define procedures. Rules are, according to sociologist Anthony Giddens, inherently transformative.

It is not in the technologies and tools then, but in organizational practices, relations, roles, positions, functions, and such-like that change may be brought into view and given real legs. I’d like to reflect briefly on one such use of rules, and point out, by means of a caveat, some of its limitations.

Before I do so, however, I’d like to take quick note of a few obvious approaches to the employment of social technologies in the enterprise. One is in the adoption of social communication tools; we mentioned Yammer and Chatter already. These reflect the natural interest of corporate technologists in status updating and tweeting. When new practices become popular, adopt them. I’ll write more about the limits to realtime culture in the enterprise some other time. But matters of audience and of publics, followings, and attention should be fairly obvious considerations.

Use of market and economic processes and systems is another approach taken by some to enterprise innovation and organizational culture. Use of social tools, and more creatively, adaptation of exchange systems and transactional processes for the purposes of idea markets ( makes good use of rules. It also shifts the burden of participation and communication from the user to system processes. The more that the system does, and the less the user needs to contribute, the greater the adoption and use.

If you want to engender change culture and management within an organization, you may need to embed social technologies closer to real individuals and their organizational roles and functions. It is there that you will want to use social tools to transform both employee perceptions/views and tasks; create new networks and channels of communication; and emphasize new and different, possibly indirect, outcomes. But this entails real change — not just behavioral change or technology-specific changes to participation.

A number of additional models, including use of individual incentives and use of cultural norms, may be identified also. But I wish to skip them here in order to return to my initial concern.

This concern is whether our use of synthetic, that is, artificial social relations, we get results that truly benefit organizations. There are two issues here. First, is whether or not use of synthetic rules engenders artificial or “non-serious” relations within which participants make unserious choices. Second, is whether or not the value created when rules of interaction and communication are synthetic is of value to the organization.

In other words, the first question is whether use of rule-based processes, systems, and mechanisms like games, markets, voting, and so on changes the way in which participants relate to the activity. The second question asks whether or not the value added by user participation is real organizational value, or is game value.

I don’t have a neat answer to this question. It’s been around with learning theorists for ever. Do lessons learned in one context transfer easily to another? Or is learning, and activity, context-specific? Kids given conflict-reduction games and collaborative exercises in which to build respect and trust will still get on each others’ within minutes of presenting their collaborative creations to the rest of the class.

If we design organizational “games,” or use game mechanics to promote participation among employees, do we get results that add value to the company and which reveal genuine employee interests and relations? Or do we get the value choices made by competitors in a spirited simulation, a resource-bound activity whose players choose according to artificial incentives and in a state of non-functional, extra-curricular play?

My gut sense tells me that we should add a caveat to the use of game mechanics in serious social enterprise platforms and tools. While games may incent participation, it’s not clear to me that they lead to results better than “serious” organizational change. The latter would require personal, and specific, implementation of social tools — agility in execution, if you will. Possible, but making use of community managers as much as IT and HR.

I would like to hear what you think. The social enterprise space seems wide open and at the same time remarkably promising. Socialities and relations, because they involve actual power, real authority, functions/roles/tasks, and employment. Use of social tools to unbuckle tacit and latent know hows and relations makes perfect sense. But the (understandably) natural resistance to social tools needs workarounds. Game mechanics strike me as an early bet — but probably not a lasting approach.

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  • kevinprentiss

    The process of designing the game mechanics, however, can be extremely important all by itself for executives and project teams.

    For the design team in the corporation, it forces the question: What are the values we are aiming at? Engagement? Informal learning? Or something else, likely to be slightly squishy.

    These values must then be grounded in trackable activities. Adding game mechanics requires some activity weighting process, and that leads to important discussions – Why would a blog post be worth more than a status update?

    How the game incentives are structured around these activities is an important bit of work, but the team's work just to enable that conversation is absolutely critical to the sustainability of the project.

    Without specific activity tying to clearly understood value, the project would simply be hype.

  • Larry Irons


    These are good questions. Take, for example, expertise locators. HP's WaterCooler project found that individuals who were ranked as experts in an area by their co-workers often think they are not experts in that area. Hence, in the WaterCooler project, if an employee was tagged as an expert they were provided the capability to remove the tag so that others at HP did not find them when searching for that expertise. However a game, or ranking technique, is structured in the enterprise, it must retain sociality to endure over time and elicit critical mass of participation. JMHO

    On HP's WaterCooler see

  • Deckerton

    I think it depends on the behaviors that are rewarded by the game mechanics. In a very simple way, if you are rewarded for helping a colleague win a new customer – that's real, tangible value. On the opposite end, if you're rewarded for merely “adding to the conversation”, then what gets encouraged is useless chatter (no disrespect to my former boss, Marc Benioff). So I think if rewards are aligned with real business goals, there is tremendous opportunity for great results.

  • aslevin

    Adrian, agree with the skepticism about the ease of applicability of game mechanics to business software. And I'm glad to see growing skepticism about the naive use of game mechanics.

    Have you had a chance to take a look at this presentation from Sebastian Deterding about “gamification” of real world actions?

    It has a pretty substantive critique of the use of game techniques for business and other uses with realworld consequences. He makes two key distinctions: first, what makes games fun is that they are voluntary and have no realworld consequences; second that the designer is typically remote from the goals being set by managers and the needs of the business.

    I strongly agree that the simple use of gamelike techniques for rewarding participation is likely to be counterproductive – rewarding people for meaningless actions like number of blog comments will generate gaming, not necessarily meaningful communication.

    But I do think that game principles can be applied for realworld purposes – though the design needs to be careful, iterative, and aligned with actual realworld goals. John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and their team at Deloitte reach similar conclusions – they say that social software in organizations is bound to fail unless it is connected to realworld business goals and metrics. And even then, business managers know that metrics are sensitive, and results need to be watched for potential unintended consequences. I wrote more about the topic here:

  • gravity7

    I had a conversation earlier today with a brand agency who made a very similar point. Execute a promotional strategy for a brand and guess what your going to get — a bunch of consumers who love promotions.

    The use of games is really little new, if we ungamify the notion and instead just call it a form of fiction. Sociologists have covered the ways in which non-serious interaction, or “play,” works. Whether you then want to create roles and positions that capture business needs and objectives (I like this idea and have a set of personas more suitable to enterprise social needs); or fictionalize and gamify in order to make the participation itself more “fun” is up to you.

    I personally have doubts that “fun” adds value — but I could see a case made for the unanticipated, spontaneous, and serendipitous byproducts of “fun” interactions.

    I don't feel strongly that real business needs ought to govern all of the participation and engagement around enterprise social platforms. Not only would such an effort be rather “unfun”, it'd be a bit like herding cats. You just can't get users to adopt an organizationally-centric view of participation when the social mechanics rely on natural social practices.

    But if real business needs include changes to the organization; ideation and innovation; leadership learnings; and so on. Then social tools can be tuned to run on the enterprise circuit without anyone getting hurt.