Fun, competition inspire better service and happier employees

The federal government is exploring a new way to manage performance and reward valuable behaviors by borrowing from the gaming world.

It’s called gamification, and the idea is to take the principles of gaming and apply them to real-world situations. Although gamification has long been used in industry, the public sector is just now starting to notice how it can help.

The thinking is that by offering competitive incentives, such as virtual badges and points, employees will feel more engaged and collaborate better. For example, the General Services Administration uses online collaboration tool Chatter to connect employees across the agency and enable information sharing. One of Chatter's gamification features is leaderboards that display which employees have the most followers “because it’s implied that those with more followers are communicating valuable information,” wrote Casey Coleman, GSA's CIO, on the "Around the Corner" blog.

Market analysis firm Gartner estimates that by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will incorporate gamification. The convergence of technologies — social media, cloud, mobile, cybersecurity and analytics — has been the biggest catalyst for gamification’s coming of age, said Douglas Palmer, a principal at Deloitte Consulting who leads the company's Social Media and Collaboration practice.

That merger has also generated a new type of competitiveness, “whether it’s checking in on Foursquare or playing FarmVille to score points,” Palmer said. Drudgery work becomes less boring if employees see it as a challenge to score points or badges. Gamification also provides a new metric to see how employees measure up with their colleagues and in what areas they need to improve, Palmer said.

As a management tool, gamification can help train employees when new features or capabilities of a system pop up, and it can ease the anxiety of change among workers, said Dante Ricci, director of SAP Federal Innovation.

“I think gamification is equally suited for the federal government as the private sector,” Ricci said. “The concern I have is that you would have to compare its value to other priorities, and it might not be among the top three. Mobility, data center consolidation and cloud-first would probably take precedence over gamification.”

Nearly any task can be turned into a quantifiable competition, but the challenge lies in the complexity of the analytics that accompany a gamified environment. Misconceptions about gamification also make it difficult to take advantage of the concept of behavioral social analytics, said Aaron Patton, a manager and a GovLab Research and Innovation fellow at Deloitte.

“You hear about agile development oftentimes in government and other organizations, and those same principles apply quite well to gamification because evolution and iteration is part of improving a system,” Patton said.

Gamification could sometimes be as simple as improving user experience or user design of an IT interface to make it colorful and more fun, Patton said. “There’s some kind of basic human psychology that’s often not met with more sterile systems,” he added.

More than a game

What’s important is that gamification “is not necessarily about winners and losers” but about individual improvement, Palmer said. “The aspect of game theory is that 80 percent of the activity should be very positive from a player experience so they can make progress, and 20 percent has to be challenging so they are encouraged to work hard and come back to achieve that,” he said.

Gamification can also temper the politics of performance management and help promote a more transparent federal workplace, said former Federal CIO Vivek Kundra. He is now executive vice president of emerging markets at, which offers Chatter.

Gamification not only rewards performance but also recognizes high-performing employees who typically aren’t in the limelight, and that could have a major affect on the public sector.

“A workplace where you’re rewarding and incentivizing performance will change the culture and have a bigger impact on how the government operates than anything else,” Kundra said.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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Reader comments

Mon, May 21, 2012

What with the current GSA scandal, do we really want to be doing anything described as a game or fun? This gamification may be a perfectly legitimate motivational tool, but you know how the politicians and the news media can take anything like this and twist it to their own ends.

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