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Using Games to Get Employees Thinking

Organizations can make productive things happen by letting their workers compete for virtual points.
August 17, 2011

Companies have been using crowdsourcing to get large groups of outside volunteers to answer a question or perform a task, but now they are finding ways to crowdsource internally—by using games and contests that entice employees to generate, hone, and implement ideas.

Office games: The U.K.’s Department for Work and Pensions uses a game called Idea Street to generate new ideas from employees.

Nearly two years ago the U.K. Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) began asking its employees to play a game called Idea Street in their Web browsers. The game is like a suggestion box for the agency, but it rewards players for generating new ideas: they get DWPeas—a virtual currency to be used in the game.

By implementing suggestions made through the game, the department expects to save roughly $30 million by 2014, says David Cotterill, the DWP’s deputy director of innovation. Some of these ideas are deceptively simple but improve the efficiency of the department, such as a new way for employees to reserve conference rooms and a simple app that analyzes the DWP’s data-storage availability.

Games are turning up in a variety of business-oriented settings these days. Microsoft created Ribbon Hero 2: Clippy’s Second Chance, a downloadable game designed to teach people how to use the company’s Office software. Walt Scacchi and his colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, have developed FabLab, which turns a “first-person shooter” game, Unreal Tournament 3, into something that trains people how to work in a semiconductor factory. The ShapeUp platform uses games to encourage employee health. Badgeville, a startup that helps companies use online games to attract consumers, recently secured a $12 million round of funding.

“People have always played games while they work; it’s just that now it’s being formalized and the games are more fun,” says Richard Bartle, a games researcher and one of the pioneers of the massively multiplayer online game industry. The research firm Gartner predicts that more than 70 percent of the world’s 2,000 largest companies will soon have at least one “gamified application” by 2015.

At the DWP, players of Idea Street earn rewards in the form of DWPeas not only by submitting ideas but also by providing feedback on others’ ideas. Leader boards track employees with the most points.

The points also help the organization select and develop good ideas. Suppose you have an idea that accumulates a certain level of positive comments from the community. It thereby graduates to a team-building phase, in which you’ll have to enlist a certain number of teammates to support your idea. If you succeed at this, your idea will move on to the final phase, in which you build a business case for it and try to get other players to invest their DWPeas in the idea. Ultimately, it will go to an approval board, and if it is green-lighted there, all the people who invested in your idea will get a return on their investment. At DWP, Cotterill says, about 25 percent of ideas that make it to the final phase get implemented.

Seeing the benefits, including the way the game breaks up large tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks, other departments of the British government are beginning to use Idea Street. It debuted in the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills last year.

Rajat Paharia, chief product officer and founder of the game service Bunchball, expects to see more organizations following suit. To him, there’s an obvious connection between the nature of business and the nature of games. “Most companies haven’t thought that hard about it,” says Paharia, but the corporate world “already is a giant game.”

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