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Gamification may be a buzzword in business, but it could help accountancy firms to improve their performance by driving a range of attractive employee behaviours

This article was first published in the January 2013 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

While most of us have a competitive streak, it’s not always something to be proud of. It’s one thing to want to improve on last year’s time when running the marathon; it’s quite another to ruthlessly crush your seven-year-old nephew at Scrabble. Nevertheless, as our competitive instincts can make all the difference between success and failure in our business and personal lives, it’s no wonder that some organisations are trying to harness these instincts in the workplace through a process known as gamification.

Never heard of it? Well, put simply, gamification is the process of using game thinking and game mechanics such as those found in computer games to make commonplace experiences more engaging. It’s not about playing actual games and it’s not about making life into a game.  Examples of game mechanics include taking risks, role playing and, of course, scoring points.

‘The experience you’re gamifying has to be an everyday one, not something you manufacture,’ says Stefan Bardega, managing partner and head of mobile innovation at media planning agency MediaCom. ‘It needs to be easy enough to be accessible, but difficult enough not to be boring. People need to find it challenging enough to keep doing it.’

Bardega highlights three important features of gamification: a leaderboard, a reward strategy and social interaction. In short, it’s about competing against others. ‘Very few people are motivated by challenging themselves,’ he points out.

Gamification might seem a relatively recent concept since the term has been in common currency only for the past couple of years. But it has effectively been around since the dawn of time.

‘Humans love play,’ says Gabe Zichermann, a Canadian gamification expert and author of Game-Based Marketing. ‘Our instinct is to use games to make the world a more fun and engaging place.’

He says that gamification has military origins. Bravery medals, for example, can be seen as a form of gamification since soldiers who outperform their peers on the field are rewarded with an accolade.

He adds that digital technology and social media have transformed the scale on which gamification can be used. And the arrival in the workforce of the so-called ‘millennial generation’ (individuals aged 25 or younger who grew up with games as part of their culture) has given extra impetus to the trend. More and more organisations now see gamification as a way to motivate their employees to comply, perform and stay loyal.

‘You can’t make work more interesting by gamifying it,’ says gamification consultant Toby Beresford, ‘but you can identify behaviours you want to encourage and gamify those.’

Gamification can drive a range of employee behaviours from reducing lateness and sickness to entering data accurately, using software properly and visiting the gym. Bardega suggests that gamification is a good alternative to the traditional annual human resources review process where key performance indicators (KPIs) tend to be set at the start of the year and only revisited 12 months later. ‘Gamification is an ongoing, continuous opportunity to motivate people,’ he explains.

In the US, a web-based social performance tool called Rypple capitalises on this advantage of continuous motivation. It provides a smartphone app that allows employees to give instantaneous feedback to superiors, peers and subordinates.

Gamification lends itself to a call centre environment where the work is mundane and repetitive but the total value of sales made by each agent can easily be notched up on a leaderboard.

But can it also be used in the finance function? Beresford proposes a leaderboard that ranks members of the finance team according to the number of invoices they have issued to reduce outstanding invoices.
He believes that accountancy firms could also gamify referrals by using leaderboards. He suggests firms could send out tax and accounting modules to business prospects every week. After reading the modules, those prospects answer questions on a website to qualify for points granting them several hours of free accountancy advice.

Business expense procedures also present an opportunity for the finance function to employ gamification. Employees of US technology giant Google have a set daily limit for business trip expenses. If they spend under the limit, they can use the difference to upgrade future business trips, donate the money to charity or get half of it back in cash. It is a strategy that has apparently saved Google millions.

But gamification does arguably have a dark side. Some see it as devious, manipulative and even Big Brotherish. ‘That’s the main complaint or concern,’ says Zichermann. ‘It’s definitely a marked increase in the amount of vigilance that a company is putting on an individual’s action. But does the company have the right to get that data? It does in almost every jurisdiction.’ 

‘Everyone’s motivated by different things,’ says Bardega. ‘Some people are motivated by money, some by getting a pat on the back from the boss, some by competing against other employees. It’s less about being manipulative and more about understanding what motivates your employees. In today’s climate, you have to find ways to motivate people other than money.’

Gamification might be something of a buzzword at present, but you may be coming across it a lot more over the next five years. Analyst Gartner has predicted that more than 70% of the world’s 2,000 largest public companies will have at least one ‘gamified’ application by 2014. Think you have a competitive streak? You may have seen nothing yet.

How gamification changed history

  • Canned food What’s the connection between Napoleon Bonaparte and a tin of baked beans? Well, Napoleon, looking for a way to keep his armies better supplied, in 1800 offered the princely sum of 12,000 francs for the inventor of a new method of preserving food. Nicolas François Appert successfully claimed the prize 10 years later after devising an effective process that involved heating food and preserving it in airtight containers.
  • Air travel Hotel owner Raymond Orteig offered a $25,000 reward to the first aviator to fly non-stop from New York to Paris or vice versa. Relatively unknown American Charles Lindbergh landed the windfall in 1927 after he made the crossing in his aircraft Spirit of St Louis, flying for over 33 hours.

Gamification around you

  • Happy hour The principle of half-price cocktails before 10pm apes the strategy of computer games designers who incentivise players to join their games at specific times.
  • Speed cameras Have you ever been rewarded with a happy face for driving under 30 miles an hour or chastised with a sad face for exceeding the speed limit? That’s gamification.
  • Fitness clubs Customers who are keen in January have often fallen by the wayside come March. So gyms use leaderboards to provide motivation by ranking how far you’ve run and how many calories you’ve burned.
  • Foursquare This free mobile phone app allows users to ‘check in’ every time they visit a new venue and connect with friends, earning points along the way.
  • Klout A leaderboard that measures your online influence, Klout looks at how influential you are compared with your friends and peers using data from social media sites.

Sally Percy, journalist

Last updated: 7 Apr 2014