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11/18/2011
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Move Over Farmville? Health Games For Employees

Progress Software says it makes its employees happier and healthier with a social game from Keas.

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Progress Software, a maker of enterprise IT infrastructure software based in Bedford, Mass., recently concluded an online competition to promote employee health. The competition, run by venture-funded startup Keas, took the form of an online social game that ran for 12 weeks, starting in May.

A game aficionado would not be impressed. Keas' offering isn't graphically sophisticated or processor intensive; it's a pleasantly designed set of Web pages with badges and pictures. But as with the sort of entertainment-oriented casual games produced by Zynga, Keas' competition has proven to be compelling for players.

"I just think this is a fabulous engagement tool for corporations," said Joe Andrews, SVP of HR at Progress Software, in a phone interview.

Keas' software might be conceptually similar to Zynga's social games, but it isn't mechanically similar: There are no animated objects to click or on-screen explosions. Rather, it provides a framework to run a team-based competition in the workplace--a competition to be healthier. Thus, participants, once they have formed teams, have quizzes to take and tasks to complete--eating healthy food and exercising--and are encouraged to interact and communicate about their progress and experience.

"We built a game where you won by being healthy," said Keas co-founder Adam Bosworth in a phone interview.

[ Interested in social games? Read Zynga Releases Jukebox Audio Library For Web Games. ]

This would appear to be an example of "gamification," a term that describes the addition of game mechanics or tropes to software primarily intended for productivity rather than entertainment.

The term is somewhat misleading in that the mechanics of a computer game are often tedious and repetitive. Endlessly clicking or mousing about to accomplish an in-game goal is known as "grinding" because computer game playing isn't so far from rote work as proponents of gamification would have you believe.

Nonetheless, the concept has become popular because, like "cloud" and "social," it has the novelty necessary to seduce venture capitalists and to sell software to enterprises, which unlike many consumers, are willing to pay more than $0.99 for software.

"I think 'gamification' is a very dangerous term," said Bosworth, expressing skepticism about simply trying to add game mechanics to a non-game environment, as Google is trying to do by adding badges in Google News. "Most of those systems are not going to work."

Bosworth was once in charge of Google Health, one of Google's highest-profile failures. He left in 2007 to start Keas and Google finally euthanized Google Health in June this year.

Google Health's goal, moving health data online and putting it under the control of consumers, proved to be too ambitious; Keas' goal appears to be attainable: Motivating employees to improve their health.

Certainly it's a problem worth addressing: 50% of U.S. employees are overweight enough that they impose extra costs on employers, says Bosworth. And, of course, overweight people are not doing themselves any favors, either. Being overweight raises the risk of a number of serious health problems.

What sets Keas apart is that it's not a Frankenstein product--game mechanics grafted onto some irredeemably boring corporate business process. It's simply a way to align corporate and personal interests through play. It's a wellness program framed as a team challenge rather than as a homework assignment.

"There's a very important social component with Keas," explained Bosworth. "There's a huge amount of positive feedback going on from your fellow employees."

That social element also manages to help Keas overcome one of the perennial plagues of online games: cheating."What we found is there's essentially no cheating," said Bosworth. "This is your public persona in the company. The risk of hurting your corporate reputation seems to vastly outweigh the value of cheating."

The value of winning is primarily personal, so players would be cheating themselves by lying about how much they exercised. But when there is some value associated with winning the competition--Andrews said winners at Progress got $500 each--players police each other. Andrews said some employees requested audits of scores because the competition was so intense.

For companies, Keas is not a cure for health costs. At $30 per employee for a competition, Andrews said the value of the program was not easily measured in terms of ROI.

"I wouldn't say Keas is going to immediately save you money," he said. "In time, it may if you have enough programs."

But looking beyond the health effects, which you'd have to measure over years to have any real insight into life expectancy and health improvements, Andrews suggests that Keas makes employees more engaged and happier.

Calling the results of an employee survey "incredible," Andrews said he heard expressions of gratitude and interest daily. "They say, 'I can't believe that Progress has done this for us,'" he said.

Progress has over 1,700 employees worldwide, but only those in the U.S. could participate in the May competition. The company had 637 people register, 414 of whom continued through completion. They answered 8,300 questions and completed over 7,000 to-do tasks. Of 230 who responded to a post-competition survey, 128 together lost a total of 592 pounds over the course of the game.

Early next year, Progress plans to run another competition that will include its workers abroad.

"I look at the enterprise right now trying to be Facebook, and I wonder whether it shouldn't try to be Zynga instead," said Bosworth. "In three years, the discussion will not be whether you need a social network. It's going to be, 'how do you make a game that's fun and causes your employees to engage?'"

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