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SXSW: What Gaming Should Teach IT Leaders

In World of Warcraft, the individual is 20% more productive when working in a cooperative group instead of playing alone. Wouldn't you love it if everyone on your work team felt the same way?

At a keynote event at South by Southwest Friday afternoon, ex-video game executive and Kleiner Perkins partner Bing Gordon shared lessons from his gaming life with SXSW attendees. After Gordon led off with a poem that he wrote right before the event, it became apparent that his passion for gaming has also been a factor in his business success. His words about how he factors the gaming culture into areas of management and organizational learning got me to thinking that more IT organizations should start factoring in gamification, that is, the application of gaming principles to activities outside of gaming, whether you're applying those principles to customers or to employees of the organization. He went so far as to say, "Every Fortune 500 company should have a gamer on the board."

In fact, any company that doesn't figure out gamification is at risk, Gordon said. Why? Well, for example, as Gordon said, the essential part of gaming is not competition among gamers, but cooperation. He says that in role playing games such as World of Warcraft, in a party of five (a cooperative group), even where some folks in the group don't know each other, one can expect that the individual is 20% more productive than if the individual was playing alone. Wouldn't you love it if everyone on your team at work felt the same way?

Gamers also know that the right way to play is to lose as fast as you can to "find the edges," that is, to figure out what things work, and what things fail, Gordon said. There's no gamer, he said, who doesn't understand that when you come to a door, you open it to see what's in there. That type of curiosity pays off. But perhaps more importantly, this type of mentality allows employees to "fail fast". That's a critical skill for employees who want to bring agility to their organizations.

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Gamification is, of course, important to organizations looking to motivate customer behavior. Just consider FourSquare, which provides a badge of honor to the top visitor of a location such as a coffee shop, or Vincent Grimard, a security manager who awards prizes for employees who pass security audits. But gamification is also important to IT service managers who are looking for ways to motivate employees to exhibit the right behaviors.

Giving privileges for employee performance resembles levels in gaming, Gordon said. "I'm a big believer in badges," he said, but there was a time that Steve Jobs scoffed at him, saying that this was stupid, "Nobody's motivated by fake stuff." Bing says he replied that Nikes are composed of $7 of shoe materials, and the rest of what you're buying is "fake stuff," yet people continue to buy. It's a good point.

While it's important to include game-like rewards as part of an employee's extrinsic reward, it's also important to connect employees in a real way to organizational success. Gordon does favor monetary rewards. He cited an example where one gaming service's infrastructure staff wasn't considered a profit center, but a cost center, with the end result that downtime was more frequent than anybody would have wanted. One thing that helped was to make them into a profit center was to connect compensation to the product's success.

You can't go overboard. Gordon cautioned that "you can't make spinach into a milkshake through extrinsic motivation." But, his central message, that gamification can help motivate and reward both customers and employees, came through loud and clear.

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at or at @_jfeldman.

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User Rank: Apprentice
3/12/2012 | 4:44:41 PM
re: SXSW: What Gaming Should Teach IT Leaders
What do you think of the New Groupthink as it applies to your article? I think group and individual work needs to be taken in moderation, Use Responsibly...
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