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Playing at it: the serious game of changing global businesses

Matt McNeany

Matt McNeany, CEO of Code, discusses some key and repeatable games to help shape and change enterprise cultures

I run a technology consultancy. When a client briefs us, they typically ask for serious business concepts like ‘productivity gains’, ‘optimisation’, or ‘streamlining’ — but what they really want is change. Or more simply, they want certain people to do certain things differently, in order to create that change.

This means that as well as understanding tech, we need to understand what motivates people to behave differently in order to deliver a business goal. It is here that the seemingly trivial world of games has become a key feature of how we help shape and change enterprise culture.

Before we began to use game theory in our apps, frankly, we got it wrong for years. We built workflows and tasks and email reminders into our systems to prompt and cajole users to do what our clients wanted. And all we did was piss them off through micromanagement, while obscuring the bigger purpose of business change. Users effectively ‘gamed’ our systems by doing the least amount possible to check the box and move on to something less irritating.

We need to understand what motivates people to behave differently in order to deliver a business goal

Then in 2012, we learned how to do it differently. Working with the global media and planning network, PHD, we developed Source. Source is a strategy and media planning application that allows users working on behalf of clients such as Unilever and Kraft to identify audiences using big data pulls, create campaign strategies, and algorithmically optimise marketing investment.

Serious stuff, but Source is written as a global multi-player game and is currently the largest game-based enterprise application in the world. PHD staff earn points or ‘Pings’ for using the application in certain ways, and they earn more points for using Source in the way that PHD wants them to. For example, if you help a team member in another office with a client challenge, you earn more points.

The impact of Source has been significant. Just after it was released, Unilever chose PHD to run their global media planning business, citing Source as a key factor. In all PHD offices now, each team is following the same strategic methodology, not because they are made to, but because they want to.

There is a clear and differentiated PHD strategic product that staff and clients can see, touch and feel. And for Code, it has taught us an enormous amount about how games create cultures that create the change for business success.

So we are converted to games because we see them work. Here are some of the key and repeatable Enterprise Game elements we have learned as being core to success: Building the culture: “Round here, we work like this”. Defining what constitutes culture is a challenging task. Culture exists in the small day-to-day behaviours that teach others what is acceptable, what is valued and what is not within an organisation. Culture is inherently ‘social’ and creating positive enterprise cultures is the holy grail for many enterprise social tools.

Source, and gamified systems in general, are very effective at establishing these culture cues. They are, by definition, social and collaborative, with teams working towards a common purpose. They clearly and simply demonstrate to everyone what the organisation regards as important and valued. Humans generally want to fit in and belong to organisations, so they copy these behaviours, further building the culture. When they use the system and play the game, they are ‘part of the team’.

Source shows everyone in PHD the actions that their colleagues are performing in the system. The effect is to show a global business united around a single approach.


Points make (more than) prizes

Most games need a means to keep score. Within Source, users earn points or ‘Pings’ for the actions they take. When you complete an action in Source, you see your score instantly go up. Certain actions, for example requesting help from colleagues by throwing out a challenge or helping another colleague crack a brief, will earn you more Pings. We can encourage people to join in by adding double Pings for certain activities. All of these give the user instant feedback that they did a good thing; a much greater motivator than checking an item off your to-do list.


Benchmarking and recognition

Any management guide will tell you people benefit from feedback, and positive encouragement is a powerful motivator. The game within Source provides multiple ways for players to access feedback and check their progress:

  • Each player has a rank on a leaderboard that allows comparison against colleagues. The leaders within each office and globally are displayed on real-time boards in every PHD reception area.
  • Each player has a profile showing their strengths and weaknesses within the game.
  • Players can be given an ‘Amazing’ — a virtual pat on the back from PHD’s global leadership.
  • Players earn badges for developing key skills such as thought-leadership or innovation, identifying them as top performers within the business.
  • Each office also appears on a leaderboard, creating friendly rivalry between PHD offices based on who can contribute more to strategic collaboration.

Learn through play

An often overlooked (but seemingly obvious) element of game theory is playfulness — after all, games should be fun, right? Within Source, we ask users to manipulate some sophisticated concepts and data, for example optimising a media plan for a dozen different audience segments across eight media channels in 20 markets, to create an investment plan that delivers maximum revenue. Rather than present users with a mass of tabulated data, the app gives them highly interactive screens with wheels to spin, concepts to drag, and a chance to outplay the algorithmic optimiser. It’s not quite Candy Crush, but it is enjoyable.

By providing playful interactive screens, we are giving our users permission to try out new ideas and strategies in a creative, lowrisk context — which is exactly the type of innovative thinking that PHD wants its teams to deliver to their clients.


Start here — how to build your game

No marketing white paper is complete without reference to Maslow, but a slightly revisionist interpretation can give us a reasonable starting point for the elements required to create an effective enterprise game:

I am not a ‘gamer’. I’ve never owned a PlayStation and I don’t play games on my mobile. Gaming within business applications at first looked trivial to me — but I was wrong. Building the right game is a powerful means to connect team members to business goals, while delivering a positive experience for all.


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