The dilemma around social learning in the corporate sector

Social learning through the means of an internal online learning campus causes a lot of questionsaround engagement. We are often asked if we can introduce gamification to stimulate discussion and social learning in online learning environments. The solution is never really that simple.

If all it took was adding a few game mechanics and everyone would share freely then our work would be easy. The challenge is usually two-fold namely the learning culture within an organisation and the willingness to publicly mess up on the job. Where we find organisations with an open learning culture, where all levels of an organisation are sharing information freely and without holding back, we usually have very little that needs to be encouraged. Discussion and debate will evolve naturally. The companies that have an open learning culture are actually not that plentiful. For most it is aspirational.

The other side of the coin is that people don’t like to be perceived as stupid or failing, especially when you want to grow and get promoted in a company. Hence reluctance to ask a “stupid” question or look for advice on a specific scenario. Not that asking questions or looking for advice is a negative, quite the contrary, but in the eyes of the asker, it needs to be safe and supportive as well as without repercussion on their perceived ability. When there is even just a little bit of doubt, then most people will resort to asking the questions privately or on a one to one with a trusted advisor.

Where I see social engagement working is when a subject matter expert regularly contributes, answers questions and starts discussions. In organisations where the manager lead by example again we can see more engagement. To look for the kind of engagement in a work setting like what you see on social media networks is in my view confusing purpose. On social media we hang out to find out about friends and contacts and sharing what we feel is useful for them or what we are passionate about. In work, this could be construed as wasting time, hence most people don’t spend their time on company social channels if it isn’t their day job.

For me, social learning and any gamification you include should be built around the end-users why is he or she learning. Depending on the why you may not even want or need to share anything, you may just be totally satisfied in knowing that you have increased your skill. For those that still have questions or want to delve deeper, an ask the expert forum or even a private chat function would work well. Setting quota’s for questions and answers by default will drive quantity and not necessarily quality. When a subject matter expert receives the same question a few times, it could be useful to create a poll to see how many others would like this question answered and then build your next course around it.

Giving ratings to answers and courses is useful to find out if they were helpful. A poll to find out if the questions are useful topics for further courses again can be seen as helpful.

Peer-to-peer questions and answering work in systems like StackOverflow where you have a significant amount of people keen to share their expertise. Here upvoting and earning points for appreciated values also boosts your esteemed status in the community.  I have yet to see this work in the same way for companies, mainly because of already perceived status based on hierarchy, job title or other.

My best advice for gamification to stimulate social engagement is to keep it limited to the types of things your end-users are likely to respond to. That includes knowing whether they prefer closed private chats or open peer-rated environments. Each company will have a flavour of their accepted social norms, work with them, not against them.


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Playing the mental health game

As a young person growing up, I often had periods of severe self-doubt and although I was an average student, good at a lot of things, I always felt I was coming up just short of where everyone else was. As a grown adult, I still have to work at staying in a positive frame of mind about myself, my work and life in general. I am my own best friend and worst enemy at times.

I don’t think I am unique at that. I reckon a lot of people have these fleeting moments or lingering niggling doubts. Some of us find ways to play with them and stay on our track, even if at times we need help from specialists and other people. Others withdraw into isolation, thinking that they shouldn’t bother anyone.

This morning over breakfast I read the story of Billy, who basically locked himself away for nearly 7 years and just gamed and lived online. What struck me about the story was that it was so easy to fall into this way of living.

The very fact that a board game is also instrumental in breaking the cycle, is a positive one I feel. Creating a game take helps you to work through cycles of mental issues especially when gaming addiction was in the mix I think is inspired.

In the world today, it may well be the way forward for mental health and other things that don’t function well in society. Board games allow for social play and communication. I also see the function of robots and talking devices having a role to play for when there are no humans around and you may need to express yourself.

Feeling isolated is a self-perpetuating behaviour, especially when your coping mechanism is to withdraw. Doing the opposite and joining people in a social setting is not easy to do, it will take some courage. Yet coming to it with a joint known element like a game even if it is new, learning to play is probably something most gamers can master.

It is great to hear of stories that cover both sides of the same coin in the world of gaming. On one side the addiction and on the other games for good. Both can be online and offline. Many games build on psychological triggers and in gamification, I see a lot of applied cognitive behavioural therapy resemblances. Given the right support system coming with the games, it can also be a powerful device for recovery and self-management.

I applaud these initiatives and hope that we will see many more of them going forward.

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Protecting against the dark side of play

As I am going through the umpteenth revision of contracts around the intellectual property with the backdrop of having had my materials stolen, copied and in some contracts having to sign away all rights to our work, it made me think about how this plays out in games. I am talking above about the game of business with competition and the pursuit of profit or performance targeted commission as main drivers for unsavoury behaviours.

Sometimes it is a game of David versus Goliath, where the bigger company has a bigger budget for expensive lawyers and they bank on this in their dealings with small companies. Other times negotiations get lost in the commercial purchasing team and become far removed from the intended simple ways of working. Games like that are not win/win, the odds are always stacking in favour of the big guy, no matter which way you turn it. As a smaller player, you have to work with that and protect your risk and what is yours to start with.

As a game designer, we do our best to balance any game and make it as good as possible for everyone to have a chance of winning. Saying that as soon as someone owns a hotel on the most expensive street in Monopoly, you know it is a matter of time before you end up there. It is chance and luck to some extent and causes banter as well as conflict in family homes the world over.

The cross-platform games such as Fortnite at the moment favour those playing on consoles instead of mobile devices. Whilst everyone can collect resources and run around, battle and hide, it is a heck of a lot harder on a mobile device, where faceplanting your character is a regular occurrence.

Can you protect yourself against these conditions? and should you be able to?

In the real world, lawyers and insurance companies have been making money on protecting people for years. I have not yet come across an insurance for the protection of status in e-sports or sports generally for example. Unfair treatment or fraud would be different and fall under a different legal framework to problems experienced during play when the whole set up was run fair and square.

I think it is the role of the game designer to ensure their design allows people to win in equal measure at the start of any game. In golf players have handicaps, in sailing boat sizes also carry relevant handicaps to level out the playing field. In casino’s on the other hand, the house eventually always wins, so at some level, the odds are always against the player.

In the world of gamification for workplace behaviour, I have not yet come across a situation where this became an issue. We have done gamification designs where we had to actively pay attention to making the game enjoyable for all and giving everyone at the start the chance to win. In one example for sales teams, where experience in the field would have given favour to those with longer service, we built in activity-based measures as well as strictly closing of sales. We also grouped people based on their level or duration of service, we could envisage introducing a handicap system to keep the leaderboard interesting and to keep experienced people on their toes.

As I navigate this in the world of real work, I wonder what have you done in your game designs or gamification designs to make the gameplay fair to all involved? Or should that even happen?


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Are collaboration and competition mutually exclusive?

It’s a  pretty obvious question to ask whether collaboration and competition are mutually exclusive, I admit. In gamification design when you need to come up with a balanced design, which is engaging and good for a large group of people it is something that is easier said than done.

We are working on a project where from our user research we know that a large percentage of our target audience is collaboratively minded rather than competitive and that includes management. No matter which way I am looking at the gamification design, I keep coming to the conclusion that the balance towards competition always wins out.

It made me wonder if competition is, in fact, a stronger motivational driver than collaboration. I don’t have a definitive conclusion at this point, but it would make a good research study I think. The energy behind competition feels more powerful, whereas the energy behind collaboration is much calmer. Both can come with frustration, challenge, debate, interpersonal conflict, but then when celebrating achievement for some reason competition celebrations tend to win over collaborations. Maybe that is simply my experience of it.

To give an example, winning in any sport tends to be celebrated wildly, both individual and team sports. Yet, a highly important collaborative effort by a team of doctors and nurses performing life-saving operations has only a demure energy behind it. It is nearly as if that is seen as expected rather than to be celebrated.

Unless collaboration has a stronger meaning behind it where belonging and contributing, is actively promoted to make a difference. I feel the energy imbalance favours competition each time. Whilst competition can enhance performance for sure, it can also drive unfavourable side effects which are not conducive to working together, such as holding on to important information or other perceived valuable items like networks and connection or even the simple sharing of strategies and skills.

If we set collaboration as an essential step towards a win condition, the winning may still trump the collaboration. The focus of the overall design is improving performance. I would like it to be seamless like in a game, where you don’t realise you are improving but you are. In some sense, it would be easier to keep the competitive element to be better than your own best performance, but then we rule out the nature of peer comparisons and peer pressure, which can also enhance performance.

The company has a strong team dynamic with a collaborative approach to hitting targets. Team collective targets override individual performance from what I can see. If we introduce too much competition with this backdrop, the collaborative spirit will evaporate. My suggestion is to keep all competition to team level and a voluntary tournament for those that want to engage in peer to peer battles as long as what wins here is only achieved by individual performance.

Mastery encouragement towards product knowledge as well as execution in the sales customer service environment will play a bigger role to mimic a game like scenario. If each team leader can set individual goals which stretch the learning and ability over time, it could lead to inclusion in a VIP club for those that hit the stretch learning as well as targets. Target driven performance alone would inherently drive competition and eliminate collaboration over time.

What I tend to do in my design is iterate, leave the design alone a day or so and then come back with fresher eyes to identify what I sense then. Presenting it to others as a soundboard will also help in refining it. Then finally the true acid test is when it starts to roll out in reality. In our own contracts, we stay involved for the longer run to ensure it works even if it will take tweaking to get to the desired impact.

Failure tolerance culture

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