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Peer encouragement as subtle gamification

There is a beautiful stretch of off-road bicycle path between Austin's 34th Street and ten blocks south. It is part of my preferred route to downtown, most of it on paths without car traffic.

A bit of off-road | Flickr - Photo Sharing!When I am on my bicycle I track my route and speed with Endomondo, a GPS-enabled app on my smartphone, and share with my network of friends. Recently, I tried out another app, Strava, which reports on stages and compares to one's previous rides and everybody else who has been there. On this particular stretch of the bike path, Strava placed my performance as 700 out of 800-some. Seeing that it wasn't a leisurely ride, I checked the basis of that positioning by looking at Strava's data. It turned out that the fastest time for the stretch was 30 seconds against my 3:29. Ten blocks in 30 seconds - off road? Someone would have had to use the Strava app on a motorcycle and drive on the nearby boulevard instead of off-road.

Bad data like this could derive from mistakes (someone accidentally leaving Strava on while zipping by on a motorcycle) or from deliberate cheating. Either way, the app's gamification element is left severely hobbled. With no chance of making it near the top, the incentive to improve performance is reduced.

Where Strava employs gamification elements (and fails), Endomondo delivers encouragement in subtler ways. Sharing your results with your network and getting the odd 'like' or comment is something I like to refer to as peer encouragement (the much nicer sibling of peer pressure).

When you use a social network at work (an Enterprise Social Network, or ESN), peer encouragement is a powerful dynamic. The peer dynamic encourages us to share insights, build on ideas, answer questions to help out colleagues and express ourselves clearly and succinctly. But aren't these outcomes that we want to incentivize? Encourage them through gamification?

Yes, and a carefully considered and designed game mechanism will help achieve it, in part by codifying the elements of peer encouragement but also by relying on a host of other parameters.

The key word here is 'considered'. Coarse or inchoate game mechanisms risks creating two extreme factions in an ESN population: Some who exploit the gaming mechanism (because it is open to cheating) and some who stop using the system because they are appalled by the cheating. A professional services company I spoke with recently reported that a trial of an ESN platform with a simple point-per-interaction scheme had prompted a few individuals to become prolific posters of irrelevant material in order to stay on top of the league tables.

There is no doubt that gamification can make interactions in an ESN more fun, more rewarding and make it easier to spot patterns such as concentrations of expertise. Most organizations already gamify the employee relationship (bonuses, salary increases, promotions, perks etc.) so taking the extra step of applying game mechanics to knowledge processes doesn't seem like a big departure.

The traditional ways of incentivizing employees has a history that goes back to the industrial revolution if not before, so we have had plenty of time to hone those mechanisms and yet there are plenty of modern day examples of unintended consequences of designed incentives.

Plotting to boost the value of your enterprise social network via gamification? Invest in considered mechanism design, get expert help, interpret the analytics and adjust as you go along. And don't forget that peer encouragement is a strong basic force that you don't want to inhibit.


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susan scrupski

There is something about gamification that irks me. It seems to encourage those bad behaviors we are trying to correct with proper engagement with an ESN. Competitive vs. collaborative. The only times I've heard a good counter-argument to this point is when gamification encourages better collaboration. Maybe. I have not seen it in practice yet, and only what you've described in this post. #sigh

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