2013 Volume 16 Issue 2

Let the Social Networking Games Begin

Let the Social Networking Games Begin

Gamification: The Future for Business in Hiring and Training

 The use of social networking games for business, which is referred to as gamification, is an emerging technology. This article reports several cases where gamification has been successfully introduced in businesses and explores areas that are likely to expand in the future to improve the value of workers. Specifically, expansion is likely in traditional HR processes that identify, assess, and develop talent. Small, mid-size, and large company business managers are encouraged to actively begin assessing the value and use of social networking games for HR processes to enhance the performance of their organizations and the value of their workers.


The authors define technology as a capability given by a practical computerized application of knowledge to meet a business objective. Using this definition most managers would agree that technologies emerge on a regular basis. Personal computers, email, tablets, smart phones, and messaging are just a few examples of technologies that have emerged in the last thirty years. Today, few managers remember what it was like before online meetings. However, not all businesses accept new technologies at the same time. Some businesses are leaders while others are fast followers and still others resist to the last possible moment.


How fast a technology emerges is based on how well it can prove that it solves a problem, reduces costs, and improves business performance or some other business objective. In the beginning some technologies can be viewed as disruptive new alternatives. Such is the case with gamification or businesses using social networking games. When managers hear about social networking they typically think of Facebook and Twitter. Some of the most popular social networking games on Facebook are FarmVille, Happy Farm, and Mafia Wars. Although it could be argued that with 250 million game users these games do meet Facebook’s business objectives, it is difficult to view them as practical applications of knowledge that would meet the business objectives of other practitioners. From a business perspective allowing workers to use such tools at work could be counterproductive.

As shown below, the primary business reason that gamification is emerging is its ability to improve the value of a company’s most valuable assets—their workers.

In an earlier article technology was shown to increase the value of existing workers compared to outsourcing.[1] This article revisits what problems gamification solves, how gamification seeks to improve business processes and the value of workers where businesses have successfully implemented this technology today, and what business processes are candidates for future gamification applications.

Why Technology?

Three reasons that businesses are interested in technology are to speed up production, improve business processes, and reduce costs. Each of these increases the value of workers. Perhaps the most famous technology of all time was the introduction of the assembly line to build cars. Specialization of workers, automation, a production process built around a well organized set of assembly points, and a supply chain of parts and materials all came together in one package. The speed of production, measured in terms of cars built per hour of work, increased. Today, ways to increase the speed of production continue to be created and contribute to business performance. The International Labor Comparisons (ILC) program at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that U.S. labor productivity for manufacturing in the period from 2009-2010 grew 19.4 percent while hours worked rose only 2.1 percent.[2] Increasing the speed of production increases the value of workers measured in terms of productivity.

The connection between the changes in technology and the value of workers is recognized in the U.S. and other countries. A recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper listed improvements in technology as one of four ways to increase output per worker.[3] The New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment list seven drivers to workplace productivity that include: innovation and the use of technology, investment in people skills, networking and collaboration, and measuring what matters.[4] It is not uncommon for multiple new technologies to be introduced at the same time. For example, using a collaborative system to share documents, converting paper to digital files, adding Webinars to promote services, replacing software that required dedicated servers with software that runs in the Cloud, and selecting from dozens of Web metrics can all be technology initiatives that are simultaneously implemented in a business today. All of these affect the value of workers.

Improving Worker Communication

Today, some businesses are starting to look for new ways to improve the speed of production and business processes based on improving access and communication between workers. Businesses such as Yahoo and Google recognize that Y-Gen workers have grown up playing and using social networking systems and games to enrich their personal social lives. They are among the technology leaders in social networking games for business. Social networking software for business, sometimes called social software, includes: instant messaging, text chat, collaborative software, internet forums, blogs, collaborative real-time editors, social network search engines, social guides, social cataloging and libraries, social online storage, social network analysis, and virtual worlds as both multiplayer online games and non-game worlds. This article looks more deeply into multi-player on-line games for business as a technology path to improve the value of workers. 

Gamification at Work Today

Gamification is in the early phase of the adoption process. A few of the companies offering business gaming applications are highlighted in this article so practitioners can visit their Web sites and assess their offerings. One example is Bluewolf, a company that partners with clients to attain agile business transformation. One of its partners is Salesforce.com which is a “software as a service” (SAAS) company. The latest Nitro 5 gamification package from Salesforce.com and Bluewolf provides clients with all the tools needed to function as a digital, social organization. Using this software companies can post trainings, utilize online collaborative workspaces, track sales, share best practices, and incorporate many powerful industry standard analytical tools, all of which can be shared and accessed by any worker. These gamification tools are intended to increase the value of workers in the sales force.

While many of these change management initiatives have failed in the past, Bluewolf has differentiated itself. By tying game elements to all of the new tools introduced within the Salesforce suite, they claim that employee adoption, use, and mastery of these new tools can be greatly increased. Employees can complete missions/gain points by performing almost any task within Salesforce. If the company wants to increase virtual collaboration, they can simply create a game tied to that. This same process can be applied to any tool within the Salesforce suite allowing management to drive key initiatives. Scoring and participation for a person are highlighted in Figure 1.

In this case, a person’s teams, challenges, point scores, and standings are highlighted with arrows. The metrics on participation and results can be tracked and used to assess performance throughout a year rather than once a year. The value of workers is measured in terms of frequent small wins. Some companies using Nitro 5 have also reported important improvements in worker retention that they associate with peer recognition, friendly competition, and community building.


 Figure 1: Nitro5 Opportunities Page

Bluewolf also notes that a strong upside of this approach is that management can easily see who is using the software, how often, and in what ways, providing a very robust employee evaluation tool while jointly driving adoption of the new software. Bluewolf has also successfully worked with companies such as Adobe, Cisco, and Intel to help gamify their processes and received numerous awards in 2012 for their innovative approach to agile transformation.

Another interesting use of gamification is Yahoo!’s adoption of the Disquss module aimed at cleaning up the quality of responses on their community pages. Disquss is another SAAS service that provides commenting functionality for online use. The software is easy to integrate and allows other users to rank up posts, accrue currency for quality posts, and provides added distribution to top commenters. Yahoo! has already seen an improvement in the overall interactions of customers with their service workers on their community pages, which they believe has driven up advertising revenue.

These are only two examples of how companies are experimenting with this emerging technology in order to meet their objectives and increase the value of their workers in sales and customer service. In both cases, the companies were able to effectively harness this technology to gain competitive advantages compared with their competitors.

Gamification in the Future 

In the future we believe social networking games will be introduced in traditional HR processes. In particular, improved processes to assess and develop talent are being explored. The main reasons are that talent management is a recognized priority of many businesses and current processes are expensive, time intensive, and often involve multiple internal and external groups with different agendas. While the process improvements have strong upside potential, the replacement of existing HR processes can be viewed as disruptive by HR professionals. At Infohrm’s 2009 global conference in Australia a prototype of a social game called Global Talent Assessment Planning (or GTAP) was shown to an international audience of practitioners. The initial response of most of the 200 HR professionals in the audience was that they would sooner take out their copier machines and go paperless than introduce social networking games for talent assessment and development. In retrospect the HR professionals understood that GTAP would be less costly and quicker to use but they were uncomfortable introducing gamification to their management.

Can Skills Be Gamified?

The GTAP social game emerged from a survey of National Food Services Manufacturers (June 2009) by Deloitte that cited skill shortages, including high potential management skills, as important challenges.[5] The report found that organizations with 20 percent or more current high potential employees are more likely to be future high business performers (in the top quartile of companies) 69 percent of the time. The GTAP social game demonstrated how risk management and decision making flexibility (two high potential management talent skills) could be gamified. Reviews and feedback from follow up sessions with HR professionals at Infohrm’s 2009 global conference confirmed that identifying and developing high potential managers with these skills would be of interest to many practitioners if the costs were right and actual games were available to show decision makers.

In India, where thousands of applicants apply for every programming position, the question also arose: why not use gamification for HR recruiting and hiring in skill based jobs such as programmers? Current recruitment and hiring processes were time intensive, costly, and often presented barriers to ramping up when market opportunities presented themselves. For gamification to be adopted, social networking games needed to reduce costs and turnaround time in qualifying and selecting talent with the requisite technical skills. The main challenge encountered in 2012 was getting a government sponsored council to take the lead and gamify the HR recruiting process. A chicken and egg problem emerged as councils required that an existing social networking game be presented, but social networking game providers would only undertake to develop a social networking game if they had contracts with the councils.

HR recruitment and hiring of skilled workers is also an opportunity for gramification in the United States. Current data on recruitment and hiring in the U.S. show how costly it has become. This is especially true for small and medium-sized businesses since many do not have a dedicated HR department. Companies with more than 10,000 employees world-wide pay a median figure of $1,949 per hire, compared with mid-size companies, which pay $3,632, and small firms, which pay $3,665.[6]


Today, recruitment is a numbers game. In the U.S., as in India, jobs are scarce compared to the number of potential applicants. A New York Times report indicated that only 56 percent of college graduates were able to find jobs in 2010 compared to 90 percent in 2006-2007.[7] To handle the numbers HR departments often partner with multiple outside groups to identify the best candidates. Another complication is that applicants often lie about their degrees and job experience. A recent estimate is that 74 percent of the application resumes have misrepresentations.[8] Setting up processes to check applications, credentials, and to test skills are in place, but add to the cost and time required to fill open positions. Gamification offers an opportunity for candidates to show the skills they have rather than the skills they say they have. It offers employers an alternative to verify and test skills prior to selection.

Currently, skill testing of job applicants and hires is done by answering questionnaires and having those assessed by experts. The time required from testing to assessment to decision making is often weeks. Companies like the Chally Group provide selection systems backed up by over 400,000 performance profiles and 400 validation studies. Chally contends that typical pre-employment candidate selection methods are no better than flipping a coin. Their “Best Match Reports” compare a single individual against multiple work/job roles and identify which position presents the greatest potential for success. Their success with companies like AT&T poses an interesting question: Why not gamify their proven testing and assessment methods?

With social network game software, candidate assessments could be done in real time using game theory payoffs calculated by using proven scoring algorithms. The testing and assessment process could be faster and based on preliminary calculations less expensive than current consulting fees. Both game users and potential employers would have the opportunity to compare the skills of external candidates with existing workers.


The following provides an early view of how such business social networking games would work for assessing and identifying a specific talent. In this illustration the talent is managing disruptive change.

  • Candidates both inside and outside an organization would be invited to play the managing disruptive change social networking game. The game would be a series of audio and video segments.
  • The game would start with a new job assignment where substantial disruptive change is possible. For example, a management assignment to allocate resources to multiple projects in several foreign countries. Some of the countries have stable governments and others do not. The payoffs from the projects vary significantly. The projects in the most unstable countries have the highest potential risks and profits.
  • The game would proceed through multiple projects and countries. Each project would have both publically available and privately customized information sources available for purchase. These information sources would be used to make risk and value assessments. Players would have to list and compare risk factors across countries. Specific actions or outcomes such as the posting of planning and budgeting documents would be required to go to the next segment.
  • After all assessments and initial project plans are filed they would be approved and the next game segment would be available. Disruptive events would then be introduced for one or more of the projects. For example, a government could change its position and not convey the needed rights to the land and natural resources as originally promised in a country.
  • Profits for the different projects would be calculated and scored using accepted decision making under uncertainty formulas such as expected value measures. Point scores would be based on the difficulty level of the disruptive events sequence and comparisons between expected profits and realized profits. Scores would be shown for all players along with skill level rankings. Top player scores would be shown to all players in real time to sustain friendly competition. Playing the games multiple times would be tracked and analyzed to make sure that cheating was minimized.
  • Scores would be stored in a database and used when job openings emerged that required disruptive change management skills. High potential thresholds would be set to track top players.

In this illustration player actions in game situations offer a quicker alternative than current skill testing and assessment processes for pre-qualifying job applicants. Testing and assessment would be done prior to hiring rather than after hiring.

Since most businesses are fast followers rather than early adopters it is not expected that such games will be developed and available for several years. But now is the right time for companies who want to be leaders in this area to discuss the pros and cons of developing and implementing social networking games to improve key HR processes for talent/skill identification and selection.


Early social networking games for business have emerged as a technology that builds on positive personal social game experiences and targets Y-Gen workers to engage in team situations to improve performance in friendly competitions. Future gamification is expected to offer an alternative to existing time intensive and costly HR processes such as recruitment, selection, and development of talent. The objective is to reduce the time and resources needed to find candidates with skills that are in short supply. As shown, an opportunity also exists to integrate proven assessment techniques into the game engines which could speed up the development and acceptance of actual social networking games for talent assessment.

Regardless of your business’s current interest in gamification, practitioners need to be aware that the train has left the station. Social games for business are available and being used today to increase the value of sales workers and customer service workers. Others are being explored to improve HR processes. The time to discuss the value of social networking games to your businesses, the costs, and the potential to add a new technology to improve HR processes is now. This was affirmed by faculty and practitioners at a recent emerging Talent Management Solutions panel at the Graziadio Talent Management Symposium held in April 2013.


[1] Atwater D., Knox, P., & R. Atwater.  “The Power of Sharing in an Uncertain World.” Graziadio Business Review 12, no. 4 (2009). https://gbr.pepperdine.edu/2010/08/virtual-insourcing/.

[2] “Country at a Glance United States.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. http://www.bls.gov/fls/country/united_states.htm. Accessed March 1, 2013.

[3] “The 7 Drivers of Workplace Productivity.” Innovation and Employment. Ministry of Business. New Zealand. http://www.dol.govt.nz/er/bestpractice/productivity/7drivers.asp. Accessed March 10, 2013.

[4] “Productivity Growth in the 1990s: Technology, Utilization, Or Adjustment.” National Bureau of Economic Research. http://www.nber.org/papers/w8359.pdf?new_window=1. Accessed March 13, 2013.

[5] “People and Profitability a Time for Change.” Deloitte. http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-UnitedStates/Local%20Assets/Documents/us_pip_peoplemanagementreport_100509.pdf. Accessed March 7, 2013.

[6] “Talent Acquisition Factbook 2011 Benchmarks and Trends of Spending, Staffing and Key Talent Metrics.” Deloitte. http://www.bersin.com/practice/Detail.aspx?id=15006. Accessed February 13, 2013.

[7] “Many With New College Degree Find Job Market Humbling.” New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/19/business/economy/19grads.html?_r=2&. Accessed February 21, 2013.

[8] “HireRight 2012 Employment Screening Benchmarking Report.” HireRight. http://www.hireright.com/benchmarking/. Accessed March 6, 2013.


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Author of the article
Donald M. Atwater, PhD
Donald M. Atwater, PhD, is a practitioner faculty of economics at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. Previously, he served as chief executive for a southern California technology company, the chief financial officer of an international, value-added software company, a principal in the human resources and compensation practice at William M. Mercer, and a director and co-founder of several start-up companies. He has created decision-support technologies and implemented them in a number of Fortune 100 companies, including AT&T, Intel, Dell Computer, Apple Computer, and Nestle USA. Dr. Atwater has also worked with many public organizations, including the U.S. Navy, the General Accounting Office, the state of California, and both the county and city of Los Angeles. His work has been published in the Monthly Labor Review and he has co-authored numerous papers. Today he owns and operates a company dedicated to building goal-driven communities.
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