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Is gamification the solution?
Is gamification the solution?
Alexandra Borchardt

MUNICH — Many business people believe that gamification is going to dramatically change the working world over the next decade. Companies are increasingly thinking about how they can motivate both employees and clients to solve problems and develop ideas with the help of digital platforms.

Which is why Munich’s Technical University (TU) is using a major research project to explore the use of play in cost engineering — in other words, how to make products as efficient and cost-effective as possible. Eighteen mainly medium-sized German companies are participating in the project.

“The companies are using natural human playfulness as a motivation factor,” says Horst Wildemann, the project’s initiator and head of TU’s Research Institute for Business Management, Logistics and Production. People not only enjoy working things out, but they also love a challenge and competition, he says.

Some consumer goods and service companies take that further. They use gamification when, for example, they are designing clothes or a restaurant to get customers to contribute their ideas for free. For employees, there is, for example, the Practically Green platform, used by companies to motivate their workers to find sustainable solutions to problems. At Siemens, workers can use the Plantville game to train how to manage industrial sites successfully. There are mostly points and leader boards, and the winner usually gets an attractive prize. And the more people participate and benefit from each other, the higher the chances of hitting on something big. “When I have an idea and you have an idea, then we both have two. This is a way of multiplying intelligence,” Wildemann says.

In the best cases, digital platforms with game appeal could channel the wisdom of many people along with individual flashes of genius, experts believe. “With gamification you get the opinion of the majority and innovation, which will always come from a minority,” Wildemann says. But the majority is necessary because it knows better how practical something is or how well it will sell. Gamification is a way of bringing the two together.

Markus Huppenberger, senior manager of cost engineering at the Munich gas company Linde, is enthusiastic about the project. His department already has workers game-playing in the real world on project days, away from the company. “It was really great,” he says. “Very soon, participants were full of good ideas that we might not have tapped otherwise. The question is this: basically, how can companies have access to ideas quickly and unbureaucratically?”

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Munich’s Technical University and its slide — Photo: Tobiask

Like LEGOs at work

Johannes Lampert, head of product development at Mann+Hummel, which specializes in filters, is equally enthusiastic. “Brainstorming was yesterday,” Lampert says. “The days are over when the boss walks into a room and asks the people sitting around the table for a few ideas.” Mann+Hummel, headquartered in Ludwigsburg, is one of those backbone companies in Germany’s economy — family-owned, highly specialized, with 15,000 employees in 50 offices around the world, some three billion euros in annual turnover, and yet it is hardly known to the general public.

“You have to imagine product development in our company like a LEGO set,” Lampert says. There are various components from which different filters can be made, currently 1,700 types in the company’s selection. The purpose of game-playing could, for example, be developing a filter with special requirements. “It might be made up of four or five components,” Lampert says. “But maybe there’s somebody who gets an idea about how to make it with three or four parts if you were to design them a little differently."

In his experience, it is primarily young people who are motivated by games, and that goes for men and women equally. Young people are never far from their smart phones, he says, and can navigate the digital world with ease. An employer who takes that into account and even encourages it can make itself very attractive.

That’s also important for a small company like Möhlenhoff in Salzgitter — a player in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry. It is also a participant in the TU project. With only 200 employees, Möhlenhoff is not big enough to delve into such trends on its own, says general manager Frank Geburek. But it is obviously interested in drawing talented people. “This is the new Zeitgeist — giving employees the possibility to develop,” Geburek says. He’s looking forward to seeing a prototype emerge from the project that could be adapted without too much fuss by small- to medium-sized companies like the one he heads, and indeed a project goal is to produce such a prototype by the end of this year.

Whatever you do, don’t measure play

Christian von Duisburg, an independent game developer advising Wildemann and his team, says that what’s needed is a platform that relaxes people. “They should feel as laid back as if they were at a garden party.” That’s obviously difficult in the workplace. But the worker/boss situation has to be banished somehow, which is why the games approach works better with large groups where people can play anonymously. Under no circumstances can people be made to feel constrained.

Linde manager Huppenberger thinks that’s important too. It should be possible for workers to be “game-poopers” without their boss monitoring them, he adds. “It would be the wrong approach to say that those who don’t want to play have no place in Industry 4.0.” As soon as the issue of control raises its head, in fact, you can forget it, Huppenberger says.

So it depends on the right recipe, and finding that is not so easy. “Up to now, there have been few empiric results at a high research level,” says Isabell Welpe, a project partner who occupies the chair for Strategy and Organization at the Munich TU. It is known, for example, that while game-playing at work increases motivation and commitment on the one hand, it also fosters competition. Wildemann, the father of the TU project, sees yet another problem.

“We mustn’t fail to realize that it’s also a manipulation tool,” he says. Additionally, many employees play well past working hours, which may be good for their employer but is probably not so great for their family. Playing games can turn into a time guzzler, and some players become addicted.

Von Duisburg believes that gamification works when it’s used temporarily, from time to time. “The effect cancels out if it goes on for a long time,” he says.

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