Serious ‘game’ of keeping good staff

Data analysis software can aid human resources experts to recruit and retain talented staff, just as gamification of tasks can motivate the workforce, writes Tom Fox-Brewster, but both should be handled with care

Though the UK can celebrate being home to one of Europe’s fastest growing economies, the nation’s workforce has not benefitted from any kind of trickle-down effect. As the jobless rate continues to fall and more of the country enters employment, wages continue to lag behind inflation. As Labour leader Ed Miliband endlessly points out, the cost of living is rising faster than people’s pay.

Human resources departments across businesses are having to cope with some of the distress wrought by the chaotic political and economic climate. Whether it’s application forms flooding in for new jobs, workers wanting better pay or moving on to another role, HR directors and their staff are under pressure.

Technology is on their side, though. Many are now flocking to services that let them determine how to improve their current working environment and to bring in the best talent for the organisation. “The days of relying on central HR admin processes and paper forms are disappearing fast,” says Dale Vile, Freeform Dynamics IT analyst.

“If people are key to your business success and you aren’t looking at automation, self-service, social media and analytics as part of your workforce management and optimisation approach, then you will find it evermore difficult to hire and retain good talent, and compete effectively in your market.”

There are two obvious ways HR can use the technology available to them, says Oliver Oursin, worldwide solutions executive for IBM Business Analytics. The first involves collecting various kinds of information on employees within a certain department and creating models of ideal workers. When the time comes to choose candidates for interview, these models can be used as comparisons to determine who makes the cut. The second revolves around retention, where data can be collected on employee satisfaction. This can then feed into retention programmes, especially in departments with specialist skills.

The technology is now increasingly simple to use. IBM recently opened up its Watson Analytics product, a natural language-based service that can take in any kind of query. This makes it easy for even the most computer illiterate to make use of the data around them. “Most HR people are not very technical – they’re very good on law, payments, loyalty, but they are not data-technical people,” says Mr Oursin.

But with so much data inside and outside the business related to employees and future prospects ripe for mining, HR has to choose the right kinds of information to plug into their analytics tools, Mr Vile points out.

The days of relying on central HR admin processes and paper forms are disappearing fast

“When designing and implementing systems, it’s critical to consider where this data will come from. The more you can gather it directly from the source, the better,” he says. “Incorporating data from internal social collaboration systems provides additional insights into how and how well employees are interacting and working together. With these kinds of direct, continuous inputs, you can spot performance issues, competency gaps and other opportunities for improvement much more quickly, which means you can act sooner.”

External social networks can also be valuable sources, LinkedIn in particular. “When using information on social networks to form a view of a candidate, however, you need to be aware of the ‘mutual endorsement’ game,” Mr Vile adds.

GAMIFYING PROJECTS

Another way to generate useful data is via gamification – the use of games to make business processes more effective and rewarding. There is one notable prohibitor here – Brits don’t like being patronised. Nor do many of them take kindly to neologisms. This curmudgeonly attitude might be behind some of the antipathy towards gamification.

But small-scale and targeted gamification projects can make daily routines far more exciting, as epitomised by Fortune 150 energy business Exelon. The company’s special assistant to the firm’s chief security officer Spencer Wilcox has created a task list in a “kanban-style game board”, where each task is assigned a point value by difficulty. As workers build up points, they are awarded badges or achievements. While this is typical of a gamification strategy, Mr Wilcox has gone one step further and uses the results to put workers into categories so they can be assigned tasks they will most enjoy. Employees are either explorers, collectors or gladiators.

“Gladiator types are driven by competition. They like to win. Give these types a job where competitive opportunities are available and they will excel. Collectors are driven by the accumulation of tangibles to demonstrate their achievement. These folks will be motivated by the badge or the recognition. Explorers are motivated to have been there and done that. They tend to be motivated by new experiences,” Mr Wilcox adds.

Yet more business value can be drawn from gamification efforts where analytics tools, some of which are included in off-the-shelf platforms from vendors such as Badgeville and Bunchball, are brought into the mix. Gartner analyst Brian Burke says it’s vital for any company to collect all kinds of data during gamification projects, not just looking at employees’ results, but how they have used the tools too.

This will provide context, showing why people are engaging or not. This often produces surprising results, Mr Burke adds. “I had one story relayed to me… where there were non-tangible rewards for job referrals. They thought they would up the game and add a cash incentive. But they found the cash incentive actually turned people off,” he says.

Caution is advised, however. Senior vice president of the technical solutions group at consultancy Virtusa, Frank Palermo, recommends businesses are 100 per cent transparent with employees on any gamification strategy. In Virtusa’s own rollout of gamification, it saw a negative effect where those at the bottom of respective leaderboards started asking to be moved on to different projects. Once workers were told this was not about embarrassing them into action and more about encouraging them to take personal initiative, more positive outcomes emerged.

“Organisations have to think about their culture and some of their values. You have to be conscious of what fits within your culture,” he says.