Meeting the workforce disengagement challenge

Ari Lightman

Ari Lightman is a distinguished service professor and director of the CIO Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

Ari Lightman of Carnegie Mellon University shares his thoughts on when and when not to use game mechanics in a business context.

Interview conducted by Alan Morrison

PwC: How do games and the way they’re designed relate to business?

AL: Gamification is one of those completely overused terms, and I’m not saying that in a discouraging manner. It’s just that everybody wants to gamify everything. If you talk to any game designer, anybody who really understands game mechanics, they’ll say that some processes, some things, just cannot be turned into a game.

One of the reasons why everybody’s looking at gamification is because there’s a high level of disengagement. Gallup did a study1 on the engaged and the disengaged at work. If you look at the mainstream companies, something like two-thirds of the workforce is disengaged, which is really shocking. How did the work environment degrade to the level where it’s just all about taking care of business, all about plug and chug?

And there’s no creativity. There’s no, “Oh my God, I’ve got to rush into work because it’s so much fun,” right? It’s really becoming a drag. And Gallup actually calculated the efficiency or the productivity loss.

You might have a lot of cause to disbelieve some of these studies. But the bottom line is workers are more disengaged than ever. It’s causing productivity loss—workers are doing other things that are work related because they’re bored out of their minds.

Then you compound that with this idea that the next generation of workers, especially as we’re looking at Gen Z and we’re touching into the millennials, are more connected than ever. There are more gamers than ever before. One of the studies said that of folks 18 years and younger, 90 percent or even more are gamers.2

But we all say gaming doesn’t have a place in the enterprise. You go to work to do work, not to play games. But look at what Jane McGonigal has done at the Institute for the Future. She has looked at all of the positive attributes that gaming confers to folks who play games—joy, excitement, creativity, understanding failure, and learning how to succeed from failure.3 All these are things we don’t associate with work at all, but we’d like to.

What’s happening now is you have this new population of worker—who is hyperconnected, hypersocial, and loves to game—meeting a workforce that’s more traditional, doesn’t understand game mechanics, and doesn’t understand the whole badging mechanism or how to apply that to various processes but would like to. And then thinking, let’s just gamify everything.

PwC: How does the use of gaming concepts help in a way that isn’t just papering over a deeper problem?

AL: That’s an interesting question. Let me try to address it in two different ways, first through an example. In the example I’m thinking of, a computer science professor noticed the students just weren’t learning, or at least they weren’t learning well. He basically turned his entire class into a sort of game dynamic, in which students needed to compete with the person above them for a certain number of points based on how many assignments they turned in, the quality of the assignments, and those sorts of things.

I don’t remember all the dynamics around it, but I thought it was a really interesting study. He turned his class into a game. And he found that students were x percent more engaged in the class. They were more competitive with each other. It was an open environment, so students always knew who was on the leaderboard.

It’s the same thing as your own kids spending all their bar mitzvah money on Pac-Man because they wanted to get that leaderboard slot. They wanted to be the number one on that specific game. So this professor captured that, and he utilized that for more motivation within his class.

But when it comes to businesses, the problem is that a lot of businesses are not really thinking about the incentives and the motivational aspect behind why you would even gamify anything. If you try to put game mechanics into a process without then looking at the incentives and the motivational patterns around it, your effort is going to fail.

Some of the older, more hierarchal global organizations have this tendency to hold things very tightly to their vests because their intellectual property is keeping them on-site. And they don’t really share very well. This next generation, though, shares everything because that’s the way they derive value. So if you try to insert a game dynamic into that environment where you have one group that’s sharing everything and another group that’s not sharing anything, it’s not going to work very well.

PwC: Dan Pink talked about autonomy, mastery, and purpose after having studied Ryan and Deci’s self-determination theory.4 Are those motivators really the objective of the very simple methods that a business social networking platform such as Jive or Chatter is using?

AL: What we’re seeing is an evolution. Remember knowledge management systems? Social is taking that and turning it around, especially if you look at Enterprise 2.0 and the ability to share documents, link documents, offer documents, and those sorts of things.

And if you look at game mechanics, it’s just an accelerant for sharing. Once again, it gets down to understanding the motivation of the users. Those motivators are different for different groups of people.

If you and I were on a social platform, and there were some relatively simple game mechanics associated with recognition, you might want to be recognized much differently from how I want to be recognized. I might be really interested in saying I’m the highest reviewed and five-star rated author of specific content around water conservation. That then gets associated with my profile and now people start looking to me, understanding that I’m an expert on water conservation issues. It’s a wonderful mechanism to get the word out to a much broader community. People might really respond to me because I like being thought of as a knowledge leader within a specific subject.

That’s me. You, on the other hand, could care less. You might say, listen, I’m going to respond to this thing because my direct report is really interested in how often I’m mentoring the next generation of worker. And that’s baked into my job profile.

Once again, we have to look at the psychological motivators around why people want to contribute and then slice and dice it based on market segmentation profiles, just like you do in an external campaign for community analysis.

PwC: In 2020, as work becomes more about exception management and problem solving, you may need employees who are 80 percent engaged, but maybe they’re only 40 percent engaged.

“This new generation of worker works differently, thinks differently, and acts differently from any other worker we’ve seen in the past. We’re seeing it from their online profiles in terms of what they do, how they connect, how they access information, how they utilize their communities.”

AL: I couldn’t agree with you more. I put together a presentation once with an intentionally provocative title: “From the greatest generation to the most disruptive.” My premise was that this new generation of worker works differently, thinks differently, and acts differently from any other worker we’ve seen in the past. We’re seeing it from their online profiles in terms of what they do, how they connect, how they access information, how they utilize their communities.

Once they join established companies, one of two things is going to happen. In the best case, they’re going to innovate around folks because the level of innovation is not fast enough for them to get viable work done. And we’ve already seen a bunch of examples of this where folks weren’t offered social collaborative platforms at work and they would just innovate outside work, which is bad because you’re not collecting all this information. You have no ability to mine it. Instead, they’re using Dropbox or stuff that’s off the reservation for work-based activity. So they feel ineffective.

In the worst case, they’re just going to leave. I’ve talked to a bunch of financial services firms where they’ve seen a whole slew of new recruits just leave because the companies think of these tools as nonproductive, as a waste of time.

Such companies don’t open up to networks that the new generation of worker is accustomed to—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or any other social networks. And these companies don’t adopt internal mechanisms such as Yammer or Box, because they don’t see value in people connecting to each other and sharing ideas.

So this is going to be a real issue. You have a bunch of people who are primed to be problem solvers because of their game consciousness, but then they go into work and they’re told, here’s your job, sit here, and do what you’re told. Maybe they have a small problem to solve every day: align these rows in these spreadsheets and make sure they add up to the right number.

What this next generation really understands is that there’s no delineation between their personal life and their work life. Their work life is their friends, and their friends help them out. And they strike the balance incredibly well. I don’t know if it’s because they understand how to multitask or because they understand that both of them tie into each other. A rich, rewarding work environment can lead to a rich, rewarding personal life and vice versa.

PwC: What groups are doing the most with these gaming techniques?

AL: I’m seeing a lot in the innovation area. Once again it comes down to culture. When you look at innovation, the innovation groups are the folks that are tasked with identifying new products—the future sets. They’re crowdsourcing ideas. They’re looking at game mechanics incentives associated with helping people become more involved, and they’re looking at the submission process, identifying what the best mechanisms are.

PwC: What should the CIO do with this set of techniques at a typical enterprise?

AL: CIOs are being called into these conversations much more. CIOs operate at a strategic level. They understand data at a greater level than any other executive within the organization. They can help design mechanisms, whether it’s gaming or communities of engagement, to identify the data that’s required to put into the systems so the systems are working the way they should. CIOs can work with dynamic data that gets generated by users in combination with structured data, because structured data is not going to go away. The combination of the two is very powerful. The CIOs need to get together with the folks who really understand the application of game design to business problems, as well as the practitioners.

PwC: Gamification feels like something that can be written off too easily.

“Gamification is a buzzword. It will be gone in a year or two. The real challenge is a higher level of employee engagement and understanding the psychological motivators for people.”

AL: Gamification is a buzzword. It will be gone in a year or two. The real challenge is a higher level of employee engagement and understanding the psychological motivators for people. Why do they want to be engaged? How do they define engagement? That’s really where the challenge is. So it could be game mechanics or other ways to motivate. I want to be a knowledge leader. Great, here’s a mechanism for you to be a knowledge leader. Or, I’m worried about my intellectual property being shared amongst the company because I see no value in sharing. If you demonstrate how value can be generated based on the fact that they can share that information, then they have something different.

So it’s this idea of sharing knowledge, looking at visualization, looking at motivational factors, and really creating greater levels of engagement at work.

1 Nikki Blacksmith and Jim Harter, “Majority of American Workers Not Engaged in Their Jobs,” Gallup, October 28, 2011,, accessed October 30, 2012.

2 91 percent of US children between the ages of 2 and 18 play video games, according to a 2011 NPD Group study. See “The Video Game Industry Is Adding 2-17 Year-Old Gamers At A Rate Higher Than That Age Group’s Population Growth,” NPD Group press release, October 11, 2011,, accessed October 31, 2012.

3 “Jane McGonigal at TED: Gaming can make a better world,” Future Now: The IFTF Blog, Institute for the Future, September 1, 2010,, accessed October 30, 2012.

4 See the article, “The game-based redesign of mainstream business,” on page 06 for more on self-determination theory.