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Using Game Mechanics to Enhance Leadership Education

By Zack Bodnar / February 2014

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Gamification has gained significant traction as a tool for marketers and social community managers to effectively engage customers and other external audiences to drive desired behavior. The technique has also been applied internally by organizations to motivate employees and incentivize performance in sales, customer service, and even training. But, can gamification also be used to enhance the learning management system (LMS) for professional education?

Continuing professional education is driven almost entirely by intrinsic motivation-learners have to want to not only build their skill set, but also participate to enhance their own feelings of self-improvement and professional growth. While professional education can be tied to extrinsic rewards—a promotion or a salary increase—those desires are rarely instantly gratified. More often continuing professional education is about long-term career growth.

Unless it is a specific job requirement, skill enhancement is something the learner must intrinsically strive for, and it can be tough to maintain the discipline to stay with it to completion. Between full-time work, family responsibilities, and life's other demands, adult professional learners have an especially hard time making education a priority.

Motivating Top Brass

The challenge can be even greater for top-level executives, especially those who already seem to be at the peak of the ladder, when it comes to advancement or compensation. While many executives understand the value of being life-long learners and the need to continually improve their leadership skills to remain successful in a dynamic business environment, it's very difficult for them to find the time for training and make it a priority amid the demands of an already busy schedule.

Gamification—the concept of applying game mechanics like competition and rewards in non-game contexts—has proven to be a valuable tool in motivating learners to participate in professional development. Particularly for executives, gamification taps into intrinsic motivators to encourage participation.

Deloitte Leadership Academy (DLA), a digital executive training program, recently implemented gamification into its education portal. "It's no secret that many business managers are fiercely competitive, a quality that no doubt helped them rise to their current position. And in many cases, they likely have a healthy competitive streak associated with 'winning' and achieving business success," explained Frank Farrall, lead partner of Deloitte Digital in Australia.

Gamification can tap into these intrinsic desires to win and be perceived as a leader among peers. As DLA discovered, leveraging these intrinsic desires is key for professional education providers to keep learners interested, engaged, and motivated to progress through the curriculum to completion. DLA unlocked the power of gamification to motivate learners even at the highest level, where extrinsic rewards can only be realized in the long term.

The DLA Challenge

An offering of Deloitte-the international advisory firm best-known for its audit, tax, consulting and financial services-DLA reaches more than 50,000 executives at more than 150 companies worldwide. Accessible online via Web, mobile, and even in-flight on Qantas airplanes, DLA delivers lessons and insights from some of the world's best-known business schools and global leaders, such as Harvard Business Publishing, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and the Swiss International Institute for Management Development. DLA enables executives to develop their management and leadership skills while also connecting them within a community of business leaders.

With extensive online offerings including certifications from top business schools, blog entries, and interviews with industry leaders, plus webinars and special events, DLA's program and online portal accommodates different learning styles with a variety of content types and development options.

However, DLA faced an obvious challenge: Convincing executives to take valuable time out of their busy schedules to actually sit down and fully engage with the content. Deloitte knew they needed an innovative alternative to the traditional methods of delivering education and learning management if they were going to keep executives engaged.

Intrigued by the promise of gamification, Deloitte worked with Badgeville to embed powerful game mechanics throughout their DLA portal to drive desired user behavior and increase engagement.

Missions Drive Results

Utilizing the toolset within the Badgeville Behavior Engine, Deloitte was able to measure, surface, and reward engagement across their online education platform. In order to ensure executives stayed on track, Deloitte designed "missions" that encouraged users to fully complete their courses and stay on track with their monthly learning goals.

As users advance through different missions, their progress is visualized via progress bars for each mission or competency—not only for them to see, but others as well—creating a competitive environment that ups the ante. When users interact with content, complete missions, and perform valuable behaviors, they earn rewards. Users are able to showcase rewards in their profile, and compare rewards with colleagues. They also earn "Rank and Reputation," which is visualized on leaderboards, also powered by Badgeville. Based on their usage of DLA's key developmental areas, users can compete to become experts on different topics.

Deployed throughout the learning process, Badgeville's gamification platform has driven dramatic increases in content consumption and course completion. DLA also experienced impressive growth in user retention. The number of users returning to DLA on a daily basis skyrocketed more than 46 percent, with a 36 percent jump in the number who returned weekly. The platform has driven a significant increase in both active user engagement and adoption, with active users unlocking an average of three achievement badges each, with top users earning as many as 30 achievements in just the first 90 days.

In addition to these quantifiable metrics, the gamification program has delivered qualitative results and anecdotal success. Many users have reported the Deloitte Leadership Academy experience has become "addictive," inspiring friendly competition between peers and spurring more clients to complete their learning plans.

Successful Systems Play Well Together

No longer considered child's play, gamification has proven to be valuable and powerful technique for driving desired behaviors that manifest in measurable business results. With the right platform, gamification can be implemented seamlessly across virtually any existing learning management system, with gaming elements applied strategically at multiple touch points in the system to lead learners down the desired path. The best approach is one that is not only unobtrusive to the learning process itself, but feels like a natural part of the system, fostering learner success each step of the way.

It's vital to take into account three crucial items when designing a gamified education experience: the key business goals, the context of the behavior, and the demographics performing the behavior. Business goals should be concrete and measurable. When determining business goals, Donald Kirkpatrick's four steps of learning engagement—reaction, learning, behavior, and results—should be the cornerstone.

The context of the learning behavior should be examined as well. For example, is it social or asocial? Breaking down the learning process into two repetitive cycles helps tease this out: learning content consumption and application of the learned content. Learning content consumption is often an asocial experience, so progression mechanics are key during that phase. Practicing application can be done in a social setting (and results in excellent outcomes if done correctly); social feedback loops are an effective way to accelerate this phase.

Finally, failing to examine the demographics of the target audience can lead to poor results. Women and men are motivated by different mechanics to different extents; for example we know that while men respond more strongly to competitive situations, women respond more to collaborative ones. In some countries and cultures, for example in the U.S., highlighting one's own successes and achievements is normal and encouraged. However, in the Netherlands, this same behavior is strongly frowned upon. Giving individuals in the latter culture the opportunity to display badges will therefore not be a successful engagement strategy.

Rewarding points for completing courses and putting them on a leaderboard will only work sometimes and may even backfire. If you want the learner to have a positive experience while achieving your business goals a careful approach is crucial to the design of a gamified learning experience.

About the Author

Zack Bodnar is a producer at Badgeville, The Behavior Platform. At Badgeville, Bodnar is responsible for designing client gamification programs that move the needle on key business metrics. He is an expert in educational psychology and leads Badgeville's gamification design services for education programs. Prior to Badgeville, he was a Business Strategy and Transformational Consultant at IBM Global Business Services, where he analyzed corporate incentive programs for cost-efficiency improvements and behavioral mechanics. He earned his B.A. in cognitive sciences from the University of Pennsylvania, with a focus on investigating human behavior in real-life settings from the perspective of behavioral psychology.

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