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Gamification: What's your next move to engage employees?

Gamification came on strong as an engagement fad. Now, more targeted sustainability initiatives are coming on strong.

Just four years ago, "gamification" projects were one of the loudest-hyped trends in employee engagement — not just for advancing sustainability initiatives but for pretty much any program aimed at reshaping behavior.

Today, that enthusiasm is far more muted: technology research firm Gartner famously predicted that 80 percent of all gamification investments will fall short by the end of this year. Yet, initiatives that play on people's natural competitiveness, their desire to come out ahead of others, still can be highly effective. (Here's game designer Jane McGonigal TED Talk arguing this point.)

For a real-world example from the sustainable business world, consider Timberland's "Serv-a-palooza Challenge," a six-week-long experiment conducted in collaboration with the CrowdRise fundraising community.

The campaign — which raised more than $75,000 and inspired more than 1,600 volunteer hours — built on the apparel company's 17-year-old Serv-a-palooza program, which pays employees for up to 40 hours of volunteer work on sustainability and community causes. (The internal effort has supported more than 1 million hours, as of April.)

"Partnering with a socially innovative platform like CrowdRise gives us the opportunity to engage with our consumers in an exciting way, and it reinvigorates our own commitment to giving back," said Atlanta Mcilwraith, senior management of community engagement for Timberland, when the program was announced.

The top recruiter in the challenge, a donor supporting the Red Wolf Coalition conservation effort, received a $10,000 grant toward her cause. (An arts coalition and pet rescue organization also garnered the same amounts.)

Susan Hunt Stevens, founder and CEO of WeSpire (formerly known as Practically Green), said games can be incredibly "persuasive" in inspiring behavioral change. WeSpire offers an engagement platform used by companies including CA Technologies, EnerNOC, MGM Resorts International, McDonald's and Unilever. 

"One of the things that I work very hard to say is that we are not a gamification platform," she said. "We are an engagement platform that uses game mechanics."

Rajat Paharia, founder and chief product officer for Bunchball, a gamification technology pioneer that has more than 300 customers including big-name brands such as Hewlett-Packard and Coca-Cola, said successful initiatives start with a clear business objective.

"You have to offer meaningful value for participation," Paharia said. "That said, there are many things that people value as much as cash or something material." 

While skeptics abound, examples of successful programs are slowly emerging.

"It is so early in this field of persuasive technology, but these are just one tool," Hunt Stevens said. "Everyone is running experiments to find out really works."

Aside from Timberland's "Serva-a-palooza" initiative, Bristol Myers Squibb, Dow, Ford Motor Co., Intel and Walt Disney are other companies learning from engagement initiatives that leverage game mechanics. Here are five additional examples to consider, presented in alphabetical order:

Lockheed Martin

The aerospace and defense technology company created the Carbon Footprint Reduction Game to help workers practices simple techniques to improve energy efficiency. The goal: "make the weekend chore of replacing burn-out light bulbs more enjoyable and provide information on saving energy in the process." Participants earn points for watching educational videos and taking specific, real-world actions.

"We're not just helping people understand how to reduce energy use, we're also using their interactions with the game to help decision-makers understand how individuals make choices about reducing their energy consumption," said Melvin Greer, senior fellow with Lockheed Martin and the company's chief gamification designer.

Nissan

Every Leaf electric vehicle includes "Eco Mode" software that tracks metrics that can be used to improve driver "efficiency." As you improve, your achievements are displayed as tree symbols on the dashboard. Owners that create online profiles can compare their "scores" with others, adding an element of competition. (Competitor Ford offers something similar in the Fusion hybrid.)

Opower

Sure, seemingly a gazillion software applications are aimed at encouraging the average Jane or John to reduce power consumption. What makes this platform stand out is its use of "intrinsic motivation," including peer comparisons to help people save. The company works with more than 95 utility customers across more than 50 million homes. Opower claims that its technology has helped people save enough electricity through behavior change to power a city of 1 million people for a year.

Recyclebank

When you think about it, the 10-year-old company's entire business model is based on gamification: individuals earn reward points for accomplishing certain tasks. Both companies and communities use the site as the basis to support specific initiatives. Philadelphia, as an example, has seen a 29 percent increase in the diversion rates to its landfills since the program went citywide in 2010. More than one-third of city residents participate.

SAP

The enterprise software company is testing multiple approaches to encourage everything from carpooling to deeper participation on its corporate intranet or visualizing improvements for factory layouts. Among the specific mobile concepts it has tested is Vampire Hunters, a game that lets employees find "energy suckers" within their facility. The company's Home Carbon Challenge helps employees track their personal footprints outside of work.

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