The cynical technology journalist in me comes out when the topic of gamification is raised. First of all, “gamification” is a silly, made-up word. When I see it, I want to reach for my red editor’s pencil.

The other aspect of it that makes me look on the concept with a jaundiced eye is the way it’s being applied seemingly willy-nilly, often in exactly the wrong way.

For instance, when Klout added the ability to give people K+ and earn status from others, it started to endanger the effectiveness of its scoring system. An objective attempt to measure something is hopelessly contaminated when you motivate people to behave differently in ways that impact that measurement.

Plus, for most of us, there are far more important motivations for our work than earning a virtual badge… like getting a paycheck.

I am not alone in my skepticism. At a recent conference I was seated next to a CMO for a major CRM vendor. When the conversation turned to gamification, he turned to me and all but spat in disgust, “I think this is so stupid!”

Gamification as a Training Trick

But I’m coming around. There are two reasons for that. First up was a briefing that I took with extreme skepticism with Bunchball’s Rajat Paharia in January that pointed me at how the concept can help with CRM adoption.

That issue is a long-standing bugaboo for CRM; sales people are often loathe to learn the technology, and even less excited about using it. It takes away selling time and swaps it for data entry time, and the most obvious benefactor is their boss, the sales manager. Who wants to spend significant time helping the boss manage you?

Paharia, Bunchball’s founder, showed me a demonstration of an integration of their gamification tools with that led new users through a period of “learning by doing” by prompting them to do different things that helped them complete different “missions.”

The system was designed well and I could see how it might draw someone in -- the idea of missions was certainly more compelling than the thought of clicking step-by-step through a CRM application.

When a mission was complete, that user’s photo and name went into a grouping of the last six people to complete the mission, allowing newcomers to draw on them for help, making the system somewhat self-supporting.

Paharia’s demonstration (and patient refutation of my most pointed comments) got the thought through my head: gamification is a useful tool in tricking people into doing the right thing. That sounds kind of bad -- but it isn’t.

We all know we should learn the new application, but we don’t want to read the three-inch-thick manual. So, instead, many of us (myself included) limp through the partial use of the application, if we use it at all. With applications like CRM, which can be rich with features, a staff using the application at 15 percent of its capabilities is leaving 85 percent of the potential functionality on the table.

In cases like this, using a bit of sleight of hand to divert the attention from the users away from the onerous task of training makes sense. By turning the learning process into a game, the task of learning is broken into manageable bits, and making it a little fun to handle each of those bits is a good way to keep people involved in the process.

It’s a little like the old “Afterschool Specials”: it’s entertainment, but if you’re not careful you just might learn something, too.

Gamification of Work Load

The second thing that eroded my skepticism was a realization I came to when I returned home after meeting with Paharia. In my office at home, on a white board, is a list of all the tasks I’m facing -- not just writing assignments and one-time activities, but recurring things like checking social media.

As an artifact from a stint working at home, I also threw on some housework activities like laundry and making the bed, and since all work and no play is a drag generally, I sprinkled it with some fun stuff -- 15 minutes playing guitar, checking the baseball scores, etc. Not too many -- I still have to get work done, y’know.

Then once I mixed it the list up, I skipped through the list randomly, based on the last digit in the time when I completed the previous task. I essentially turned my to-do list into a board game. Now my day was broken up into bite-sized tasks, and my reward for getting something done might be a brief period spent doing something fun -- which gave me incentive to keep using the system.

Looking at the white board, it occurred to me: I had gamified my work-style.

Granted, when there’s something that needs to get done right now, the white board is not consulted. I’m certainly not a prisoner to my “game.” But I’m not sure I’d have as tidy a house had I not done this.

So, in the right circumstances and applied with a bit of creativity, the Pavlovian cycle of task and reward can have a positive impact of altering behaviors, especially if those behaviors are something you know you should be doing anyway.

Like anything, gamification needs to be applied where it makes sense, and a lot of people are harming the perception of the concept by using it a bit too universally. But there are opportunities to employ the ideas (if perhaps not the word itself) to encourage behavior around the use of business applications -- and if it helps with the rate of CRM adoption, who cares what you call it?

Title Image courtesy of Jakub Krechowicz (Shutterstock).

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