They’ve Got Game

A look at how four organizations—CMS Energy, Xerox Europe, Aon Hewitt, and Southwest Airlines—are “gamifying” training.

CMS Energy: Tackling Conflicts with “The Resolver”

Conflicts of interests that seem apparent in textbooks are rarely as clear-cut in reality. Recognizing that, CMS Energy uses rich storytelling in a gamified solution to drive the lessons home. In this game, just like the real world, multiple options appear to be correct, and they each come with consequences.

The online game, “The Resolver,” goes beyond corporate or governmental policy. Participants must become trouble-shooters, “traveling the world to help others understand dilemmas and help resolve them,” explains Nicolas Carr, knowledge leader at LRN, which developed the solution. For example, people generally understand that offering or accepting bribes is illegal and unethical, but they may not understand the range of what, exactly, constitutes a bribe.

The Resolver begins with a cinematic introduction—a clink of champagne glasses, celebrations, and handing over tickets for a sporting event. The story then leads players throughout the game as they interact with characters and make choices.

“With each decision, we see the number of stakeholders—including friends and family—affected by their choices and hear those characters discuss the ramifications of the player’s decisions. The dilemmas don’t only affect the players,” Carr emphasizes.

At CMS Energy, “we decided to host a competition during National Ethics and Compliance Week last year,” recalls Corporate Compliance Director Christina DuVall. The Resolver takes about 25 minutes to play, so the competition occurred during a 1.5-hour lunch break.

“Employees formed teams of five and signed up to compete against all the other teams in the company. Winning team members each received tablets. We were trying to make it fun. We expected about 12 teams,” DuVall says. “Ultimately, 111 teams participated. Even our union groups played.”

CMS Energy promoted the competition during the two weeks before game day. “This drew employees to us,” DuVall recounts. “Employees reached out to us for material to read before the game began.”

Forming teams also triggered conversations within peer groups about ethics and conflicts of interest. By dissecting and discussing these issues, employees began to understand them without realizing they were being trained.

When the competition ended, players saw how they ranked against others on a leaderboard. “Later,” DuVall says, “they stopped my staff in hallways, saying, ‘I responded to this scenario this way. Should I have answered differently? What are the fine points of that situation?’”

Continuing interest was evident on the CMS internal social media site, too. Afterward, there were more reports of potential conflicts of interest and discussions of the gray areas involved. “Sometimes the company is split on the best action, which sparks further discussion about the principles to be applied to manage potential conflicts,” DuVall says.

The learning appears to be long lasting, and the competition itself was a success. “They’re still talking about it,” DuVall says. She says her team plans to launch another competition this autumn.

CME Energy employees played The Resolver once on game day, but other players have played the game several times, experiencing more challenges than a single game allows. The Resolver awards badges throughout the game, and playing multiple times enables players to earn a wider variety of badges. “The idea of taking conflict of interest training more than once is almost unheard of,” Carr says, “yet many play The Resolver three or four times.”

Xerox Europe: Call Center Gamification Overcomes Employee Isolation

When Xerox Europe recently gamified call center performance reporting, that action also reengaged its agents by providing the rapid feedback they needed.

Rather than developing an actual game, Xerox incorporated gaming elements into a performance measurement system. For example, “color-coded visualizations help agents track key performance indicators (KPIs), and an avatar links to their overall health,” explains Research Engineer Ben Hanrahan.

Before using this application, call center agents said they lacked information and felt disengaged. The reason was the time lapse between events and managerial feedback. “Because updates were weekly, it was difficult for agents to monitor their own progress,” Hanrahan elaborates. Instead, “we wanted conversations between managers and agents to be continuous.” One-minute coaching was the goal.

Now, he continues, “because visualizations are on the desktops of the manager and the agents, they see similar information about individual goals and an aggregate of team performance. This enables managers to make suggestions or corrections as issues arise, rather than days later.” Because coaching is immediately relevant, it’s also faster.

Within call centers, key performance indicators shift frequently, sometimes even daily, Hanrahan points out. To be effective, KPIs must be accurate, actionable, and relevant to agents. Typically, KPIs reflect contractual obligations and include elements such as average length of call, customer satisfaction, calls per hour, hold time, after-call work, and daily break minutes.

“This visualization tool helps managers communicate current goals and how individual agents could contribute,” Hanrahan says. It also enables managers to chart progress visually, by individuals, shifts, days, weeks, or months.

To make the interface fun and interactive, “we started with leaderboards and avatars to drive intrinsic motivation,” explains Francois Ragnet, chief innovation officer, Commercial Services, Xerox Europe. Agents had started informal competitions, so Xerox formalized them. “This is not just about awards and points. We are adding challenges between teams and individuals and, possibly, allowing avatars—mini-widgets—to be more customized.”

One of the design challenges was keeping the screen small. “Agents have five to 10 background systems on their screens simultaneously, so size is important,” Hanrahan says.

“Engagement is difficult to quantify,” Hanrahan acknowledges. “But when I visit call centers, agents say they feel more in control of their work because they can see their own metrics in real time, without asking a supervisor.”

Although the Xerox sites prefer not to publicize results, “coaching time and average talk time have improved significantly,” Ragnet reports.

Having real time feedback has enhanced collaboration, as well as friendly competition among agents and teams. “People are talking and sharing strategies to improve their metrics,” Hanrahan adds. The collaboration occurs naturally.

Additionally, the progression of new hires was dramatic. “Getting them up to speed was dramatically enhanced, regardless of training time,” Ragnet says. “We hope this will improve motivation and turnover, but we have no significant data on that yet.”

The deployment won the Innovation Award from the National Contact Center Association in the Netherlands, where it was first deployed. “This is used at four sites in Europe today, with plans to roll out across Xerox Services,” Ragnet says. When that happens, users will grow from 2,000 today to 40,000.

Aon Hewitt: LEADeR Simulation Identifies Potential

Human Resources solutions provider Aon Hewitt’s LEADeR simulation puts employees—its own and those of its clients—through the “day-in-the-life” challenges and interactions faced by organization leaders. This assessment tool helps identify those with potential and also gives aspiring leaders a glimpse of what they may face if they succeed in their careers.

Like simulations for airline pilots, LEADeR exposes participants to situations they rarely may encounter so they can test themselves in a safe environment. “The simulations are designed to be stressful,” Aon Hewitt Partner Veronica S. Harvey points out. “They often are paired with personality tests, interviews, and other tools to develop robust, well-rounded pictures of individuals in high-potential and accelerated development programs.”

Separate simulations are designed for executives and mid-level managers. Because the simulations are a notch above what is expected in participants’ current jobs, they provide valuable insights that guide individuals’ development plans. Simulations also sometimes help evaluate some job candidates.

The simulations play in real time on a computer, but don’t involve a classic 3-D virtual world. “For leadership training, avatars can be unrealistic, failing to match human non-verbal reactions,” Harvey asserts.

Before playing, participants must orient themselves to a fictional company and their role within it, just as if starting a new job. This involves entering the LEADeR Website to familiarize themselves with its intranet, reading the press releases, and understanding the organizational structure and their own job descriptions. “We recommend spending 30 to 60 minutes preparing for the simulation,” Harvey says. The simulation itself takes approximately 2.5 hours for the mid-level supervisor simulation and roughly 3.5 hours for the executive simulation.

“The simulation looks like a Windows desktop, with e-mail, an appointment calendar, task list, etc.,” Harvey says. The experience mimics the real world, with e-mails asking learners to solve specific challenges—for example, issues with succession planning, customers’ problems, or direct reports needing coaching. “They respond by e-mail. It can look a bit like a pulse survey,” Harvey notes. Subsequent e-mails are based upon their responses. Participants also receive role-playing phone calls from the assessment team, posing, for example, as direct reports.

“Traditional assessment centers are one of the most accurate ways to predict performance for leadership roles, but they are very expensive,” Harvey explains, because of the activities, number of people involved, and travel expenses. LEADeR delivers the same accuracy, virtually, with realism that mirrors modern work environments. “Delivering information this way lets us capture data easily, combine it, and turn it into reports,” Harvey says. Information includes scores to responses, how players prioritized their time, which activities they accessed and which they left in the in-box, and their responses during telephone role-playing.

“This is more realistic than the traditional approach, enhancing reliability and ensuring valid results,” Harvey says. LEADeR can be tailored to meet the specific challenges of a given organization or industry.

It’s also engaging, she says. “Feedback indicates participants get wrapped up in this. They almost forget this is a simulated environment. It gives them a realistic sense of what these jobs can be like, so they have better perspectives and can self-select for the job.”

Southwest Airlines: A Fun Way to Learn Business Acumen

Southwest Airlines has a reputation for what it calls its “fun-LUVing” culture. Whether it’s flight attendants singing safety briefings or customer service agents going the extra mile, Southwest prides itself on creating extraordinary experiences, and its leadership development is no different.

When HR leaders Bonnie Endicott and Petra Holcomb were tasked with integrating business acumen content into their Legendary Leaders curriculum, an intensive leadership program for their high-potential leader group, they knew they had to go beyond lectures and create an extraordinary learning experience.

To accomplish this, they turned to a solution that involves competitive gameplay and an intensive team-based simulation where participants learn by creating their own companies in a dynamic marketplace. The simulation, called “Business Challenge” and distributed by Enspire Learning, allows participants to observe what happens to their virtual companies when they make decisions across all functions of an enterprise.

Teams start with marketing a product in one product line and have to decide how to grow the business, invest in quality and efficiency improvements, strategically price their products, and fulfill the demand they are creating. In spirited and engaging discussions, participants then execute their business decisions and analyze their financial statements to understand how their decisions played out.

As part of the one-day experience, teams experience successes and failures of their businesses on multiple levels. Business Challenge allows participants to see the projected outcomes for multiple quarters in advance. Within each quarter, decisions are reversible, allowing participants to plan out scenarios and understand more deeply the connections between their decisions and the outcomes in the game.

“Business acumen is an important aspect of being a leader at Southwest as they focus on meeting the company’s fiscal and operational goals,” says Holcomb. “Our folks are competitive, so for us, combining a fun experience with real-world lessons on running a business is the best way to learn.”

To prepare for the intensive competition, participants are asked to study the basics of finance in an online course called “Fluent in Finance” (also distributed by Enspire Learning) that combines tutorials, tongue-in-cheek humor, interactive case studies, and challenging activities.

Additional simulation debriefs and exercises focused on Southwest-specific business acumen scenarios bring the learning close to home and allow participants the opportunity to further explore the impact of their choices on the company’s bottom line.

Participant reviews of the program since 2010 included comments such as, “The business simulation was the best I’ve had since grad school.” On a Southwest evaluation scale from “Very Poor” to “Totally Awesome,” 90 to 100 percent of participants consistently rated the experience “Totally Awesome.”

Most important, the business outcomes of the program have proven successful, as well. The average promotion rate for participants in the experience has been 63 percent since 2008, well above the company average for peer groups at similar levels, according to an informal internal analysis.

MDA Leadership Consulting’s Lessons Learned

Since 2009, MDA Leadership Consulting has teamed with ExperiencePoint (EP) to provide MDA clients with new approaches and insights for leading change and innovation in their workplaces. EP offers business simulations for leaders in the areas of change management and innovation. The EP simulation sessions, approximately four hours long each, then are reinforced with facilitated dialogue (led by an EP-certified trainer) to make the simulation applicable to the current (or future) needs of the participating leaders.

MDA’s lessons learned from using EP as a training tool, based on input from Jason Ortmeier, vice president of Leadership Development, MDA Leadership Consulting, include:

  • Learning transfer matters. While EP’s simulations raise subject-matter awareness (about change or innovation), spark input from all (even from “naturally shy” attendees), and help drive collaboration, this energy still needs to be applied to their day jobs. “Trained facilitators help transfer the knowledge gained through the simulation to real-world applicability,” Ortmeier says. “This can range from a two- to three-hour discussion, after the simulation, to an entire next day, depending on the needs of the participating company. The goal for participants is to internalize new behaviors, commit to immediate action, and be confident that they can make a difference.”
  • Quality matters. The quality of the simulation matters to the degree of “buy-in” among participants. It needs to be realistic, but not real. If the context is too fantastical or removed from the team’s real business issues, then the learning will be isolated to that fantastical context. At the same time, if the learning environment is the same as everyday work, people often will defend their current approach instead of trying new ones. The simulation also needs to be overseen by experienced facilitators who know how and when to set the right conditions for personal and professional growth.
  • Competition matters. EP’s simulations require participants to organize into teams (at least three teams per session), which facilitates a sense of camaraderie (within teams) and competitive drive (between the teams). “Leaders don’t like to lose,” Ortmeier says.
  • Safety matters. A realistic (as opposed to real) simulation lets people make mistakes without risk to their reputations. It also eliminates existing organizational cultural norms, barriers, and minutiae that can insidiously limit thinking and ultimately undermine learning.
  • Mistakes matter. Provided you have set the context as a learning opportunity with safety around mistakes, you don’t want to let anything slip. Ask participants what conditions and conversations led to flawed decisions. Mistakes are the richness that allows people to learn, but if you hang people out to utterly and consistently fail, you can compromise engagement, reputations, and self-esteem. Keep an eye out for just enough mistake making to reflect upon. And, in turn, don’t forget to celebrate successes. Rewards are important to reinforce key progress and milestones.