• Ton Bongers

GAME OVER for dull training

Rule books and boring videos are out. Web and mobile applications that simulate real-life work challenges are the future By Carly Chynoweth

Compliance training is tedious. Nobody wants to spend more time than they have to in a windowless room with a folder full of notes and a check list. Certainly not if the alternative is quizzing an attractive woman about her relationship with a powerful man, or combing a colleague’s office for incriminating evidence. That, at least, is the logic behind True Office, an app that looks and feels like a computer game but provides training in how to investigate what may be a case of sexual harassment at a fictional Fortune 500 company.

“We thought we could take the best of the consumer web and mobile apps and apply that to training,” said Adam Sodowick, chief executive of True Office, the company that makes this and other mobile and web compliance training applications. “Two things underpin our approach. The first is that playing games engages people in solving problems and motivates them to do it. Alongside that is the story-telling aspect, which improves people’s recall of what they learn. So we can take something dry about insider trading or Sarbanes-Oxley [American accounting regulations] and slip that into a game, a story, and we know that people are much more likely to remember it than with other forms of training.”

Organisations are increasingly turning to gamification, the use of the fun, engaging nature of games to encourage people to complete dull tasks, said Aaron Dignan, author of Game Frame, a guide to using games as a strategy for success, and chief executive of Undercurrent, a digital consultancy. “They take elements of games, whether that’s poker or Monopoly or Call of Duty, and apply them to school or the workplace or even home life,” he said. “Something as simple as adding a more immediate feedback loop, like Nike did with Nike Plus [a marketing initiative that allows runners to compare their performance with others on the internet]. It got people’s competitive juices flowing and meant that more people engaged with it.”

Gamification taps into human psychology. “It’s in our nature to turn things into games. We are constantly competing with ourselves — ‘How long will it take me to do this task?’,” Dignan said. If you have a brain, you can’t help but be compelled by some of the factors that are in a good game People are effectively hardwired to learn through story telling, Sodowick said, whether that’s a tale by a campfire or an animated graphic novel playing on a mobile phone. “The narrative component also brings a first-person element that allows people to relate to the experience, which gives them an emotional connection,” he said.

“And we can tailor the game to match the look and feel of an organisation as well as its policies, which helps with the cultural nuances. So, for example, in Japan they might want all the characters dressed in dark formal suits and ties whereas if we were adapting it for a company in Silicon Valley they might be wearing jeans and hoodies.”

The younger generation, the so-called digital natives, has grown up used to thinking and learning this way, Sodowick said, but that does not mean that older workers will be uncomfortable with it or that they will find it childish, he argued. “If you are older, you will have done so much compliance training in your life that you will welcome any approach that makes it fun and more effective.”

Dignan predicted that traditional training methods will soon be replaced by more interactive approaches. Even older workers and those who do not play computer games enjoy training that includes elements of gaming, he said. “When people tell me that they are not gamers, that they are not comfortable with this approach, I talk to them and find out that they do sudoku or crosswords, and point out that these are games. If you have a brain, you can’t help but be compelled by some of the factors that are in a good game.”

Online games-based training allows businesses to monitor who has completed tasks and how they have performed. The apps also allow a more subtle analysis of responses, including how long they took to answer particular questions and whether certain teams or offices were more likely to react in a particular way. Companies can use this to identify potential problem areas, said Sodowick.

“For instance, we could develop an insider-trading application for a bank. It could be a narrative-based game where you make decisions in certain scenarios, say an analyst and a trader in a bar or chatting at a party, a natural interaction but also a grey area, so you can then see how people react to the simulation. You can see every decision they make, every time they swipe the screen, and how long it takes them to do it.” If all the traders in a particular office showed they were a bit too willing to let their in-game character talk freely at a party, it could suggest that the corporate culture needs tightening up.

The games-based approach can also be used for recruitment, said Dignan. “I sat down with a guy in Shanghai the other day who is working on a game for traders and analysts at banks. He was making the environment as realistic as possible so that people would feel like they are trading, but [the bank] would be able to control the context. If you were in the recruiting team, you could find people who were the best at this. You could even watch how they played it throughout college and monitor how they performed on the leader boards.”

Not all games are created equal. Professional games are created by people who understand what makes them work, and even then they do not always get it right. A boring game will not help anybody. Companies should not think they can simply do it themselves, Dignan said. “There is a lot of sophistication that goes into designing games and the number of people who can do it is small.

“If you are releasing 10 games a year, you can afford one of them not to work. But if, as a company, you are doing just one and it is about something as important as compliance, you have to get it right ... a lot of mistakes can be avoided if you have a steady hand at the tiller.”

Businesses also need to be clear about who will use the game and what its purpose is, he added. “For example, if it is for a group of sales people, you might have a leader board and a very competitive set-up, whereas if it is to be used by a team of physicians where everyone has to work together, you might not want to create a game where the laggards are left behind but one where everyone works together to succeed.”

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